Bigfoot was a legendary Indian. He was known for the enormous tracks he left. Those tracks were alleged to be 17 ½” long, large even for a man 6’ 6” tall. Allegedly.
Bigfoot’s tracks were said to have been seen often at the site of depredations perpetrated by indigenous people on immigrants, especially in Idaho and Oregon. He was always one step ahead of anyone trying to catch him. Stepping was part of the legend. He always walked or ran rather than ride a horse, the better to leave moccasin tracks, not doubt.
In November of 1878, The Idaho Statesman ran a sensational story about the death of Bigfoot, written by William T. Anderson of Fisherman’s Cove, Humboldt County, California, who had heard it from the man who killed him. It detailed the 16 bullets that went into Bigfoot’s body, fired by one John Wheeler, who caught up with him in Owyhee County. Both of the big man’s arms and both of his legs were broken by bullets in the fight with Wheeler. Knowing he was at death’s door, Bigfoot decided to tell Wheeler his life story. He did so in prose that Dick d’Easum who wrote about it years later for the Idaho Statesman said was packed with enough “frothy facts of his boyhood and manhood to fill a Theodore Dreiser novel.”
In the Anderson account of the death of Bigfoot, the man had an actual name. He was Starr Wilkinson, who was a lad living in the Cherokee nation when his father, a white man, was hanged for murder. His mother was of mixed blood, Negro and Cherokee. The drama of Bigfoot’s life went on for thousands of words, many of which were quite eloquent for a man gurgling them out with 16 bullet wounds in his body.
Odd that Wheeler himself never said anything about killing one of the most notorious bad men in the West. Odd that he didn’t collect the $1,000 reward on the man’s head. Wheeler had an outlaw record to his own credit. He killed a man on Wood River in 1868 and got away with it. He was sentenced to ten years in prison for a stagecoach robbery in Oregon. After leaving prison, he was eventually sentenced to hang for a murder committed during another stage robbery, this time in California.
Awaiting certain death, Wheeler wrote a series of letters to his wife, his sister, his attorney, and a girlfriend reflecting on his life. He wrote not a word about Bigfoot. His musings complete, Wheeler took poison in jail rather than face the rope and died.
Many historians discount the whole legend of Bigfoot. Dick d’Easum put it this way: “Just as nobody is ever attacked by a little bear, no pioneer of the 1860s ever lost a steer or a wife or a set of harness to a small Indian. Little Indians were sometimes caught and killed. Dead Indians had little feet. Indians that prowled and pillaged and slipped away unscathed were invariably possessed of huge trotters.”
So, if Bigfoot was a myth, why would you name a town after him? That town is Nampa, reportedly taking its name from Shoshoni words Namp (foot) and Puh (big), and by some reports named after the legendary Bigfoot. Historian Annie Laurie Bird did research on the name Nampa in 1966, concluding that it probably did come from a Shoshoni word pronounced “nambe” or “nambuh” and meaning footprint. She did not weigh in on the Bigfoot connection.
A marauding giant is such a good story that it may never die. It was good enough that Bigfoot was killed, again, in New Mexico, 14 years after he was ventilated in Owyhee County. No word on whether he was able to gasp out his life story that time.