Stiff-Legged Bear is a mystery elephant or ursine from Native legends of North America. Big head. Large ears. Long nose. Big teeth. Tramples people. Tracks are large, round prints in the snow.
Indian traditions of the slaying of animals called Big buffalo, Big bull, Great elk, or Stiff-legged bear were preserved by various language groups throughout North America. The Tuscarora of New York have a legend of the Big quisquis, a monster that invaded their settlement near Lake Ontario and was driven off with great loss of life. Other monsters, the Great elk and the Oyahguaharb, were also killed by the ancestors of the Tuscaroras.
English sailor David Ingram and two companions were set ashore in October 1567 somewhere on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and managed to walk all the way to Maine over the next two years. Along the way, they encountered a large beast twice as big as a horse that had “two teeth or horns,” each a foot long, coming out of its snout. Although this conceivably could have been a Moose (Alces alces), Ingram explicitly claimed to have seen elephants. Seanarrative compiler Richard Hakluyt included Ingram’s narrative in his first edition of 1589 but omitted it in later editions, apparently having concluded that it was either too unreliable or incoherent.
In 1762, John Wright of Kentucky talked to several Shawnee Indians about fossil skeletons found along the Ohio River. They said the bones belonged to the “father of all buffalo,” which had been hunted many years ago. But the Great Spirit destroyed the enormous animals with lightning.
On January 7, 1811, explorer David Thompson was near the Athabasca River, Alberta, in the Rocky Mountains when he found the tracks of a large animal in the snow. There were four large, clawed toes 4 inches long, and the prints were 14 inches long by 8 inches wide. The local Indians and French Canadian trappers had heard rumors of “mammoths” in the nearby hills, where the creatures fed on moss and other plants.
Artifacts and petroglyphs: Hilborne T. Cresson and W. L. deSuralt allegedly found an inscribed whelk shell in a peat deposit near the Holly Oak, Delaware, train depot in 1864. A realistic drawing of a woolly mammoth is etched on the surface. Cresson did not report the discovery until December 1889. The shell itself was dated in 1987 to about A.D. 750–1000, so the artwork cannot be a life depiction of a mammoth. There is evidence to suggest that Cresson obtained a Fort Ancient– period whelk in Ohio when he worked as an archaeologist there and forged a mammoth engraving based on the La Madeleine carving found in the Dordogne region of France in 1864. John C. Kraft and Ronald A. Thomas, “Early Man at Holly Oak, Delaware,” Science 192 (1976): 756–761; James B. Griffin, David J. Meltzer, Bruce D. Smith, and William C. Sturtevant, “A Mammoth Fraud in Science,” American Antiquity 53 (1988): 578–582; David J. Meltzer, “In Search of a Mammoth Fraud,” New Scientist 124 (July 14, 1990): 51–55.
The Lenape stone is a slate gorget found by Barnard Hansell, who was plowing in his father’s field east of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in 1872. He kept it with his collection of Native American relics, then sold it in 1881 to Henry D. Paxon. Hansell coincidentally found a broken- off fragment of the gorget in the same field a few months later. The artifact is remarkable for its carved depiction of a realistic-looking mammoth confronted by a human stick figure with a bow and a spear. Widely considered a nineteenth-century fraud by archaeologists, the artifact is in the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. Henry Chapman Mercer, The Lenape Stone: Or the Indians and the Mammoth (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1885); Terry A. McNealy, Bucks County: An Illustrated History (Doylestown, Pa.: Bucks County Historical Society, 2001), p. 10.
Sandstone pipes carved in the shape of elephants have been found in Louisa County, Iowa. They probably date from roughly 500 B.C.–A.D. 600 in the Early or Middle Woodland period. R. J. Farquharson, “The Elephant Pipe,” American Antiquarian 2 (1879): 67–69; Charles E. Putnam, Elephant Pipes and Inscribed Tablets in the Museum of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Davenport, Iowa (Davenport, Iowa: Glass and Hoover, 1885).
In 1930, James Fox discovered a basaltic statue at the Olmec site (1200–500 B.C.) of Arroyo Sonso, Veracruz State, Mexico, that shows a human with an apparently elephantine head. A relief that looks distinctly like an Asian elephant head with turbaned riders can be seen on Stela B at the Classical Mayan site at Copán, Honduras, dating from A.D. 731. Grafton Elliot Smith, “Pre-Columbian Representations of the Elephant in America,” Nature 96 (1915): 340–341; Gladys Ayer Nomland, “Proboscis Statue from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” American Anthropologist 34 (1932): 591.
In October and November 1924, an expedition led by archaeologist Samuel Hubbard and paleontologist Charles W. Gilmore explored the Havasu Canyon area on the Havasupai Indian Reservation west of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. Near where the Tobocobe Trail intersects Lee Canyon, they discovered pictographs on the red sandstone along the trail, one of which seems to show a man and an elephant. Oakland Museum, Discoveries Relating to Prehistoric Man by the Doheny Scientific Expedition in the Hava Supai Canyon, Northern Arizona (San Francisco, Calif.: Sunset Press, 1927).
A petroglyph along the Colorado River Road north of Moab, Utah, seems to represent a mastodon or mammoth. About 2–3 feet long, the image has a trunk, tusk, and elephantine toes. One interpretation is that it is spraying its back with water from its trunk. Another petroglyph near the Butler Wash–San Juan River confluence area, Utah, shows a possible mastodon on the chest of a large anthropomorph. “The Moab Mastodon Pictograph,” Scientific Monthly 41 (1935): 378–379; Beej Averitt and Paul Averitt, “Mastodon of Moab,” Desert Magazine 10, no. 10 (1947): 24–27.
- The taxonomy of animals in Native American legends is not very precise. Large animals tend to be referred to as bears, buffalo, beavers, and ogres fairly interchangeably. George Lankford thinks there is no reason to go beyond the Brown bear (Ursus arctos) as an explanation for most of these myths.
- A survival of the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi ), a true elephant (Family Elephantidae), into relatively recent times. The Columbian mammoth ranged from Alaska and the Yukon across the midwestern United States and south into Mexico and Central America. Standing almost 14 feet at the shoulder and weighing 8–10 tons, the mammoth could consume about 700 pounds of vegetation a day. The earliest mammoth remains in North America date from about 1.7 million years ago, while the most recent fossils of any mammoths or mastodons in the Americas date from about 10,000 years ago. Human tools and weapons have often been found in association with mammoths, but the extent to which the animals were actively hunted, as opposed to being scavenged, is still a matter for debate. Archaeological sites associated with mammoth remains cluster around 11,200 years ago.
- A survival of the American mastodon (Mammut americanum) into relatively recent times. The American mastodon ranged from Alaska to central Mexico, stood 7–10 feet at the shoulder, and weighed 6 tons. The mastodon was a member of the Family Mammutidae and, though superficially similar to the elephants, was an earlier offshoot of the proboscidean tree. Early elephant-like animals called mammutids and gomphotheres first arrived in North America from Siberia about 16 million years ago, in the Late Miocene. They spread to South America in the Pleistocene when water levels subsided enough to form the Isthmus of Panama. Mastodons have only rarely been found with human artifacts, but some skeletons bear marks associated with butchery.
- Edward Tylor speculates that the Indians may have generated the myths in order to explain large fossil bones.
- Elephants in Mesoamerican art have been explained as stylized depictions of Fruit-eating bats (Artibeus spp.), Turtles (Order Testudines), or Macaws (parrots of the genera Ara and Anodorhynchus).
- Pre-Columbian visits by Asian or Phoenician cultures may have introduced elephant motifs to New World artists.
- The Giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus) lived in North America from 36,000 to 5,000 years ago. A fearsome predator that stood 11 feet high on its hind legs and weighed 2,500 pounds, it would have made a strong impression on the Paleo-Indians.