COLUMNS

LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — Old Sheff: gorilla or large ourang-outang?

J.T. Knoll
Morning Sun

This week I’m sharing a little-known story (or maybe folktale?) taken from an excellent local history book titled “The Genesis of Girard,” by lifetime Girard resident and expert on S.E. Kansas history, William C. Cuthbertson. It’s printed under the heading “Bigfoot?”

The following article appeared in the St. Louis Missouri Democrat of August 26, 1869:

Arcadia, Crawford Co., Kansas August 15, 1869

“Aside from the excitement caused by the trouble in regard to the ownership of the neutral lands, we of Arcadia Valley, in the northern part of Crawford County, are having a new sensation which may lead to some new disclosure in natural history, if investigated as it should be. It is nothing less than the discovery of a wild man or gorilla, or ‘What is it?’

“It has, at different times, been seen by almost every inhabitant of the valley, and it occasionally has been seen in the adjoining counties of Missouri, but it seems to make its home in this vicinity. Several times it has approached the cabins of the settlers, much to the terror of the women and children, especially if the men happen to be absent working in the fields. In one instance it approached the house of one of our old citizens, Wm. Armsworthy, but was driven away with clubs by one of the men. It has so near a resemblance to the human form that the men are unwilling to shoot it.

“It is difficult to give a description of the wild man or animal. It has a stooping gait, very long arms with immense hands or claws; it has a hairy face, and those who have been near it describe it as having a most ferocious expression or countenance; generally walks on its hind legs, but sometimes on all fours. The beast, or ‘What is it?’ is as cowardly as it is ugly, and it is next to impossible to get near enough to gain a good view of it.

“The settlers, not knowing what to call it, have christened it ‘Old Sheff.’ Since its appearance, our fences are often down, allowing the stock free range in corn fields. I suppose Old Sheff is only following his inclination, as it may be easier for him to pull them down than climb over them. However, as it is, curses loud and deep are heaped on its head by the settlers.

“The settlers are divided in opinion as to whether it belongs to the human family or not. Probably it will be found to be a gorilla or large ourang-outang that has escaped from some menagerie in settlements east of here. At one time over sixty of the citizens turned out to hunt it down, but it escaped; but, probably owing to the fright it received it kept out of sight for several days; and just as the settlers were congratulating themselves that they were rid of an intolerable nuisance, Old Sheff came back again, seeming as savage as ever.

“If this meets the eye of any showman who has lost one of his collection beasts, he may know where to find it. At present it is the terror of all women and children in the valley. It cannot be caught, and nobody is willing to shoot it."

— M.S. Trimble

Other newspapers copied the story, including the Osage City, Kansas, Journal-Free Press. In September 1869, the Fort Scott Press commented that the whole thing was a slur against Mr. Sheffield, who opposed his Land League neighbors in the Neutral Lands controversy, and indicated the whole story was made up. A month later they carried a column and half about the “wild man” in the form of an “interview” by none other than Mark Twain himself — a very fanciful and ridiculous article. It was remarked that the story turned out to be nothing more than a slander on an old citizen whom the writer disliked. However, a year later in October, 1870, the Girard Press printed a story about the resident of Iowa City seeing a beast similar to the one seen in Arcadia, with no apparent indication it was anything but fact.

In 1888, Dr. William Warner (physician and publisher of the Girard Press) recalled the appearance of ‘Old Sheff’: “He was, indeed, a weird, strange, wild-looking sort of man, though civil and kind when let alone; talked loud, and looked more threatening when excited. He hated Leagerers. They had once mobbed him, given him a coat of tar and feathers, and sent him out of the county … He was called the Yankee of Cox’s Creek … ‘Old Sheff,’ the gorilla of the neutral lands.”

All of which leaves a number of options available to believers and non-believers of Bigfoot.

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309.