In 1750 a Tlingit Native village in Thomas Bay in SE Alaska was obliterated by a massive landslide. On that day, more than 500 people died in what came to be called Geey Nana, or "The Bay of Death."
Some time slightly before 1900, a ship carrying Chinese immigrants hired to work the Alaskan salmon canneries wrecked just outside Thomas Bay. It was reported that all souls were lost.
In June of 1900 Harry Colp, visiting Thomas Bay for the first time, was told by a prospector named Charlie "The strangest Story Ever Told." It has come to be one of the most famous and eerie stories in Alaskan folklore. As such, it is sold on the Alaska State Ferries by the gross in paperback-pamphlet form, read curiously by tourists and locals alike.
The prospector, who had canoed alone into the Bay of Death, told Colp and his companion that he'd found gold-rich quartz in Thomas Bay, but he'd never prospect it. And then he told them why.
Charlie gave them the story on his finding the quartz and then said, "I thought I would climb the ridge directly over the ledge and get my landmarks.....Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God I never see or go through the likes of it again.
"Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn't call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys--yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint.
"I forgot my broken gun and tried to use it on the first ones, then I threw it at them and turned and ran. God, how I did run! I could feel their hot breath on my back. Their long clawlike fingers scraped my back. The smell from their steaming, stinking bodies was making me sick; while the noises they made, yelling, screaming and breathing, drove me mad. Reason left me. How I reached the canoe...is a mystery to me.
"When I came to, it was night, and I was lying in the bottom of my canoe, drifting between Thomas Bay and Sukoi Island, cold, hungery and crazy for a drink of water....You no doubt think I am crazy or lying....Never let me hear the name Thomas Bay again, and for God's sake help me get away tomorrow on that boat!"
Who, or what, were these terrifying "devils"? To this day people speculate, particularly online. Some think they were the Tlingit devil, the half-man, half-otter Kushtaka. Others insist that they're Alaskan relatives of Bigfoot. Many people dismiss the story as simply the imagination, combined with drink, of a prospector who'd spent too much time alone in the bush.
I heard an interesting, and much more plausible than Bigfoot, theory at a small dinner party of long time Alaskans. One man said he'd grown up in the Thomas Bay area with his father had hunted mountain goats and explored the caves there, which were large enough for people to have lived in if they'd needed to.
"My father found out there'd been a shipwreck not that long before the prospector was on the scene. No lives were saved...supposedly. But what if some of the passengers, which were mostly Chinese immigrants brand new to the country and not speaking a word of English, made it ashore? They could have lived in the caves and subsisted on mountain goats, using the hides for clothes when theirs gave out.
"Imagine this loner prospector, absolutely certain he is the only human for miles in any direction, hiking alone in eerie country believed to be cursed by the Natives, and suddenly he's face to face with desperate, excited Chinese men, a race he may never have met before, dressed in goatskins and yelling in a language completely alien to him. Naturally, they pursued him when he ran--he was their only hope of getting back to civilization. No wonder they yelled and tried to grab him. And no wonder he was terrified!"
The tragic story haunted me so I researched it and was able to verify everything but the exact date of the shipwreck--the reports only said before 1900--or the vessel's name. The only thing sure was that a ship had been reported lost in the vicinity of Thomas Bay.
HistoryLink.org, Essay 10919 confirms that Chinese immigrants were shipped to Alaska from the late 1800s to the end of the first decade of the twentieth century to work in the salmon canneries.
Another online source noted that many of these Chinese immigrants were formerly, in their homeland, goat herders.
And, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, mountain goats are plentiful in Thomas Bay and they use different "cliff habitats" during various seasons of the year.
It seems entirely possible and horribly tragic that these marooned Chinese immigrants believed they were going to be rescued when they saw the lone prospector hiking toward them.
Could anything be more natural than that they'd run toward him? They were on him in a moment, screaming excitedly and reaching for him in their malodorous goatskins, sores--possibly from a poor diet--oozing, their "wrong" skin color and shape of the eyes...all combining to create a creature that has gone down in Alaskan history as a spectral monster and bogeyman.
But what if they were simply marooned men of another race, unable to communicate through lack of a common language...and one man's terror of the unfamiliar?
Pictures: Top, Thomas Bay; Second, paddling the canoe into "devils country"; Third, Alaskan mountain goat, detail of a painting by Bob Hines; Fourth, the product that brought the Chinese immigrants to Alaska; Bottom, Chinese immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)