September 26, 2011

Descent of the Wolf

“The origin of a thing is a damned puzzle. Once it happens, it can never be recovered, but it sets in motion all that comes after. It is the one thing which can explain everything, but because it is an insubstantial thing, its true nature remains not just unknown, but completely unknowable.”
Mark Twain, 1875

When the little town of Waggner was founded in the Dakota Territories, the residents newly-arrived from the east thought they had finally claimed their little slice of heaven. The year was 1878 and the United States government had won the Great Sioux War, laying open vast swathes of formerly Indian land to white settlement. Twenty-one families had made the long trek from New York state to start a new life in the shadow of the Black Hills. They came for many reasons: economic conditions in the east, the chance to wipe the past away and start anew, the gold buried in the hills. But the new residents of Waggner would soon uncover a horror that would come to consume all their dreams and everything they had hoped to build. 

The following is an excerpt from the journal of Captain William Clark, who, along with Meriwether Lewis, led the Corps of Discovery across the territory now known as South Dakota in 1804:

“The wind hard from the N. W. today. The Chiefs of the Lower Village Came and informed us they wished us to call at their village & take Some Corn, that they would make peace. Capt. Lewis questioned the Chiefs about the Prairie wolf and sundry other animals, and the Chiefs said a Great Black Wolf was known to hunt the western Plain, coming as far as the Great River in Hard seasons, a Savage Beast as large and as cunning as Man.”

The following version of a Black Hills Sioux legend comes from The Stars Above the Prairie: Tall Tales from the Great Plains published in 1996.

“When the world was new, the Great Apportioner set aside the lands of the high trees as a home for the animals and the birds. The People of the Prairie could hunt the Buffalo and Deer and follow them across the Great Plain but only Those Who Walk in Many Skins were allowed to hunt the Hills.”

From the journal of Captain John Potter of the 7th Minnesota Infantry Regiment, stationed in the Dakota Territories and tasked with defending white settlers from Sioux raids:

“May 23, 1879: The settlers of Waggner Town endured a hard winter and their provisions and stock were the prey of rapacious animals. It comes to us from a Trader by the name of McCormick the story of a boy of the town who was taken from his home by a huge wolf at night. The Men of the Town gathered themselves and went in search of the creature’s lair. The Indians tell a story about peculiar wolves who live and hunt in the Black Hills and it was said that the men of Waggner Town went up into the Hills and found the cave of the beast and its ilk. There in a dark and hellish pit, the beasts were destroyed, one and all.”

The following is a partial transcript of a 1936 interview of a Lakota shaman named Lone Horn by a field reporter for the Works Progress Administration:

“When I was a boy, many white men went up to the Black Hills with their guns and long knives and there they met the Bear Dog Clan in the Caves of the Moon. Many white men went into the Black Hills, but not one ever returned to their families.”

From Black Hills of Home, an anthology of writing by South Dakota settlers, the following comes from a journal written by Sarah Kelly, a resident of Hot Springs, Dakota Territory, in 1885:

“It was said that when the Waggner menfolk returned from the Hills, they were changed men. Their wives and children were hard-pressed to recognise them, although they looked the same as they did when they left. The men came back, but people say that the husbands and the fathers and the brothers they knew never came back.”

From Here We Go! a popular post-Depression travel guide series:

“South Dakota’s Black Hills offer some of the best scenic views in America at very little cost. Look for the Hillview Motel outside of Hot Springs for a clean, economical room for your stay or the Bighorn Inn near Custer. The little towns in-between – places like Drumme, Talbot, and Pine City – also offer friendly and safe accommodations. The canny traveller will avoid the town of Waggner, which fails to offer lodgings or hospitality to visitors.”

Lauren Gasman, author of numerous books on the subject of cryptozoology, cites the case of the Waggner incident in “The Great Wolves: From the Amarok to the Waheela,” an article published in 1990’s True Stories: Monsters, Legends and History:

“Remnant populations are continuously cited as a possible, rational explanation for numerous cryptid encounters that could otherwise be considered anomalous animals. Could a species like Canis dirus, the Dire Wolf, survive in small groups in North America? Anecdotal evidence, like the strange creatures killed in South Dakota near the town of Waggner in 1879, suggests that such an explanation is at least likely, albeit almost too neat. The Waggner wolves were said to be large and powerful, like the Dire Wolf, but they were also inextricably linked to the Lakota Skinwalker legends, a fact that many researchers would like to ignore. Maybe not every sighting is of an unknown animal; maybe some are simply unknown monsters.”

From a South Dakota state police report dated June 8th, 1967:

“Officer Rains and Officer William responded to a report of an intruder at a home along Chaney Road in unincorporated Waggner. The resident described an attempted break-in and damage done to the property. The suspect was described as being 7 feet tall, weighing 400 lbs, and covered in coarse black hair with fangs and claws. The resident was advised to stay indoors and the officers declined to investigate further.”

From the introduction to a 1988 report compiled by the South Dakota Department of Health concerning the state’s history of infant mortality:

“Before the 20th century, citizens enjoyed little state support; most care was provided by communities and reinforced by popular tradition. The harsh environment claimed many lives but, like they always do, people adapted and learned how to survive. The case of the town of Waggner is an exemplar of loss and recovery, marking one of the last data spikes in mortality rates during the winter and spring of 1879 when all newborns of the town perished. The next year, however, numerous babies were born and not one was lost. Folklore of the region tries to explain away the situation by attributing the dramatic change to a thick coat of hair that the 1880 babies were said to be born with.”

From Supernatural Nature, an exegesis of paranormal environmentalism published in 1979, by Ivan T. Gevaudan:

“The figure of the werewolf is significant in that it allows for a return of the long-repressed natural order from a space that is within the human body and not externally divided. What is the interior? It is never known. But it engages with the exterior force in a kind of evolutionary process. The werewolf must be seen not as a ravenous creature that preys upon man – a monster from a movie – but as man’s logical replacement in the universe. To become a monster is to adapt to one’s environment. Similarly, if man can become lost in the mask of the animal, to what extremes would the animal go in order to claim the place of man? Does man seek the savagery of the wolf or does the wolf seek the culture of the man?”

From the September 21, 2003 edition of the Black Hills Herald, a newspaper covering the southwest corner of South Dakota:

“When archaeologists from the University of South Dakota started their dig at Site 41, better known to locals as the Cave of the Moon, they expected to find the remains of a large number of coyotes, grey wolves, or even some kind of exotic hybrid canine. After all, Black Hills tales suggested that dozens of such animals were killed there in the winter of 1878 after preying on the livestock of the newly-settled town of Waggner.

“‘You can’t go into a dig with too many assumptions,’ says Dr. Michael J. Lloyd, who oversaw the expedition over the summer. ‘We thought we would find animal bones, but we never expected that the cave system would be full of human remains. It’s quite extraordinary.’

“Preliminary analysis suggests that the bones, dating from the late 19th century, show extensive signs of animal bite marks and appear to be exclusively made up of Caucasian males.”

From a January 2005 post on the blog Strange Dakota written by DeadwoodDave:

“The Cave of the Moon has been always been an obscure SD legend, but lately it’s been on everyone’s radar. After the archaeologists from USD opened up the cave and found all those old settler bones, there was talk of doing some DNA testing and comparing it to the old-time families of Waggner. Well, before they got the program off the ground, Waggner turned into a ghost town. No one lives there anymore. In the space of a year, families that had been there for generations moved away. They said it was because of the bottle plant closing and all the lost jobs, but I don’t know. Where did the people of Waggner go? And what really scared them off? Sometimes when people go digging for things that were buried for so long, it can cause everything to change.”

The people of Waggner may have taken the secret of their origins with them when they disappeared en masse sometime in 2004. Few documents remain to support the fact that the small town even existed at all. If the men of Waggner were slaughtered to a man in the Black Hills in 1879 as the discovery in the Cave of the Moon suggests, who or what came out of the hills to take their place? How long can a secret live and reproduce, creating generation after generation of monsters? We are left to speculate on the true story and live in fear of the answer. 


  1. Thanks for this story. I love hearing tales of Skin-Walkers. I find them very fascinating and would like to think there is some truth to them.

  2. Thanks, Jeffery and thanks, Vivienne! I think the skin walker legends are great examples of a unique way to talk about identity that serve the purposes of a culture and a time.

  3. That is an interesting story. Very mysterious.

  4. I did some digging as Native Americans have fascinated me for years,especially there mythology.If Lone Horn was still around in 1936 he would have been a very old man indeed! It may have been a namesake though as the name belonged to a highly honoured Chief and Diplomat for the Sioux Nation during the period you mentioned. Blessed be the peacemakers!..Thanks again! I might do some more digging..

  5. Jeffery, I gather Lone Horn the Shaman was named for Lone Horn the Chief although this may be a function of the aporia inherent in verisimilitude. Thanks for reading!

  6. It's a great story but I like the ones that are told from personal experiences more than facts:-) I think you should try to look up stories from Sweden if possible, we have a lot of them here :-) take care

  7. Thanks for the Swedish suggestion, KnowingLoowisa. I'm sure I've got some stories that are more personal lying around here somewhere.

  8. i am peter otto a.k.a one horn a son of CRAZY HORSE and the pure bloods get this gift the gift of a skin walker at the new moons greatest at the end of the 21 summer the white wolf the great she wolf choses a bearer and gives him a bite but he must not clean it or else he loses most of the gift. this will be my 21 summer so hope the she wolf choses me a skin walker must protect man and above all else the land.


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