A discovery? The etymology of “bigfoot”

“Bigfoot”, as a synonym for the Salish-derived sasquatch or the Chinuk Wawa-derived stick Indian, had its first known use in 1958, says Merriam-Webster.

That seems mighty recent to this Northwesterner, but my own literature search turns up nothing earlier in this connection. So today, I’m going to take a look at how we got to 1958.

That is, look at the etymology of this “bigfoot”.

“Big-footed” was a common enough epithet to imply human homeliness in the second half of the 1800s, which marked the beginning of the printed English word in our region. A casual glance through old printed sources shows it applied to a dirty miner coming to town, the girls of Chicago (!), the son of a butcher, and a young woman who was exhibited (while alive) in museums.

By 1904 “big-foot” was an attribute of certain tables. Since Victorian tables had erotic legs, I suppose this was a sexist joke.

Spokane in 1906 had a mysterious thief about whom it was only known that he was big-footed. Likewise this cartoon from Seattle:

big feet

The Seattle Star, August 20, 1912, page 1

All of the preceding goes to testify that the term “big feett” or “big-footed” has had an enduring presence in our regional English, often connoting a mysterious interloper.

Now to my primary idea.

There was also more than one Indian who became well-known to Settler society as “Chief Bigfoot”–keeping in mind here that when Whites called you Chief it wasn’t always either accurate or respectful. The label “Chief Bigfoot” may, to judge by the frequency of it, even have been a stock racialist phrase, along the lines of “John Chinaman”–less an attempt to individuate than to lump folks under a stereotype. Back East, there was a Wyandot Chief Bigfoot. There was a Sioux one. There was a Waco one. There was evidently a Cheyenne one, too.

And here in the Northwest, we had the “Snake” (Shoshoni-Bannock) Indian known by the name Bigfoot, or Big Foot, or Big-Foot. Aside from his plates of meat, his major attribute in White minds was to be a nuisance whose Native cultural values conflicted with theirs and led to his being often wished–and reported–dead by them.

This Bigfoot’s ways, as an adherent of the fashion of raiding White folks’ stuff, virtually guaranteed that he’d leave behind a sort of negative personality cult, an urban or (wait, this is Idaho) rural legend. An enjoyable article at the Offbeat Oregon website relates historian Bill Gulick‘s sensible analysis that the Shoshoni-Bannock teenagers of the 1860s took up a fad of creating gigantic false feet to leave intimidating tracks behind when they came to pilfer from the newcomers.

A kid’ll leave giant prints, wouldn’t you?

Offbeat Oregon goes on to report Gulick’s research into the contemporary 1860’s newspaper accounts of Bigfoot, and his realization that they were all secondhand or hearsay. “Chief Bigfoot of the Snakes” appears not necessarily to have existed. (Read the full article at Offbeat Oregon, I promise you it’s both professional and entertaining.)

Nonetheless, there’s abundant evidence that this character quickly became part of Idaho folklore. An 1884 book, “History of Idaho Territory“, already devotes plenty of space to this “noted Indian” who is “remembered by many of the old settlers”, and there’s a pretty steady if sparse series of appearances by him in the state’s local histories from then onward. People seem to have passed tales of Chief Bigfoot down through the generations…around campfires if I know my Idahoans 🙂

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you see that I’m trying to propose a more precise etymological source of “bigfoot” than has ever been published. I suggest that sometime between Chief Bigfoot’s late-19th century transformation into a legend and the mid-20th century enthusiasm for sasquatches, the former became as depersonalized as the latter is in the popular mind. (The other synonym, “stick Indian”, is likewise generic, but I can’t say a lot about it; it hardly appears in print because it’s more typical of the rarely documented English usage of Native people.)

That is, “Bigfoot” the proper noun evolved into “bigfoot” the common noun.

Kata maika tomtom? What do you think?

A fun postscript: in my research I’ve found that the earliest occurrences of the phrase “Stick Indians” in print are closely entwined with reports of supposed living mastodons in Southeast Alaska. Talk about legendary creatures!