The Monster of Port Chatham
There's a fundamental legend in the community of Bigfoot believers that a village in Alaska called Port Chatham was terrorized by one or more rogue Bigfoot in the early 1900s, resulting in not just big game animals but also town residents being killed and torn limb from limb. As proof, there's the fact that the town was completely abandoned, despite its prosperity. We're going to put this legend to the test.
America's Pacific Northwest has always been ground zero for stories of Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, or in the language of today's story, the nantiinaq. And you can't get much farther northwest than Alaska, a vast land filled with equally prodigious stories. When it comes to Alaskan Bigfoot lore, the tale of the top of every list is that of the town of Portlock, also known as Port Chatham, said to have been terrorized by horrifying bloody Bigfoot attacks throughout the first half of the twentieth century. By 1949, the surviving residents had had enough, and the entire population simply abandoned their town. Its relics survive to this day and can still be found on the beach and in the woods. Today we're going to point our skeptical eye at the bloodthirsty monster of Port Chatham, and determine whether we finally have a case that forces us to acknowledge the reality of history's most famous cryptid.
Since the 1700s, people had been living on the shore of Port Chatham, a small bay way out on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska. The people were mostly fishermen, lumbermen, and miners, nearly all of Russian and Alaska Native descent. Besides their relatively prosperous little industries, they had one small claim to fame, and that was that the British naval captain Nathaniel Portlock had anchored and provisioned there in 1786. However, the record of that voyage, the 1789 book A Voyage Round the World; but More Particularly to the North-West Coast of America shows that Portlock only anchored somewhere in the vicinity on Cook Inlet, which he called Cook's River, at a place he called Coal Harbour, for about three weeks beginning in mid-July 1786. Be that as it may, we'll leave the local legend the benefit of the doubt. Port Chatham's calm bay and bountiful fishing attracted an American company right around the turn of the century, and a whole fleet of commercial fishing boats was brought in. They established the Portlock Cannery, named for their purported local naval hero, and by 1921 the town was established enough for a United States Post Office, with the official census name of Portlock. Portlock is the only official name the town ever had, but nearly everyone, including those who were raised there, tend to call it Port Chatham. From that point, we'll let Wikipedia's single sentence tell the rest of Portlock's history:
What were these murders and disappearances? We can turn to virtually any book or online article and find the same few tragic events described. They are:
These stories all come from a 2009 piece in the Homer Tribune, the article which is by far the most widely copy-and-pasted among the cryptozoology websites. Its author, Naomi Klouda, appears to have relied on two sources.
Her first was a 1973 article in the Anchorage Daily News, of which only an excerpt still survives. It's found in John Green's 1978 book Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us. It tells these basic stories but gives few specifics, and is adamant that all the people left in 1949 due entirely to the Bigfoot attacks, and still refuse to go back.
Update: A listener did locate the complete, original Anchorage Daily News article at the Alaska State Library. It has been added to the References at the bottom of this page. —BD
Her other source was a pair of elderly Alaska Natives who grew up in Portlock and, at the time of her interview, then lived in Port Graham. These interviews are where the name nantiinaq first became part of the story. One of them, Malania Helen Kehl, was born in Portlock in 1934 and added some of the details like the names of the men who were killed or disappeared. Kehl was very clear on the reason her parents gave for leaving Portlock: it was that they could no longer put up with the constant attacks by the nantiinaq.
At this point, it falls to the responsible researcher to seek corroborating accounts. Alaska's Digital Newspaper Program has provided over a quarter of a million scanned pages to the Library of Congress, covering newspapers from the late 1700s through 1963, and anything so extraordinary as the types of killings and dismemberments as reported in these stories certainly would have made it into the news. However, searching these archives reveals the news from Portlock (as well as anything mentioning Port Chatham) to be more mundane. Through the decades leading up to the town's abandonment, almost all of several hundred matching newspaper articles were related to commercial fishing, with the odd lumber and mining story peppered in for good measure. As far as deaths? A single death from the city made it into the papers in all those years: a man who died in "an accident" (no further details were given) in 1920. Given that mining, lumbering, and fishing are three of the most dangerous professions there are, one accidental death is hardly surprising.
As far as crimes go, newspapers reported only a single crime in all that time — obviously there must have been more, but the only one notable enough to make the newspapers was the time the Portlock postmaster, Mr. George W. Henk, was arrested by the Prohibition Enforcement Bureau in 1924 for possessing one gallon of moonshine. No murders or dismemberments.
As far as any missing persons reports go, newspapers reported only one, and it was two hunters, Ben Sweasy and Bill Weaver, who left on a two-week trip by dory boat in 1917 and were never seen again. They weren't from Portlock; they were from Seward, a city very far away. The only reason Portlock was mentioned in the story is that's where a report came from of the discovery of a dory that seemed to match theirs. The papers reported:
Seward is well over a thousand nautical miles of coastline away from Portlock, and even the most direct possible route would have required the men to cross 115 nautical miles of open ocean. Being killed by a Bigfoot in Port Chatham was hardly their most likely fate.
So let's have a look at this word nantiinaq that today's Bigfoot community has attached to the Port Chatham creature. There are lots of different languages and language families in Alaska, even just in the vicinity of where this story took place, so it wasn't easy to track down. I got in touch online with some native language preservation groups where some people tossed the word around to see if they could nail down a reliable origin. Nobody found any record of nantiinaq existing as a word in any language they knew (see update below), but we did get pretty close. In the Dena'ina Athabaskan language is a word nant'ina, which refers to a folkloric character, a sort of wild people who kidnap children — usually found in tales told to scare children into not wandering off into the woods. The consensus was that nantiinaq is probably a "Yup'ik-ized" version of nant'ina, as the Portlock area is something of a junction of Dena'ina, Yup'ik, and Alutiiq languages.
Update: Nantinaaq has been found in the Chugach dialect of Sugpiaq Alutiiq, and it is used in the Kenai Peninsula dialect. It is borrowed from the Dena'ina nant'ina, literally "those who steal people". The word given for Bigfoot in the modern Yup'ik dictionary is arularaq, defined as "a legendary monster with three toes on each foot and six fingers on each hand." —BD
This definition tracks pretty well with the memories of Malania Helen Kehl, who was still a child when everyone moved out. Portlock was far from anywhere; of course her parents would have told her stories of the nant'ina to keep her from wandering away. It's only been since the advent of modern Bigfoot mythology that the believers have gone back and tweaked the word into nantiinaq and redefined it to mean a hairy giant, which it never was originally.
We saw this exact same phenomenon in our recent episode on the Australian yowie, this tweaking of an actual folkloric creature to retrofit it to match a modern cryptid. We all tend to treat native legends with respect, and while we might be quick to poke fun at a Bigfoot story, we're more accepting when we hear a nantiinaq story. It's a clever and effective trick, and make no mistake that the cryptozoologists do it very deliberately.
So if no facts at all in the Port Chatham Monster story hold up, what then actually did happen to Portlock? Because it's definitely gone now, and it was definitely doing just fine industrially when everyone left.
It turns out the death of Portlock had little to do with Bigfoot, nantiinaq, or any other murderous creatures. The abandonment wasn't even related to any decline of Portlock's small but thriving industries. Portlock's death sentence was signed when, along the opposite edge of the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska Route 1 was completed during the 1940s, finally allowing efficient transportation between Anchorage and all of the many towns along the peninsula. These towns boomed. Ships were no longer needed to supply the peninsula, and towns that were inaccessible from the highway — like Portlock — were quickly abandoned. Portlock's small population had only to move but a short distance in order to live and operate their businesses much more conveniently and cheaply. Even to this day, there is only a single unpaved forest road within 10km of Port Chatham.
So it turns out the town said to have been abandoned due to violent Bigfoot attacks seems to have never had any attacks of any kind, and was abandoned for entirely non-cryptozoological reasons. There was no mass panicked fleeing, only a single drunken postmaster who was probably more eager than anyone else to have his little post office shuttered, which finally happened in 1950. It's a lesson we all seem to need to learn over and over again: When a historical event is offered with a paranormal explanation and you want to learn the truth, don't go to the paranormal literature. One need only put in the work to dig a bit into the true historical context of the event, and not only will you come away more likely right than wrong, you'll also have learned something new and neat.
Thanks to the collections and curatorial staff at Anchorage Museum for some very helpful last-minute verification of some information in this episode. —BD
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