I saw a meme a few times on social media this week in which it was claimed that the Mormons believe that Bigfoot is actually Adam’s son Cain. This was weird enough that I thought it was worth looking into. Apparently the claim goes back at least to a 2001 novel by Shane Lester called Clan of Cain: The Genesis of Bigfoot, which more or less equated Sasquatch with the Nephilim and pretended to present secret truths under the guise of fiction. (Gee, where have we heard that one before?) According to some Mormon websites, there was talk of Cain as Bigfoot among Mormons in South Weber, Utah as early as the 1990s, but I am not aware of much by way of published evidence for a larger belief in the Cain-Bigfoot connection at that time. The novel, however, is founded on an actual but obscure bit of Mormon lore tied to the Church’s early history of racism.
The equation of Cain with the Bigfoot, and thus the tribe of Cain (the Nephilim of lore) with the species of Bigfoot occurred primarily because of the oddball Mormon belief that the Garden of Eden was in the United States, and thus when Cain was sent out to the land of Nod after killing his brother Abel, this would have put him somewhere east of Missouri.
Thus, in late 1835 or early 1836, according to Mormon folklore, an early president of the church named David Patten claimed to have met a being he allegedly identified as Cain in the woods of Tennessee. Modern writers take this description of Cain for one of Bigfoot:
As I was riding along the road on my mule I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me. He walked along beside me for about two miles. His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing, but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. I asked him where he dwelt and he replied that he had no home, that he was a wanderer in the earth and traveled to and fro. He said he was a very miserable creature, that he had earnestly sought death during his sojourn upon the earth, but that he could not die, and his mission was to destroy the souls of men. About the time he expressed himself thus, I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence, and he immediately departed out of my sight.
The person who reported the above account (whom we will discuss momentarily) said that Patten had said that the creature named himself as the Cain of Biblical fame, and the description of the miserable wanderer has been taken to refer to Cain because it conforms to popular folklore of the era, which interpreted God’s protective mark on Cain, which gave him immunity from being killed, as proof that he lived forever. That mark, in early Mormon belief (Moses 7:22), inherited from the Protestant tradition, was also identified with dark skin, God’s curse on the sinful. Somewhere in the telling, though, this wandering accursed soul seems have become a conflation of the dark-skinned Cain of Mormon lore and the Wandering Jew, whom Christians had long compared to a “new Cain.” The popular Gothic writer Matthew Lewis had linked the Wandering Jew with Cain in his bestselling novel The Monk, and the featured carried over into a rash of imitators that followed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. To this we should add the traditional Jewish story that Cain’s mark was actually the horn of the folkloric wild man, a story occasionally (though not regularly) associated with hairiness. In the antebellum South, however, there was a story current that Cain’s wife was a hairy wild woman of dark skin, and even mainstream southern preachers argued that Cain’s progeny were the blackened offspring of the Biblical killer and an ape, thus making Blacks an inferior, bestial creation. (A 1961 book says it was a gorilla, but that can’t be what they believed then since gorillas weren’t known to Westerners until after the 1840s; in researching it, I found that prior to the 1920s, “ape” was used in formulating the claim, with the chimpanzee presumably intended.) The claim derives from an effort to answer, using racism, the question of where Cain found a wife when he left Eden and (presumably) the only humans on Earth.
The textual history of the Patten passage is a bit confused. It is not an actual document from 1835. Instead, it is a passage appearing in Lycurgus Wilson’s biography of Patten published in 1904, and Wilson claimed that it came from a letter written by Abraham Smoot, who was recalling a story told to him at some time in the past. The letter from Smoot began with an address to Joseph F. Smith in his capacity as President of the Mormon church. Since Smith did not become the president until 1901, this causes a bit of a problem, especially since Abraham O. Smoot died in 1895. So far as I can find in Mormon literature, no one has explained the discrepancy, and nearly all Mormon writers quote the passage from a truncated vision given in Spencer W. Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness (1969) rather than Wilson’s original. Smith had presidential titles in his role as president of the Salt Lake Temple (after 1901) and of the European Mission of 1874, and he was a member of the First Presidency from 1866, but it doesn’t seem that Smoot would have referred to Smith as “president” during his lifetime. But even if we give the most generous reading possible, Smoot was writing at least 30 years after the fact. It was Smoot who identified the creature as Cain, saying that he remembered Patten claiming that the figure self-identified as such, though Smoot confessed that he could not recall most of the conversation about so singular an event.
At this far remove, there is little to say about this strange story, except that it is, at best, hearsay. If we were to assume the report accurate, all we really have is an anecdote about how a hairy Black man (or even a guy in a fur coat) came up to a religious extremist and spooked him with some pseudo-religious claptrap. If we don’t assume that, it might just as well be a crazy story about a true believer, Patten, who was said to cast out devils and perform supernatural healings.
That said, I want to return to the bizarre idea that Cain had sex with a chimpanzee and created Black people, which is about as far opposite to the Nephilim myth also ascribed to Cain’s progeny as one can go. Apparently in the first half of the 1800s, there was a lively debate among rich white men about whether Cain’s wife was even human. One antebellum author, “bravely” standing for the humanity of Black people, proclaimed that Cain’s wife, by virtue of giving birth to human children, could not have been an ape, as was commonly assumed, though “it was admitted that she was a negress.” W. S. Armistead added that Black people could not be apes because apes cannot speak. However, the common view among Christians right down to the world wars was that the African “has too many features of Cain’s ape-wife, the ancient and evil-smelling woman.” This produced a problem, though, as many race theorists noticed: Somehow Africans were less hairy than “Aryan” men, even though they were supposedly closer cousins to chimps.
But what takes the cake is a pamphlet by a certain Thomas L. Davis of Nebraska called (as best I can tell) The Origin of the Ape and the Black Man, which attempted to disprove the theory of evolution through appeal to this myth, with the added help of bestiality with a dog named Lucinda! Get a load of this racist garbage:
Cain fled from Eden, which was in the valley of the Mediterranean, and went through the land of Nod, now called the land of the Nile. Taking Abel’s dog with him, he followed the Nile to the Soudan. Feeling that he was now safe, he camped and raised a family. Those that resembled the dog, whose name was Lucinda, walked on all fours and barked like a dog, but retained the toes and finger nails of Cain. These were the apes, and those that resembled Cain walked upright and were black, being branded with the mark of Cain. There was ill-feeling between the apes and the blacks, on account of the black man feeling that he was superior to the ape. The apes, as they grew up, went off into the woods, and the black men, as they grew up and multiplied, emigrated south and west. As time grew on the black man reached the south and west shore of Africa. Some of them followed the west coast to Morocco, etc. Cain, being driven out of Eden, out from the sight of the Lord, was also barred from any rights of heaven. The ape and the black man, as descendants of Cain, would be of less intelligence than man and a high education impossible to them.
The anonymous African-American author quoting this with astonishment in 1925 warrants that the claim was made in all seriousness, and was not intended as a joke. The dog and the ape, incidentally, are not entirely random fantasies of Davis’s imagination but come from historical anti-Semitism. In medieval Europe, Jews, following a Roman custom, were hanged alongside an ape and a dog, repurposed as symbols of Cain, because Jews were seen as “fratricidal,” according to historian Guido Kisch. Because “apes” (monkeys) were hard to come by in Europe, cats were substituted.
We came a long way from the goofy question of Mormon Bigfoot, but it seems that racism is never too far beneath surface of a good number of outrageous claims.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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