Long before it became the brand of a search engine, the creature whose uttered cry gave it a name haunted Kentuckians. Daniel Boone told tales of “killing a ten-foot, hairy giant he called a Yahoo,” says John Mack Faragher in a 1992 biography of Boone. The Yahoos are hairy man-like creatures in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, one of Boone’s favorite books. Boone and his explorer companions, it should be noted right from the get-go, threw around many of the terms used in that book rather liberally.
“[Boone] was encamped with five other men on Red River,” Theodore Roosevelt relates in his Daniel Boone’s Move to Kentucky (1897), “and they had with them for their amusement ‘the history of Samuel Gulliver’s travels, wherein he gave an account of his young master, Glumdelick, careing [sic] him on a market day for a show to a town called Lulbegrud.’
“In the party who, amid such strange surroundings, read and listened to Swift’s writings was a young man named Alexander Neely. One night he came into camp with two Indian scalps, taken from a Shawnee village he had found on a creek running into the river; and he announced to the circle of grim wilderness veterans that ‘he had been that day to Lulbegrud, and had killed two Brobdignags in their capital.’ To this day the creek by which the two luckless Shawnees lost their lives is known as Lulbegrud Creek.”
Folktale scholar Hugh H. Trotti suggests that Boone’s tall tales may be the origin of some of the Bigfoot tales in North America. Could the term “Yeahoh” used for such a creature in the following story simply be a corruption of Swift’s “Yahoos”?
Once upon a time they’s a man layin’ out, and he went to a cave. And he was layin’ out in there and the Yeahoh come and throwed a deer in to him — something would come every day and throw a deer into him, and leave out. On time that Yeahoh come and got down in there wuth him and not long after that she had a kid. Then one time he took a notion to leave her and he would go to leave and she wouldn’t let him go. She’d make him come back. A-finally he got out and he got on a ship going to cross the waters. And he got started and rode off and left her. And she stood there and hollered and screamed after him. And when she seen he’d got away from her and she couldn’t go, why she tore the baby in two and throwed one half in after him.
—Told by Nancy McDaniel of Big Leatherfoot Creek, Perry County, KY to folktale collector Leonard Roberts, who published it under the title “The Origin of Man” in South From Hell-fer-Sartin (1955).
So okay, if Kentuckians heard it passed down from Boone, who got it from Swift, how did Swift learn of Yahoo tales? Or did he simply spin them from his imagination? One possible clue: though Nancy McDaniel’s tale is told in the hills, it mentions ships and “crossing the waters” as the escape route for the captive human.
Tales of women shipwrecked or marooned on an island populated by monkeys or apes, fed and housed by a dominant monkey and forced to cohabit and bear it offspring, before escaping and seeing their hybrid children murdered by the irate simian parent, may have arisen in early 16th century Portugal, and also exist in similar forms in the Americas and across Asia. The idea of a “semi-human” was also floating through scientific circles in the first half of the 18th century: in 1758 Carolus Linnaeus theorized that a form between man and ape existed, which he named Homo troglodytes.
Linguist Richard Stoney carefully states that Swift, a lover of wordplay, drew from many language sources, each of which refer to various personality facets of the Yahoos. But he also turns up the following morsel published in Australian Aboriginal Words in English (1835): “The natives are greatly terrified by the sight of a person in a mask calling him ‘devil’ or Yah-hoo, which signifies evil spirit.”
And from the 1844 edition: “They have an evil spirit, which causes them great terror, whom they call ‘Yahoo’ or ‘Devil-Devil': he lives in the tops of the steepest and rockiest mountains, which are totally inaccessible to all human beings, and comes down at night to seize and run away with men, women or children, whom he eats up, children being his favourite food…The name… of Yahoo being used to express a bad spirit, or ‘Bugaboo’, was common also with the aborigines of Van Diem[e]n’s Land [Tasmania]…”
The tribes mentioned here are located in the region around Botany Bay (near Sydney and slightly westward), site of the first British settlement in Australia in 1788. Gulliver’s Travels was written in 1726. Did the aborigines, like early Kentuckians, absorb Swift’s tale from the new colonists and make it local, or did Swift, to create his characters, draw on much older aboriginal folktales, possibly passed along to him by seafarers pre-dating Cook? The debate continues.
Sources: Curious Legend of the Kentucky Mountains, by Leonard Roberts, Western Folklore, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1957), pp. 48-51
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John Matthews, Caitlin Matthews, 2006, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer, by JM Faragher, 1992, New York: Henry Holt & Company
Did fiction give birth to Bigfoot?, by HH Trotti, 1994, SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 18(5): 541-2.