3 Spooky Legends of the American West

Shadowy figure in the sky

Dark Watchers

In the Santa Lucia mountains of California, there have been sightings of a mysterious figure in the late afternoon sun. The figure appears suddenly as a tall, dark shape against the sky, arms spread apart, with a halo or corona of sunlight radiating from behind. Various sightings have also described a person wearing a dark billowing cloak or large hat. Once spotted, they usually disappear quickly, or sometimes turn to “follow” the viewer. Stories of such figures go back to the oral histories of local Native Americans. Spanish conquistadors exploring California in the 1700s saw them too and called them “los Vigilantes Oscuros”—literally, “The Dark Watchers.” John Steinbeck mentions them in his short story, Flight, in which a Mexican mother urges her young son to avoid any “dark watching men.” Steinbeck’s mother and other locals even went so far as to leave gifts for these shadowy apparitions in the canyons outside Big Sur: flowers, handmade trinkets, or offerings of fruit. Those who witness a Dark Watcher firsthand sometimes say the sighting is preceded by a feeling of being observed. It may be that a play of shadows and light can cast elongated humanoid shapes on the sides of mountains, where the right combination of moisture can reflect them to a viewer’s eyes (this is the working theory for a similar occurrence of figures reported on the peak of Mount Brocken in Germany’s Harz Mountains). For many, the Dark Watcher is imbued with a spirit of the unknown, continuing to inhabit the shadowy world of existence with occasional and brief appearances in ours.

Wolverine hunting prey

Beware the Issistsaaki

Among the Blackfeet (a Native American nation), there’s a tale of the “Wolverine Woman” or “Issistsaaki.” She was to be feared if encountered in the forest. In his book, Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians, published in 1908, anthropologist Clark Wissler described the danger posed to hunters in particular: “These [Native Americans] have a belief that there are animals with power to change into human beings. Of these the wolverine is one. It often happens that when a man is out hunting, or sitting alone by his campfire, a very handsome woman will come up … should he allow her to come into camp and engage in familiarities, evil will follow. When men go out to hunt, they are often reminded to keep a lookout for the Wolverine-Woman.” In a shared legend of the Chippewa, Cheyenne, and Lakota, sometimes called “The Sister’s Wish to Marry a Star,” two sisters escaped from the Sky World, only to later need rescuing from the perch of Eagle’s nest high in a tree. In exchange for his help, Wolverine was offered a chance to marry the girls, only to be tricked by them after climbing up to save them. The legend says this is why the wolverine returns again and again to the trees, to whistle for the girls and await their reply, hearing only the wind through the trees in response. Wolverines are known to produce a chirpy sound or “whistle” when seeking out companions. If you happen to hear such a whistle through the trees, it could very well be a wolverine seeking a mate.

Bandits robbing train

Outlaw Jack Davis

Andrew Jackson “Jack” Davis was a classical outlaw of the Old West. He started out decent enough, starting a livery stable in Gold Hill during western Nevada’s gold and silver boom. When shoveling “road apples” for a living became too mundane, though, he turned to banditry—leading a gang of thieves in regular robberies of stagecoaches. His big haul came in 1870, when he and his gang robbed the express train car of the Central Pacific Railroad at its stop near Verdi, NV. The take came to some $829k in present-day value of gold, in both coins and bullion. Somewhere along the Truckee River’s north bank, in an unknown location between Reno and Laughton’s Hot Springs, the gang buried the loot—but not long after, they were all caught and sent to Nevada State Prison. After his parole was granted in 1875, Davis returned to his life of crime, but he was shot in the back two years later while robbing a Wells Fargo stagecoach. Fortune seekers continue to search for the buried gold to this day. Unsubstantiated reports say that an apparition has appeared at times around the Truckee River, when people have come looking for the treasure. The white phantom is said to rise up and start screaming. Maybe Davis’ ghost is still upset at never having had the chance to spend all that ill-gotten gold.


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