The Hoax That Led to the Word ‘Bigfoot’

When 16-inch-long tracks began popping up on northern California logging sites in 1958, workers dubbed the culprit ‘Big Foot’—and a cryptid icon was born.
Decades after the footprints that popped up in northern California, they were alleged to be a hoax.
Decades after the footprints that popped up in northern California, they were alleged to be a hoax. / Schon/Moment/Getty Images (forest), Big_Ryan/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (footprint)

On the morning of August 27, 1958, Jerry Crew, a catskinner for a northern California logging company, noticed a few abnormally large footprints in the dirt around his bulldozer. He didn’t think much of them at first. Thirty other men worked alongside him on Bluff Creek Road, a timber access route being cleaved through virgin stands of Douglas fir in the Six Rivers National Forest. Black bears abounded. And there was an occasional mountain lion. All likely culprits.

But when Crew climbed into his tractor and looked down, he thought twice. The prints were enormous—almost 16-inches long and seven-inches wide—and set deeply into the graded dirt road, suggesting something heavier than a lumberjack or a bear had made them.

Crew told his foreman, Wilbur “Shorty” Wallace, what he’d seen. Wallace wondered if the trackmaker was responsible for a series of odd occurrences elsewhere on Bluff Creek Road: a missing 50-gallon oil drum, a 700-pound spare tire lobbed into a gully. Workmen gathered around and began sharing their own stories about human-like footprints found at other Wallace worksites. Their tools had vanished overnight; 100-pound steel cables were dragged uphill and abandoned. The men referred to the responsible party as “Big Foot.”

Crew’s story eventually caught the attention of Humboldt Times columnist Andrew Genzoli, who, in an October 6 front-page article, shortened the sobriquet to one-word: Bigfoot. After the piece was picked up by the wire services—making both The New York Times and The Los Angeles TimesBigfoot entered the lexicon. (Sasquatch, another term for the creature, is a bastardized form of the Salish word Sesquac or se’sxac, meaning “wild men.” It was coined in 1929 by a white teacher in British Columbia.) A few short weeks later, Bigfoot was mentioned on the NBC quiz show “Truth or Consequences” (then hosted by Bob Barker), which ponied up $1000 to anyone who could explain how the Bluff Creek tracks had been made.

Throughout the fall of ‘58, the people of Humboldt County puzzled over the same question. A logger suggested the tracks had been left by a “big-footed Swede”—because many lumberjacks were of Swedish descent—while other folks pegged them on “Omah,” a giant forest monster of local Hoopa Indian legend. Native American lore, being rife with similar creatures, added fuel to the Bigfoot fire. The idea stuck and contributed to the image of Bigfoot we have today.

Another prime suspect was a man named Ray Wallace, brother of Shorty and co-owner of Wallace Construction. Wallace was a locally famous prankster and yarn-spinner—polite terms, perhaps, for a con man. Writer Robert Michael Pyle, who knew Wallace late in life, remembered him more charitably in an interview for my book The Secret History of Bigfoot, calling him “a canny, smart man, but a bullshitter. He loved being the joker and fooling people.” When news of the Bluff Creek tracks hit, many locals assumed Wallace was behind it.

He denied the charges, even telling the Humboldt Times he’d sue his accusers for slander. The tracks, as anyone could see, were bear prints, Wallace said. Bigfoot? Pshaw! But a couple years later he claimed to have captured a young Bigfoot and was feeding it Frosted Flakes. He aimed to sell the creature for $1,000,000, but then failed to produce it when a lower offer was made. (Wallace was also rumored to have played a part in Bigfoot’s filmic debut—the infamous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film [PDF], which purported to show a burly and dark-haired Bigfoot striding across Bluff Creek).

The hubbub eventually died down as Bigfoot’s fame expanded beyond Bluff Creek to the rest of the country. That is until 2002, when Wallace, age 84, passed away from heart failure and his family announced that it had indeed been Wallace all along.

“Ray L. Wallace was Bigfoot,” his son Michael told the Seattle Times. “The reality is, Bigfoot just died.”

Wallace’s family showed off 16-inch carved wooden feet they claimed he’d used to make the tracks that Jerry Crew found on Bluff Creek Road. As they told it, Wallace liked to clomp around in the woods with fake feet strapped to his work boots, purely for shits and giggles.

“He did it just for the joke and then he was afraid to tell anybody because they’d be so mad at him,” his nephew Dale Lee Wallace said.

Logger John Auman, a former employee of Wallace’s, had another take. “If your rig was parked overnight, you might as well figure it would have no tires in the morning,” said Auman, asserting that his boss planted the tracks around equipment to scare off worksite thieves. “That’s why this all started.”

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Bigfooters, it should be noted, have never bought that Wallace was behind the tracks. “Ray heard about [Crew’s tracks] and then went to make some of his own,” says Pyle, author of Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. Pyle was once much more skeptical about Bigfoot, but that has softened over the years; he’s now more open-minded about the creature’s existence. “Ray manufactured some of the [Bluff Creek] evidence, though not all of it by any means. He pulled everybody’s leg and I kind of respected him for it. The unfortunate thing was when he died there was a lot of press about his son saying, ‘My dad was the one who invented the whole Bigfoot story.’ AP replayed that, and various respected media reprinted it. People don’t question hoaxes as carefully as they question claims. This happens over and over.”

Jeff Meldrum, a professor at Idaho State University who studies foot morphology, claimed that Wallace’s crudely made wooden feet didn’t match the plaster casts made of Crew’s footprints or any other Bluff Creek tracks. “To suggest all these are explained by simple carved feet strapped to boots just doesn’t wash,” Meldrum has said. No doubt the man was a gifted practical joker, Meldrum conceded in his book, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. But Wallace’s best practical joke by far, in Meldrum’s eyes, came after his death: “He posthumously hoaxed virtually the entire media into believing that he was solely responsible for Bigfoot.”

The cover of The Secret History of Bigfoot on a blurred green background
Source Books (cover), Mariia Demchenko/Moment/Getty Images (background)

John O’Connor teaches journalism at Boston College and lives with his family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His book, The Secret History of Bigfoot, is out now.