The belief in a Thunderbird Photo does not exist in a cultural vacuum. Rather, it is a part of the untold story of American Dragons. Flying dragons have been a fixture of American western legend.
Consider the details of an article from the Gridley Herald in 1882, eight years before the Tombstone, Arizona monster report that has become commingled with the legend of the Thunderbird Photograph.
The Herald reported that Thomas Campbell and Joseph Howard, two woodchoppers were working in the woods near Hurleton, California, when they were were startled by the sound of many wings flapping in the air. Looking up they saw what looked like an 18-foot-long crocodile flying 40 feet above the treetops. On each side of the body, between the head and the tail, were six wings and on the underside of the body they counted "twelve feet, six on a side."
Mr. Howard fired one barrel of a shotgun at the monster and "It uttered a cry similar to that of a calf and bear combined, but gave no sign of being inconvenienced or injured. In fact, when the shot struck, we heard the bullets rattle as though striking against a thin piece of sheet iron." The editor then wrote, "This is the first time we have ever heard of such a creature as this, but our informants are reliable men, hence we cannot doubt their statements."
I am afraid that I am not as trusting as the editor of the Gridley Herald (who may well have written the article that he was endorsing). Consider some of the claims made for this American Dragon: Skin like sheet iron, unpenetrable by bullets. A cry like that of a calf and bear combined. Twelve feet, six on each side. Six wings. An eighteen-foot-long flying reptile. In other words, a magical beast -- a dragon. In the Old West. The statement that the informants are reliable men should not hold much weight after the description of their Western Jabberwock, together with the utter lack of credibility of Western editors, particularly with respect to monster articles. This aspect of the case will be discussed in detail in the next section of this article.
There was an amalgamation of lore as Western European Dragon legend mixed with Native American Thunderbird and Piasa lore. Just as immigrant Cornish miners brought their ghostly "knockers" with them from the mines of Southwest England to those of America's Southwest, and phantom Black Dogs to the U.S. East Coast seaports -- did they also bring their dragons?
The story of the Thunderbird Photo is not as simple as it first seems, in fact it is very complicated. The basic notion that there is a photo that many believe that they saw but which cannot be found actually comes with a lot of baggage, spanning centuries.
The written history of Western American Dragons starts in the 1830s with the Lake Elizabeth, California monster. Reported from 1830 until around 1890, the Lake Elizabeth monster has been characterized as "probably the most fearsome being ever recorded in...America." Horace Bell, in his 1930 book On The Old West Coast (pp. 24-25), writes that the monster was there when the Mexicans first began to settle California, so we have another culture entering the mix, with their own beliefs about flying dragonlike monsters. According to Bell no one would settle in the valley despite the water supply and good soil, alleging that this is because of the monster there. On the Old West Coast is much-cited as a source but rarely quoted; clearly few who have written about the Thunderbird Photo have actually obtained a copy and read the relevant material. The following material, paraphrased from Bell's book, is alleged by that author and while it is hoped that the scope of my investigation will be expanded in the future to include the Lake Elizabeth monster and the other dragon-like precursors to the Tombstone T-bird, at this time it must be taken with the same large grain of salt as other Western dragon lore.
According to Bell, Don Pedro Carillo had a land grant in the Lake Elizabeth area in the 1830s. Three months after he finished building a large hacienda on Lake Elizabeth, he left the area because of the monster. Carillo considered the monster a supernatural being, not simply an unknown animal of some sort. Around 1855, Chico Lopez moved into the hacienda. Lopez's foreman, Vasquez, rode up to the house excitedly, talking about something being in the lake. A number of people rode down to the lake, from which they heard a deafening roar. They saw the silhouette of a huge monster "as large or larger than a great whale." The creature flapped its enormous batlike wings. The water was churned by huge legs or flippers. The beast appeared to be trying to rise up out of the muddy lake. They rode away and returned the next day with a number of armed men but the creature was not around. Ten horses were discovered to be missing from the corral one night. Shortly thereafter men on the hacienda sighted "the great winged creature flying away, outlined with terrifying clarity against the moonlit sky."
The creature sounds suspiciously folkloric: it could fly, live underwater, and walk on land, unlike any known animal. And the monster may have been a convenient explanation for 10 horses missing in one night. In 1883, Chico Lopez sold the hacienda and left California. The ranch was then purchased by Don Felipe Rivera, who planned to capture the animal and sell it to the Sells-Floto circus, which was willing to pay $25,000 for the attraction. Rivera found the dragon resting on the shore. Seeing him, the animal moved back into the water. Rivera fired at the monster. The bullets from his .44 Frontier Colt "rang as though striking armor plate," a detail commonly found in these reports. The next day Don Felipe retrieved his flattened bullets. He described the creature as being about 45 feet long, the size of "four elephants." It had the head of a bulldog, huge wings, and six legs -- shades of the 1882 Hurleton, California flying crocodile. Horace Bell, in On the Old West Coast, writes that the Lake Elizabeth Monster flew eastward and that it "has never been seen in its native valley because it was found and killed eight hundred miles from Lake Elizabeth, as is proved by the ... article that appeared in the Epitaph, Tombstone, Arizona." He then goes on to quote the 1890 Tombstone Flying Dragon article in full.
The monster either flew from California to Arizona, where it was killed, or the idea of it was transferred from California to Arizona. Whether one sees this as evidence for the existence of a living dinosaur or as the transmission of dragon lore from one newspaper editor to another, the Lake Elizabeth monster is certainly a significant part of the history of the Tombstone case.
There were several Flying Amphibious Monster sightings reported in 1881 but these cases did not come to light until five years later. In October 1886, a Los Angeles newspaper described one of the earlier 1883 sightings, keeping the Lake Elizabeth monster in the public eye. In 1887, there were additional sightings near Lake Elizabeth.
Then, in 1890, just three years later we have the Tombstone Thunderbird "crash" in the Arizona desert. There had been dragon stories in western newspapers during at least six of the ten years before the Tombstone Epitaph article was published. Knowing this, the Thunderbird Photo case is seen in a vastly different light. Rather than being an isolated incident, it was clearly part of a continuum of western flying dragon tales that go back to at least 1830 in written form -- if not earlier -- and is more reminiscent of the European dragon than the Thunderbird of Native American legend.
In 1891, the year after the Epitaph's flying monster piece, West coast newspapers described a pair of flying dragons terrorizing farmers in Fresno, California, biting chickens in two. The papers described a "reign of terror" from July 1891 to Fall 1891. The creatures were described as being a good 15 feet long with saucer-like eyes and mouths full of teeth. Our 1890 Tombstone Dragon also had eyes like saucers. Saucer-like eyes are a staple of magic creatures, from phantom dogs to dragons. The Fresno Dragons article was passed from paper to paper, none of them attempting to determine whether there was any basis for the story before reprinting it. Interestingly, in this case one of the dragons was wounded and was tracked for three miles before it was lost forever. The creature supposedly left "several well formed tracks in the mud" and one of the best was allegedly cut out with a space and after drying was "taken to Selma, where it is in the possession of Mr. Snodgrass." Is there a modern pterodactyl track in some attic in Selma, California? I doubt it. While this report sounds suspiciously like a contemporary legend that made its way around the West since the early 1800s, a San Francisco Chronicle editor suggested otherwise when that paper ran their article "The Dragons of Fresno" [reprinted in the Toronto News, Aug. 29, 1891]. The unknown writer opines that:
It is not entirely safe to assume that the strange winged monster which is reported to inhabit the swamps and marshes in the vicinity of Selma, in Fresno County, is a variety of gyascutus horribilis, as might be expected, nor that the creature has been projected from the fertile imagination of a newspaper correspondent. There certainly is some kind of winged animal there which devours chickens and other domestic fowl -- not simply kills and eats them, but crushes and devours them. In addition to this mute testimony, a number of witnesses, seemingly reputable, have actually seen two great flying animals, of a kind entirely strange to them, circling through the air, uttering their weird and discordant cries, and swooping toward the ground, while another witness has shot and wounded one of those birds, if they be birds, and has secured the imprint of the creature's foot in the mud. One of two things is true, either all these witnesses are telling a falsehood, intentionally, or as the result of self-deception, or they have come upon a survival of an earlier and prehistoric age."
The flying dragons of the American Southwest continued into the new century. In a 1903 newspaper article, two hunters in Utah observed the monster, which was having a full-grown horse for lunch. The timeline to the right showing the chronology of dragon/thunderbird sightings makes it clear that the Tombstone case did not exist in isolation. There are two possibilities. The first is that there were flying dragons in the Americas in the 19th century and that they were seen in at least three states and several countries. If one accepts this hypothesis, then these creatures were fired upon and one was even killed and a piece taken from it for analysis.
If a creature was shot down and a piece taken from it there would have been some followup articles, but there are none, and even the editors of the Tombstone Epitaph admit that the Tombstone Thunderbird was a tall tale. Most of the other cases are no better, with their amphibious, flying, six-legged, multi-winged jabberwocks with skin of steel. On the other hand, several of the reports describe brief encounters with creatures that sound a great deal like pterodactyls, and we have not investigated each report yet, so we have no right at this time to discount them out of hand. Additionally, reports of flying pterodactyl-like creatures continue sporadically around the world, giving cryptozoologists some hope that living pterodactyls may exist and that the T-bird Photo might have depicted one.
This belief is mitigated by a number of important factors. As I will demonstrate in the next section of this article, it is hard if not impossible for us to understand the T-bird Photo case in its entirety without making a serious attempt to grasp the cultural milieu at that time in the West, particularly with respect to the telling of tall tales and the role of the frontier press.