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History: ‘Coboys + Saurians’ and the ‘serpent’ of San Marcial

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Submitted Art Cover of historian John LeMay's new book, "Cowboys + Saurians" by Christopher Martinez.

By John LeMay

historian

Back in the golden age of newspapers, the term “fake news” was a bit more literal than it is today. In today’s world, the term “fake news” implies a story with either a heavy political slant or a story made up to slander politicians entirely. But, back in the 1800s, fake news was literally just that, a made-up story for the amusement of the public. The beauty — and frustration — of these stories were that they were mixed in with real news and presented as such. The favorite variety of “fake news” were “snaik stories,” snake intentionally misspelled to occasionally imply that the story was a tall tale. “Snaik stories” usually involved a pioneer coming across some monstrous reptile and killing it. Some of them were fairly down to earth and very likely real — the killing of a nine-foot monster rattlesnake, for instance. Even some of the larger snake stories could be believable if you took into account the possibility of escaped circus animals. The more far-out stories occasionally patented their monstrous reptiles after dinosaurs. The most famous of these is a “flying crocodile” — most likely referring to a pterodactyl — killed outside of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1890.

Snaik stories are the subject of my next book, “Cowboys and Saurians: Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Beasts as Seen by the Pioneers.” Yes, believe it or not, there were enough dinosaur stories printed during the pioneer period of the United States to fill a 300-plus page book. The goal of the book is not only to collect the stories, but also to analyze which ones might actually be real. Just as people all across the world — and across all time periods — have seen UFOs in the skies and Sasquatch in the woods, so, too, have they seen dinosaurian creatures. These saurians are usually lake monsters, like the Loch Ness Monster — which looks suspiciously like a plesiosaurus — but there are others, too. Second to lake monsters are strange featherless birds that look like flying reptiles related to the pterosaur family. Sightings of such creatures actually occur frequently in our neighboring state of Texas. As such, remnant dinosaur sightings are no different than Bigfoot or UFO sightings and deserve a fair investigation.

While many of the stories I cover are most certainly of a dubious nature, it’s always fascinating when you learn that the witnesses were indeed real people. The one that surprised me the most was a reverend who claimed he saw a strange-looking lake monster in Illinois. I figured he was the invention of the article’s author, but he was a real man listed in numerous other books and newspapers from the time which spoke highly of his moral character. Now, this doesn’t prove his story is true, but it does at least lend some of these stories some credence.

I’m saddened to say that I didn’t find many dinosaur stories in our native state. In fact, I found only one, set in southern New Mexico and supposedly coming out of San Marcial. The story’s exact setting couldn’t be better: the Jornada Del Muerto near the White Sands National Monument. For your amusement, here is an example of what could be a New Mexico “snaik story” that was published Jan. 27, 1888, in the Helena Independent.

“Mexico’s Prize Snake

“It Is a Monster, indeed, and it Abides in an Extinct Crater

“The section of country about San Marcial, N.M., has been aroused of late by reports of Mexicans who state that near an extinct crater near the plain known as the ‘Jornada del Muerto,’ is the abode of a monster. Some say it is 100 feet long and about 2 feet in circumference. The Mexicans are now afraid to venture within miles of the crater. A Mr. Alexander, who owns some mining property in that part of the country, says that he saw the serpent once while crossing the Jornada on the way to his mines. He was about halfway across the plain, jogging leisurely behind his burro, dreaming of the immense wealth he hoped to realize from his property, when suddenly the burro stopped, erected its long ears, wheeled quickly around and made a mad stampede in the opposite direction. Mr. Alexander was at a loss to account for this strange freak of the burro, and was about to start in pursuit of the runaway, when he chanced to look ahead. Then his eyes gazed upon the monster. He was so struck with fear at first that, he says, his nerves had completely paralyzed, his hairs stood on end, and move he could not; he was rooted to the spot and his eyes were fixed upon the serpent. It was about a quarter of a mile from him and was traveling in the opposite direction — toward the crater. He says it appeared to be about 60 feet in length; but what surprised him most was the queer proportions of the creature. The foreparts were of enormous size, its head being fully as large as a barrel. A few feet behind the creature’s head two large scales were visible, which glittered in the sun like polished shields; further back were two huge claws on either side, about 2 feet apart, which were all the monster had in the shape of feet. The rest of its body was comparatively small and tapering to the end of its tail. It traveled at a rapid gait, sometimes rearing its whole body up from the ground, and walked on its four claws. He watched it till it disappeared over a little hill, and then he started to look after his burro.

“The Mexicans have the most deadly fear of the crater, and will not venture within miles of it, there being a popular tradition among them that it is the abode of some terrible serpent. The Mexicans asserted that on one occasion, a dissent of the crater was made by three men, and as none of them returned, it was generally believed they were devoured by the monster.”

Unfortunately, I could never find any trace of this Mr. Alexander, though this certainly didn’t mean that he didn’t exist. The volcanic crater mentioned in the story was most likely Kilbourne Hole — which is located between the Potrillo Mountains and the Rio Grande in southern Doña Ana County. Technically, Kilbourne Hole is a maar, a depression or pit created by a volcanic explosion with little material emitted aside from volcanic gas. The maar is believed to be somewhere between 24,000 to 100,000 years old. The crater is elliptical in shape, 1.7 miles long and hundreds of feet deep.

Considering that the newspaper story mentions Mr. Alexander on his way to his mine, it’s worth noting that the site of Kilbourne Hole was rich in unique minerals. Namely, the crater contained debris that when cracked open contained sparkling yellow and green interiors of olivine glass granules. If this Mr. Alexander mined these materials, it is unknown. In any case, in 1975, Kilbourne Hole was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

So, while I initially thought the volcanic crater was just a detail added in to flavor the tale, it did, in fact, exist and there were actually two to choose from as the location — the other being Aden Crater, a small shield volcano. But again, just because the details of the locale add up, that doesn’t prove the story. Nor does the creature described truthfully match any known dinosaur, not to mention its immense size greatly surpasses that of most dinosaurs. Nonetheless, it is an interesting piece of forgotten New Mexico lore.