Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
By John LeMay
Historian and author
In Northern New Mexico is a small community called Watrous. In the time before Anglo settlement, the Watrous area was a crossroads, or junction, where many different Native American tribes met to trade, including the Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Ute and the Puebloans. What eventually came to be known as Watrous sprang from the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s. Initially it was called La Junta. Upon the arrival of Mora County farmer and trader Samuel B. Watrous, the area began to grow due to him building a large trading post. As you can guess, eventually La Junta came to be known as Watrous. Today, the area is sparsely populated with a population of only 135, though it does have the distinction of being a National Historic Landmark District.
According to Jack Kutz’s landmark book, “Mysteries and Miracles of New Mexico,” Watrous was once the home of several “skinwalkers.” Unfortunately, Kutz doesn’t say when these stories took place, but, since both seem to be Spanish folktales, one might presume it was the early 1800s.
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The first story goes that one night, past midnight, a young man — “whose name no one remembers now” — was riding his horse down a lonely road. The man had been visiting his cousin on a farm outside of town, and the two had stayed up late talking until they lost track of time, hence his late-night journey.
The lonely road was flanked on either side with plowed fields. His ride was uneventful until he came to a grove of cottonwood trees. Somewhere in the grove, he could hear a baby crying. He dismounted his horse and looked around the area until he found a baby mysteriously hidden among the weeds. The man came to the abandoned baby’s rescue, intending to take it back into town with him. When he approached his horse with the infant, the animal became upset. The man eventually calmed his horse and climbed atop it with the baby in one arm.
As the horse trotted back to town, the baby suddenly spoke in the voice of a man. It told the rider that it didn’t like riding this way and asked to be placed behind the man on the saddle. Terrified and not knowing what else to do, the young man moved the baby behind him onto the saddle. It clutched his waist with its tiny hands, which then supernaturally began to grow larger. At the same time the horse became panicked, and the rider did everything he could to bring it back under control. He was so distracted that he could hardly notice the baby’s hands getting bigger and the weight growing heavier. As he felt the presence behind him growing larger, he heard something that sounded like the panting of an animal. He could even smell its noxious breath. At that point, he finally looked down at his waist. The tiny baby’s hands had been replaced with hairy claws.
With dread he turned his head to look behind him and saw a humanoid beast that he described as half-human and half-panther. When it shrieked, tellers of the tale embellished that the young man could hear “the screams of all the tormented souls in hell.”
The horse reared up in terror and succeeded in knocking off his master, but not the beast which was causing it so much panic. The young man watched from the ground in horror as the monster clung to his horse’s back. Now he was able to get a better look at it. Like a panther, it also had a tail which he described as “whip-like” and also “long tangled hair.” Was he referring to the hair of its head, or the whole body? Kutz doesn’t specify.
The young man watched helplessly as the horse and the monster ran off into the night. The man ran in the opposite direction, back to his cousin’s home, where he told his terrified tale. According to the legend, the cousin wouldn’t have believed him if not for the man’s badly torn jacket. The horse was never found and the monster never seen again.
Though this is clearly just a folktale, the Watrous area apparently had a penchant for supernatural animal stories. This one, too, comes courtesy of Kutz, who again doesn’t list a year. He only says that it was another tale to come from Watrous. Unlike the panther-monster earlier, this one is more in line with typical werewolves and skinwalkers.
For a while once per month, the denizens of Watrous were terrorized by a black dog. It would slink into town on dark, moonless nights. There it would target and kill dogs belonging to the locals. After a few nights of terror, it would disappear and not resurface until the following month. Eventually the townspeople set out to capture the sinister animal. The next time that the moon entered its darker cycle, the townsfolk hid in the shadows to wait for the dog.
Just as they hoped, it sauntered back into town. They sprang on it and beat it with ax handles and chunks of firewood. The fact that no one tried to shoot it seems to suggest this was the earlier village of La Junta rather than the town of Watrous. The dog wasn’t killed and ran off into the wild.
The next morning, it was business as usual in the town except for one thing: an old woman that lived on the edge of town had yet to be seen. Concerned for their elderly neighbor, several people went to check on her. Inside her home, they found her bruised and beaten nearly beyond recognition.
This folktale was likely an offshoot of one from the Sonora region of Mexico, where an elderly witch turned into a mountain lion every night to terrorize local children. You might be shocked to know that the usually reliable J. Frank Dobie infamously passed the Sonora skinwalker story off as real in one of his articles. (James Frank Dobie was a teacher, storyteller, folklorist, historian and author of a multitude of books. He was born Sept. 26, 1888, and died Sept. 18, 1964.)
The witch/mountain lion folktale likely made its way up north via the Hispanic settlers of the region. This was probably also true of the other folktale. The only question I have is, why did Watrous of all places have several folktales that seemed inspired by the skinwalker legend?