|Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History|
BioFortean Review, (November 2006, No. 5)
The Pterodactyls of Fresno County, California
One of the strangest newspaper stories from the latter years of the nineteenth century came from California. It began in the summer of 1891. Several persons from Fresno County were reported to have seen a pair of large flying creatures that resembled pterosaurs (being featherless, with reptilian snouts and fifteen foot wingspans). The details were first published in the Selma, California, Enterprise, to which I don't currently have access, but it quickly spread to outlying newspapers. So, we can reconstruct the story from articles published by other newspapers.
First, the general details from corresponding newspapers:
"Dragons in California
"A number of persons living in the vicinity of Reedley, Fresno county, Cal., all reputable citizens, too, according to a Chronicle correspondent, swear that they have seen and hunted two dragons with wings fifteen feet long, bodies without covering of hair or feathers, head broad, bills long and wide, eyes not less than four inches in diameter, and with feet like those of an alligator somewhat, though more circular in form. They had five toes on each foot, with a strong claw on each, and its track is eleven inches wide and nineteen inches long. These strange creatures were first seen southeast of Selma, on the night of July 11, and their peculiar cries and the rustling of their mammoth wings were heard as late as 10 o'clock, when all became still. The dragons were last heard that night crying in the direction of King's river.
A second paper adds the following details to the account:
"After they had made several appearances a party was organized to hunt them. One of them was wounded and tracked several miles and his track in the mud secured." (Salem, Ohio, Daily News, October 24, 1891.)
Next, we have a newspaper writer who has some fun with the story:
"It is the silly season of an off year and the natural consequence is an unusually heavy crop of the summer story. Ever since Judge Widney discovered the remains of a bobtailed sea serpent at Redondo beach, which stimulated the celebrated Calaveras ophidian to swallow a sixteen inch iron drill and secrete himself in a bale of hay, the thing has been going from bad to worse. On all sides frightful monsters of the sort that figure in the well worn controversy between science and religion are reported red with [ravin] and the blood of innocents. Fresno appears to be more than usually fertile of this sort of contribution to the lore of science. It was there the famous stone man and later, the stone womanpresumably the man's wifewere discovered, and it is from there that we hear of the high handed outrages done by a brace of pterodactyls in the swamps near Selma. We are told that the monsters were seen on a recent moonlight night by a party of young fellas returning from a dance, and as they flew through the air 'with a fearful rush of pinions' they uttered 'weird and discordant cries which were accompanied by snapping of jaws.' A little later a Fresno county major, engaged in herding hogs in the tule, heard a 'strange strangling noise under a bridge.' In a moment there was a heavy flapping of wings and the two monsters rose from the water and flew so near the gallant officer that 'the wind from their wings was plainly felt.' He stood it like a major.
This is followed by general notes or witticisms in various papers:
"The Selma pterodactyls have taken their place alongside of the wild man of Kings river canyon and both should be buried in that icy grave of the mountain suicide, with the Chronicle's learned editorial on the paleozoic monsters thereon as a winding sheet." (Fresno, California, Weekly Republican, August 7, 1891.)
"Those Selma Dragons.
"What is said about them at home.
"Our scientific contemporary speaks of 'the overlapping of geological epicycles.' This lapping is supposed to have produced the pterodactyls of Selma. That's pretty good, but Harry Watson will be amused." (Fresno, California, Weekly Republican, August 14, 1891.)
"The Tulare County Times thus quietly pokes fun of the Chronicle and its story of the Selma dragons: 'The dragons found near Selma, Fresno county, of which much has been written within the last week or two, are not dragons at all, but simply two Australian birds known in their native country as Boa. They are a very destructive species and have not been hibernating in the "vast tule swamps of Tulare county," as the San Francisco Chronicle puts it, for the reason that there are no such swamps in this county. The birds were imported to this country by the Kaweah colonists, at great expense, and were expected to work their destructive arts on the government horses and mules in the Sequoia national park, but having been ordered "off the grass" in that section by a United States [herd] agent, wandered into Fresno county in search of something green. As they are working toward San Francisco, the Chronicle editor will do well to keep indoors.'" (also, Fresno, California, Weekly Republican, August 14, 1891.)
"What has become of the pterodactyls?" (Fresno, California, Weekly Republican, August 28, 1891.)
Like so many reports of mystery animals, there were no additional sightings and interest died down. For the next few years, though, the pterosaur story became part of a running gag among regional newspapers.
"A San Bernardino man with the d.t.'s has seen a monster twenty times as large as J. B. Daniels' pterodactyl." (Fresno, California, Bee, June 5, 1892.)
In speaking of a yarn involving a November field of wheat and poppies, one paper declares, "This takes the stocking off old man Maxwell and his pterodactyl story." (Fresno, California, Bee, December 4, 1892.) Then, a pseudonymous writer (Consomme), describes in a letter to the editor some of the strange fauna of Fresno county, including:
"Firstthe pterodactyl, of Fresno dragon (latin, dragonis alligatis wingis), found only in the neighborhood of Selma, is a reprehensible, hirsute winged alligator. In size about equal to the common 2-year-old Durham heifer. Is carnivorous and lives mostly on mud hens and the spawn of the house cat. It has an elongated body covered with fur like the sealskin of commerce. A tail similar to the musk-ox. Its most curious feature is a pair of bat-like wings growing out of the middle of its back and from twenty to thirty feet in length.
"Editor Dewey of the Sanger Herald, was in Fresno yesterday. He says the quality of Sanger's whisky has improved and no more pterodactyls are seen there now." (Fresno, California, Bee, October 3, 1893.)
"A committee of the board of supervisors, accompanied by County Surveyor Hoxie and N. L. F. Bachman of The Republican, left Fresno yesterday morning on route to the Sequoia mills, where they will view the new mountain road completed there, with the object of determining whether it has been constructed according to contract. ... Bachman is on a tour of adventure, and is expected to slaughter a grizzly or capture a pterodactyl alive ere he returns." (Fresno, California, Weekly Republican, November 17, 1893.)
"C. J. Walker is here from the town of the pterodactyls." (Fresno, California, Weekly Republican, October 5, 1894.)
"This is a great county for productiveness. It produces raisins, grain and pterodactyls for the rest of the world. ..." (Fresno, California, Bee, November 20, 1894.)
At present, the story shows certain hallmarks of classic newspaper fiction, but whether this is due to embellishments as the story passed from paper to paper is uncertain. Without seeing the original story, I can't rule out the possibility that the initial sighting was based on misidentification of a known bird species (e.g., sandhill crane). The description sounds too much like an early paleontologist's imaginative recreation to be given serious consideration as a "living pterosaur." It was easy enough for an enterprising writer to make up a story with details like five-toed feet and large eyes from Cuvier's work or other commonly published material. (And, often, that's what they did, even with non-fiction "scientific" essays.)
It would be interesting to track down the original Enterprise story; it should answer a few questions. The trouble with newspaper research is accessand this one is not yet online. (If anyone lives near Selma, California, the public library there should have it on microfilm. I'd appreciate a copy.)
One name in the above notes is of particular interest, though there is little to go on for definitive conclusions. J. B. Daniels was a local real estate agent who earned the nickname "Pterodactyl" Daniels. At this point, I don't know whether he was responsible for the original story (as witness or writer), or just began telling tall tales related to the pterodactyl story. (I suspect he was the pseudonymous Consomme.) Whatever the connection, within a few years of this event, Daniels ran afoul of the law with some real estate dealings and disappeared, just like the pterodactyls of Fresno County, California.
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