Classic Canadian Wendigo Stories
One of the oldest, darkest, and most pervasive Canadian folktales is the legend of the Wendigo or Weetigo, an evil cannibalistic spirit of Cree and Algonquin tradition. From the reports of 17th Century French Jesuit missionaries who brought the Word of God to the Innu of eastern Quebec to the letters of 19th Century fur traders who manned the lonely, frozen outposts of the far north, historic Canadian documents are littered with gruesome anecdotes illustrating the prevalence of this frightening native tradition on the Canadian frontier.
In this author’s opinion, Wendigo tales share a certain characteristic with aged cheese, namely that they are best consumed in small quantities. A brief immersion in the red waters of this historical mystery deliciously stimulates the sense of morbid curiosity common to most students of the unexplained. Overindulgence in this folkloric delicacy, on the other hand, could prove unpalatable to readers with a less-than-iron constitution, for reasons which will soon become obvious. Accordingly, this video, which will hopefully be the first of many, will contain only a few short Wendigo stories involving historical characters whose writings this author has referenced in the past.
Philip H. Godsell’s Stories
An excellent introduction to the legend of the Wendigo appears in an article entitled “Here and There”, published in the June 1946 issue of a magazine called the Alberta Folklore Quarterly. The piece was written by Philip H. Godsell, the magazine’s editor, and a Canadian folklorist and historian who had spent most of his adult life in Northern Canada, working as an inspector for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
“The weetigo…” Godsell wrote, “is an evil spirit that enters the body of a sick man converting him, unless he is destroyed, into a cannibal, endangering the lives of every member of the band. Hardly a spring goes by but some wandering band of nomad hunters become obsessed with the idea that there is one of these cannibal spirits haunting the outskirts of the camp, anxious to become domiciled within the person of some sick Indian.”
Godsell went on to describe an incident that took place at a remote Hudson’s Bay Company post at what is now the hamlet of Wabisca, Alberta, located about 85 kilometres (53 miles) northeast of Lesser Slave Lake. One day, the fort’s factor, an Orcadian Scot named Frank Beatton, whom Godsell knew well, found himself the unexpected host to a frightened band of Cree Indians. The band’s chief informed the fur trader that one of their number had become possessed by a Wendigo, and that strange words were pouring from his lips.
Beatton, who was married to a Cree woman, and had spent most of his life in the northern forests, was perfectly familiar with the legend of the Wendigo, and had come to fear that evil spirit of the Northland almost as much as his native neighbours. He agreed with his guests that their only recourse was to destroy the possessed man before he could complete his transformation into a Wendigo and begin devouring members of the band.
“Loaning them muzzle-loaders, powder and ball,” Godsell wrote, “he despatched them on their grisly errand. First they riddled the poor sick creature with trade-bullets, then, lest the evil spirit again re-enter the body and revive it, they drove a stake through it, deep into the mud floor of the cabin. Finally, to make assurances doubly sure, they set a torch to the building, fired off their guns to drive lurking spirits away and hurried from the haunted spot. Poor Beatton was in for a hot time afterwards when Mounted Police investigated the affair and came within an ace of being convicted on a manslaughter charge.
“Which reminds me,” Godsell continued, “of another peculiar case. Visiting a Cree camp I noticed an old leathery-faced crone- just animated bones and parchment- lying neglected and uncared for on the outskirts of the camp. I gave her some tobacco and tea which her talon-like hands grabbed with hoarse croaks of delight. I learned from the Indians that she was supposed to be over one hundred and fifteen years old.”
The following year, Godsell learned that a medicine man had warned the woman’s sons that their mother was possessed by evil spirits which kept her alive. “Kindling a huge ten foot fire of resinous spruce logs,” Godsell wrote, “they cast the poor creature onto this funeral pyre- alive. Watching till the body was consumed they raked through the ashes with a stick and found the heart still intact- sure sign that it must have been full of evil!” The sons skewered their mother’s heart on a pointed stick and placed it into the fire, watching it intently until it shriveled to a cinder. Only when the heart was completely consumed by fire were they satisfied that their mother’s soul was finally at rest.
“As you travel through the North,” Godsell continued, “you realize that but a few years ago, when the Indians depended largely on the caribou and game for sustenance, cannibalism was anything but infrequent in northern Alberta and the North West Territories. Looking over old Hudson’s Bay Journals at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, I read of numerous revolting cases of cannibalism on the part of natives driven to desperation by hunger.”
Godsell went on to relate the tale of two couriers who mysteriously disappeared several years earlier while delivering mail by dogsled between Fort Norman and Fort Good Hope, two Hudson’s Bay Company posts situated on the eastern shores of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. “Starvation stalked the North that year,” he wrote, “there were no rabbits and few fur-bearing animals, and the weather was bitterly cold. Two old squaws, it was later discovered, had been camped beside the Mackenzie River below Fort Good Hope and it was noticed when they came into the fort that, in contrast to their emaciated tribesmen, they were looking hearty and well nourished. Later they boasted to other Indians that, being on the verge of starvation, they had seen these two mail-runners plodding along the river, and signed to them to come to their warming camp-fire. The two whites decided to camp there overnight and after a feed of dried meat, bannock and tea, rolled themselves in their rabbitskin robes and fell asleep. Assured that they were sleeping soundly the two squaws brained them with an axe, cut up the bodies and consigned them to the pot. One of the squaws complained that one of the victims, a heavy smoker, didn’t taste very good.”
Godsell finished his narrative by repeating a tale told to him by Father Emile Petitot, a French Oblate missionary who ministered to the spiritual needs of the Hare, Slavey, and Mountain Indians of Fort Norman. While travelling along the shores of Great Bear Lake, Petitot’s Dene guide confessed that he had devoured both his mother and sister years earlier, during a severe famine. The missionary, who was well-fed at that time, “went to bed with a certain amount of mental disquiet and trepidation, but banished it with the realization that there was lots of food in the grub-box, and lots of caribou around, so that it would not be necessary for his guide to indulge his appetite for human flesh.”
Alexander Henry the Elder’s Story
180 years before Philip’s Godsell’s article was published in the Alberta Folklore Quarterly, a fur trader named Alexander Henry the Elder had his own brush with what contemporary natives would almost certainly have designated a Wendigo.
Alexander Henry the Elder was one of the first of the so-called “pedlars”- independent British and New English fur traders who took over the old trading grounds of the French in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War. In 1761, 22-year-old Henry purchased several canoes-worth of trading goods in the city of New York, hired a crew of French-Canadian voyageurs in Montreal, and set out for the Great Lakes and the great Northwestern wilderness beyond.
Two years into his adventure, Henry became entangled in Pontiac’s Rebellion, a violent conflict between the Anishinaabe natives of the Great Lakes and the British Army. Following his capture by Ojibwa warriors, he was rescued by a chief whom he had befriended and lived among his French-Canadian employees and friendly Ojibwa bands for many years.
In the winter of 1766, Henry and his voyageurs left the village of Sault Ste. Marie, where fishing proved uncharacteristically poor, and relocated to what is known today as Keweenaw Bay, at the southern end of Lake Superior. Henry described the incident that ensued in his 1809 autobiography, Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760-1776:
“After being here a fortnight, we were joined by a body of Indians, flying, like ourselves, from famine. Two days after, there came a young Indian out of the woods alone, and reporting that he had left the family to which he belonged behind in a starving condition and unable, from their weakly and exhausted state, to pursue their journey to the bay. The appearance of this youth was frightful; and from his squalid figure there issued a stench which none of us could support.
“His arrival struck our camp with horror and uneasiness; and it was not long before the Indians came to me, saying, that they suspected he had been eating human flesh, and even that he had killed and devoured the family which he pretended to have left behind.
“These charges, upon being questioned, he denied; but not without so much equivocation in his answers as to increase the presumption against him. In consequence, the Indians determined on travelling a day’s journey on his track; observing that they should be able to discover from his encampments whether he were guilty or not. The next day they returned, bringing with them a human hand and skull. The hand had been left roasting before a fire, while the intestines, taken out of the body from which it was cut, hung fresh on a neighboring tree.
“The youth, being informed of these discoveries, and further questioned, confessed the crime of which he was accused. From the account he now proceeded to give it appeared that the family had consisted of his uncle and aunt, their four children, and himself. One of the children was a boy of fifteen years of age. His uncle, after firing at several beasts of the chase, all of which he missed, fell into despondence, and persuaded himself that it was the will of the Great Spirit that he should perish. In this state of mind, he requested his wife to kill him. The woman refused to comply; but the two lads, one of them, as has been said, the nephew, and the other the son of the unhappy man, agreed between themselves to murder him, to prevent, as our informant wished us to believe, his murdering them. Accomplishing their detestable purpose, they devoured the body; and famine pressing upon them still closer, they successively killed the three younger children, upon whose flesh they subsisted for some time, and with a part of which the parricides at length set out for the lake, leaving the woman, who was too feeble to travel, to her fate. On their way, their foul victuals failed; the youth before us killed his companion; and it was a part of the remains of this last victim that had been discovered at the fire.
“The Indians entertain an opinion that the man who has once made human flesh his food will never afterward be satisfied with any other. It is probable that we saw things in some measure through the medium of our prejudices; but I confess that this distressing object appeared to verify the doctrine. He ate with relish nothing that was given him; but, indifferent to the food prepared, fixed his eyes continually on the children which were in the Indian lodge, and frequently exclaimed, ‘How fat they are!’ It was perhaps not unnatural that after long acquaintance with no human form but such as was gaunt and pale from want of food, a man’s eyes should be almost riveted upon anything where misery had not made such inroads, and still more upon the bloom and plumpness of childhood; and the exclamation might be the most innocent, and might proceed from an involuntary and unconquerable sentiment of admiration. Be this as it may, his behavior was considered, and not less naturally, as marked with the most alarming symptoms; and the Indians, apprehensive that he would prey upon their children, resolved on putting him to death. They did this the next day with the single stroke of an axe, aimed at his head from behind, and of the approach of which he had not the smallest intimation.”
Paul Kane’s Story
Eighty years after Alexander Henry’s disturbing experience on the southern shores of Lake Superior, an Irish-Canadian artist named Paul Kane heard a similar story west of that same lake, on what is known today as the Namakan River.
Inspired by American artist George Catlin, who painted hundreds of portraits of American Indians during an epic journey up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the 1830s, Kane decided to travel across Canada and immortalize the characters and scenes he encountered on canvas. In 1846, he accompanied a Hudson’s Bay Company fur brigade across the continent, from Lake Superior to Fort Vancouver in what is now the American state of Washington.
The first leg of Kane’s journey was a succession of portage trails and water routes between Lake Superior and westerly Rainy Lake. On June 1st, 1846, near the end of this stretch, Kane and his companions came upon a Saulteaux Indian and his wife, from whom they purchased some dried sturgeon.
In his 1859 travel memoir, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, Kane wrote that his French-Canadian voyageur companions subsequently informed him that the couple with whom they had just traded were believed to be “Weendigoes”, or “Those who eat Human Flesh”.
“There is a superstitious belief among the Indians,” Kane wrote, “that the Weendigo cannot be killed by anything short of a silver bullet. I was informed, on good authority, that a case had occurred here in which a father and daughter had killed and eaten six of their own family from absolute want. The story went on to state that they then camped at some distance off in the vicinity of an old Indian woman, who happened to be alone in her lodge, her relations having gone out hunting. Seeing the father and daughter arrive unaccompanied by any other members of the family, all of whom she knew, she began to suspect that some foul play had taken place, and to feel apprehensive for her own safety. By way of precaution, she resolved to make the entrance to her lodge very slippery, and as it was winter, and the frost severe, she poured water repeatedly over the ground as fast as it froze, until it was covered with a mass of smooth ice; and instead of going to bed, she remained sitting up in her lodge, watching with an axe in her hand. When near midnight, she heard steps advancing cautiously over the crackling snow, and looking through the crevices of the lodge, caught sight of the girl in the attitude of listening, as if to ascertain whether the inmate was asleep; this the old woman feigned by snoring aloud. This welcome sound no sooner reached the ears of the wretched girl, than she rushed forward, but, slipping on the ice, fell down at the entrance of the lodge, whereupon the intended victim sprang upon the murderess and buried the axe in her brains: and not doubting but the villainous father was near at hand, she fled with all her speed to a distance, to escape his vengeance. In the meantime, the Weendigo father, who was impatiently watching for the expected signal to his horrid repast, crept up to the lodge, and called to his daughter; hearing no reply, he went on, and, in place of the dead body of the old woman, he saw his own daughter, and hunger overcoming every other feeling, he saved his own life by devouring her remains.
“The Weendigoes are looked upon with superstitious dread and horror by all Indians, and any one known to have eaten human flesh is shunned by the rest; as it is supposed that, having once tasted it, they would do so again had they an opportunity. They are obliged, therefore, to make their lodges at some distance from the rest of the tribe, and the children are particularly kept out of their way; however, they are not molested or injured in any way, but seem rather to be pitied for the misery they must have endured before they could be brought to this state. I do not think that any Indian, at least none that I have ever seen, would eat his fellow-creature, except under the influence of starvation; nor do I think that there is any tribe of Indians on the North American continent to whom the word ‘cannibal’ can be properly applied.”
The stories you have just heard are but a few of the countless Wendigo tales that can be found in the writings of Canadian fur traders, missionaries, Mounted Policemen, travel writers, and Indian captives. If you enjoyed these stories and would like to read more like them, please let me know in the comments below.