The Legend of the White River Monster
Could a monster have been involved in the Civil War? One legend of the White River Monster holds the monster responsible for sinking a Confederate gunship during the Civil War. Though there is little evidence to support this story, there is certainly plenty of other accounts of the monster lurking below our River. Even before the Civil War, there is a Quapaw legend, who were some of the earliest inhabitants of the region, that declares a monster matching the description of the White River Monster flipped the canoe of one of their warriors.
In 1915, Farmers along the banks of the White River in northeastern Arkansas began to file reports of some sort of large unknown creature down by the White River. The earliest accounts describe the beast as having grey skin, and according to official reports, the creature was “as wide as a car and three cars long.” Even a county deputy reportedly saw the White River Monster, and said it had a likeness to a large sturgeon or catfish, or according to one historian and investigator, a likeness to an ancient plesiosaur.
There are accounts of catfish being that massive, like Mekong that was 736 lbs found in the Mississippi River. But how long do giant catfish live?
Bramlett Bateman was a well-known and well-respected plantation owner in Newport, Arkansas, who reported seeing the White River Monster on July 1, 1937. Bateman said the monster had “the skin of an elephant, four or five feet wide by twelve feet long, with the face of a catfish.” Bateman’s account spread fast, and soon he and locals from the community were busy trying to construct a net made of rope to catch the monster, though they were unable to raise enough money or materials to construct their trap, their plot to catch the monster made national news, as far away as a newspaper in New Jersey! Others in the community wanted to take TNT or machine guns to the River to drive up the monster, nicknamed “Whitey.”
The chamber of commerce in Newport got in on the plot because of the free publicity and spike in tourism as curiosity led to an influx of tourism to the banks of the White River. Soon the Chamber had hired Charles B. Brown, from the U.S. Engineers Office in Memphis to dive into the White River in search of the elusive White River Monster. Brown searched on a few separate occasions in the vicinity of where the monster had been seen, but found nothing. Ultimately, Mr. Bateman was accused of a hoax and shamed, but that didn’t change the fact that there were more than 100 reported sightings of the monster in a small window of time.
The White River Monster had all but turned to a forgotten legend until the summer of 1971when the White River Monster was spotted again. This time the monster was spotted by a northeastern Arkansan named David Jenks, who described the White River Monster as having a bone protruding from its forehead, and estimated that it weighed around 1,000 lbs. The new eye witnesses report the White River Monster as being the size of a box car!
The witnesses in 1971, report smooth grey skin, that looked like it was peeling. The new witnesses also reported hearing the creature make noise, some sort of cross between a horse’s neigh and a cow’s moo. In June of 1971, a man named Cloyce Warren managed to get a photograph of the White River Monster, which he then sold to the Newport Daily Independent newspaper. According to Warren, he and a few friends were fishing when they saw a 20-foot-long creature with protruded backbone in the water near them. Unfortunately, the Newport Daily Independent does not have a copy of the original photo, but this was in an age before photoshop so manipulating while still possible, was not nearly as easy as it is today.
Down on Towhead Island, another account of the White River Monster said that the creature left three-toed tracks that were about 14 inches long, moving along the river between trees and bushes. Giant catfish don’t have three-toed feet, so what was it?
The buzz about the White River Monster became such a frenzy, that it made its way into the Arkansas State Legislature! In 1973, one Arkansas state senator named Robert Harvey created something called the White River Monster Refuge, which stretches between Newport and Possum Grape. This new resolution officially made it illegal to “molest, kill, trample, or harm the White River Monster while he is in the retreat.”
So what could it be? Two of the more popular theories include a giant alligator snapping turtle, and a lost bull elephant seal. Lee Krystek wrote an article “The Misplaced Monster of the White River,” where he offers this explanation for the legend: “Biologist and cryptozoologist Roy P. Mackal looked at the evidence and decided ‘the White River case is a clear-cut instance of known aquatic animal outside its normal habitat or range and there…. [it is often misidentified by] observers unfamiliar with the type.”
The giant alligator snapping turtle can reach a size of 400 lbs, and they are found in swamps, rivers, and reservoirs. The alligator snapping turtle would also have a spiny back, which is consistent with some of the sightings reported over the years. These turtles can live for 150 years, so that would also give way to it being the White River Monster, except most of the sightings estimate 1,000 lbs, twice the size of a snapping turtle. Another issue is that snapping turtles are native in Arkansas, especially among the River crowd, so it is unlikely that any of the witnesses wouldn’t have been able to identify Whitey as a turtle.
The other popular theory is that of the lost bull elephant seal, as was proposed by biologist Roy P. Mackal. The bull elephant seals really are giants, with the male elephant seal can be 16+ feet long, and weight over 6,000 lbs. Mackal’s theory says the seal had to travel in the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico, which is how Mackal theorized the wayward seal ended up in the White River. The problem is that these seals aren’t in the Gulf, but actually found on the Pacific, so how would that even work? And the seals only live about 15 years, like the lifespan of a dog, so again, it wouldn’t likely be a seal.
The Texas Cryptid Hunter blog found this handy chart that shows the migration pattern of the elephant seal to further disprove that it is likely to be the face of the White River Monster.
Instead, another theory could be that of a Gulf Sturgeon. Sturgeon can be 8+ feet long, but typically only weigh a couple hundred pounds, certainly not thousands. The sturgeon do have a razorback ridge along their back, and a pointy face. It is possible that the sturgeon were just getting into the White River at the time, which is why the early locals would have been unfamiliar with their appearance. Almost reminiscent of Taylor Bay’s flying carp, the sturgeon can jump out of the water and have been known to hurt boaters and swimmers.
So what do you think the White River Monster is? What do you think it looks like? Have you seen it? Do you know anyone who has? We'd love to hear from you! Share your stories with us for a chance to be featured or interviewed!
(1) Dale Cox. “A River Monster in Arkansas?” ExploreSouthernHistory.com. Accessed October 25, 2018. http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/whiteriver1.html.
(2) Kathy Weiser. “White River Monster.” Legends of America. Updated October, 2012. Accessed October 25, 2018. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ar-quirky2.html.
(3) Animal Planet. “White River Monster.” Animal Planet: Lost Tapes. Nd. Accessed October 25, 2018. http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/lost-tapes/creatures/white-river-monster/
(4) Sam Uptegrove. “Whatever Happened to the White River Monster.” CC Headliner. April 12, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2018. http://ccheadliner.com/opinion/uptegrove-whatever-happened-to-the-white-river-monster/article_5adf2904-1edc-11e7-a395-87ad58f5371e.html
(5) Conor J. Hennelly. “White River Monster.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. May 12, 2014. Accessed October 25, 2018. http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=2790.
(6) Dale Cox. “A River Monster in Arkansas?”
(7) Cox. “A River Monster in Arkansas?”
(8) “The White River Monster.” Mystery Files. July 10, 2014. Accessed October 25, 2018. http://www.mystery-files.blogspot.com/2008/06/white-river-monster.html.
(9) Michaels, Denver. People are Seeing Something: A Survey of Lake Monsters in the United States and Canada. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. January 2016.