The Pterosaurs of Fresno County, California
There are plenty of debunkers for the Fresno sighting presented right here in this article. In fact, the author largely discounts the possibility that actual pterosaurs were sighted. Pterosaurs are extinct. How do we know? Science says so and-no one has seen them. Except that any reported sightings are discounted and ridiculed.
One reason to credit this story is the description of the eyewitnesses. These sightings took place in 1891 and yet witnesses mentioned an alligator-like bill. To our knowledge, pterosaur species which could actually fit that description as well as the estimated wingspan (like the pterosaurs pictured on this page)have only recently been discovered (last 20 years) and would probably not have been the prototype for a faked pterosaur sighting.
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.
"Two nights later, A. X. Simmons's poultry yard was visited by the monsters, many of the hens being bitten in two and left partly devoured. Those who examined the dead chickens say the teeth marks on them resemble those made by a very large dog.
On July 19 a carriage loaded with picnickers was returning from a picnic on Clark's bridge, and in the clear moonlight saw the monsters plainly circling in the air and heard the rush of their pinions, snapping of their jaws and fearful cries overhead.
On Monday, July 21, Harvey Lemon and Major Henry Haight, who live just outside of Selma, going after their hogs, who fed on the tules, heard a strangling noise in the deep swale under a bridge, and in a moment, with a heavy flapping of wings, the queer creatures rose slowly from the water, flying so close to the men that the wind from the tremendous wings was plainly felt.
Their description of the monsters tallies with that of the persons who saw them on the 13th and 19th." [sic] (Frederick, Maryland, News, August 11, 1891.)
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 woman—presumably the man's wife—were 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.
"The major describes the dragons as resembling birds without feathers. They have long and wide bills and wings not less than fifteen feet across. Their eyes are fully four inches in diameter, although as to this particular there is a grave suspicion that the major is describing his own fine eyes.
"The scientific investigators of Fresno were not to be daunted by anything that a mere major could tell them and they made up a party to pursue and if possible, bag the monsters. Having arrived at the scene they took the wise precaution to dig holes in the ground in which they hid, no doubt to avoid any appearance of intrusion on the revels of the dragons. What they saw is best described in their own words:
"The ominous yells drew nearer, and in a few moments we heard the rush and roar of wings, so hideous that our hair almost stood on end. The two dragons came swooping down and circled round and round the pond in rapid whirls, screaming hideously all the while.
We had a good view of them while flying. Two or three times they passed within a few yards of us, and their eyes were plainly visible. We could also see that instead of bills like birds, they had snouts resembling that of the alligator, and their teeth could be seen as they snapped their jaws while passing us.
"At length they came down with a fearful plunge into the pond, and the mud and water flew as though a tree had fallen into it. "They dived and floundered around in the water, and as nearly as we could judge at the distance of thirty yards, they were about six feet long, and while wading in the water they looked not unlike gigantic frogs.
Their wings were folded and appeared like large knobs on their backs. Their eyes were the most visible parts, and seemed all the time wide open and staring.
"They were very active, and darted about among the tules and rushes catching mudhens. One of these fowl was devoured at two or three clamps of the jaws.
"This cannot be other than the offspring of the famous cross between the bulldog and the window shutter. But the wise men of Fresno are agreed in believing them to be two of the Mistakes of Moses.
"They fired a shot at the monsters, but did not insist on further hostilities. Professor Snodgrass of Selma, however, with remarkable intrepidity and at some personal risk succeeded in capturing one of their footprints in the mud, which he dug out and brought home to confound the unbeliever. The footprints have five toes and a strong claw on each.
They are eleven inches wide and nineteen inches long. The theory that this was the impression of a Fresno girl's foot is rejected by Professor Snodgrass, although his reasoning is not at all conclusive on this point. Nevertheless, his explanation of the phenomenon is most interesting to the scientific student. I quote:
"The most probable solution of the matter is that these dragons are solitary specimens of some geological animal supposed to be extinct. It most nearly fits the description of the pterodactyl, a weird nocturnal vampire, half bat, half lizard, that infested the vast swamps of the earth in the carboniferous age.
The pterodactyl is described by geologists as attaining a size often four times as large as the eagle, while the bill became a snout, and its mouth was set with ghastly teeth that devoured birds, reptiles and all small animals that came in its way.
"The professor does not explain whether the footprint was left by the half bat or the half lizard, but it is understood that in Fresno scientific circles the bat comes first and the lizard is seen later. Some of them see jackass rabbits, but it is always the same old prehistoric bat." (Extract from: Edward F. Cahill. "The Animals. Splayfooted Monsters of Fresno." Oakland, California, Tribune. August 8, 1891.)
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. "The Selma Enterprise, which first gave currency to the dragon story, now has the following on the subject:
"'The Enterprise's article on the pterodactyl monster has been copied far and wide by nearly every newspaper in the country. The writer, quite naturally, has been called a liar, 4,000,000 times the last two weeks, and we are prone to believe that were there are so many of one mind, the majority must rule.
But an explanation is in order. This is how it came about. The writer, a literary man from near Sauders, like all literary men, undertook at a recent picnic to drink up all the refreshments and ice cream on the grounds.
The next day he recalled with vivid reality his experience in dreamland and readily, with fluent pen, added it to his stock of literary manuscripts. It was sent in with instructions for the Enterprise editor to look over and pronounce upon it.
The foreman took it to be a correspondence from a regular contributor and ordered it printed; hence this apology. But subsequent events prove that in the vast intellectual area of this state and especially this county, there are more downright liars than you can shake a stick at.
"'Nearly every paper which printed a rehash of the monster business added a few flourishes of its own until now we have a whole drove of pterodactyls who threaten to depopulate the country. A Fresno liar sent a column and a half to the San Francisco Chronicle, which is a rank steal from the literary man over near Sanders on his pterodactyl.
Another Selma fabricator was solicited to send a thousand words on the monster, but his courage failed him and the Examiner got left, while the yell of the newsboys, "All about the Great Monster," was profitable music to the ears of the Chronicle publishers.
[Hereon] when our contributors volunteer contributions about monsters, serpents and reptiles we want them to distinctly understand that no ordinary pterodactyl yarn goes. We want a real genuine flock of icthyosaurous or nothing.'" (Fresno, California, Daily Morning Republican, August 11, 1891.)
"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: "First—the 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.
"The animal's head is almost exactly like that of the alligator. Its mouth is armed with eight rows of teeth about three inches in length. It is supposed to be the descendent of the ancient pterodactyl, crossed with the gnu or horned horse, known to have once been common in these parts. It can be tamed and is very useful, when chloroformed and its wings clipped, as its fur is as fine as the fur-bearing seal, while its pedal extremities (it has legs like those of the wolf) are a great delicacy, highly prized by the natives of Selma." (Extract from Fresno, California, Weekly Republican, December 23, 1892.)
"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 access—and 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.