When people think of the rugged wilderness of the United States it is common to hear about the Rocky and Appalachian Mountain Ranges, but an often overlooked and equally awe-inspiring piece of North American geography lies almost dead center in the heartland of the continent. The Ozark Mountains or the Ozark Plateau is a densely forested set of highlands covering over 50 thousand square miles from St. Louis, Missouri in the north to the Arkansas River in the South. It is here, in the only large section of extreme topography between the coastal ranges, where legends of one of the most fearsome beasts ever described by man have been passed down for generations by locals who have heard and seen things in the forests of the Ozarks that conventional biology has failed to explain. Frightening sounds and eerie encounters have been reported in the more remote parts of Missouri and Arkansas and even as far west as Oklahoma and South Texas.
The Ozark Howler is typically described as being around the size of a bear, with a thick body, stocky legs, black shaggy hair, and an intimidating set of curved horns. But more frequently cited is its often deafening and blood-curdling cry, typically described as a combination of a wolf’s howl and an elk’s bugle. While skeptics claim that it’s an eastern cougar, a black bear, or some kind of wolf or feral hound; sightings have been officially recorded since the 1950s, and many Ozark families will freely tell stories of their parents and grandparents experiencing the chill of seeing the Ozark Howler as far back as the early 19th century.
Daniel Boone & The Ozark Howler
In fact, the earliest telling of the legend involves American pioneer and explorer Daniel Boone and his supposed Missouri sighting of the creature in the early 1800s. As is the case with many alleged incidents in his life, there are several different versions of the legend of Daniel Boone and the Howler. The story originates from a letter Boone wrote to a sister-in-law living back in Kentucky after a hunting trip a few miles to the north of what is now Cuba, Missouri in 1810. At the end of this letter, Boone wrote, with his signature style of phonetic spelling, the following:
“I leev you with alarming storey of a black creecher I fownd and woonded on the Sooder Creek. Blak and swarthy with horns on its sculp. Ignerant of its naym I am tolled of the sownd it maykes with a terabul owling in the niyt. Warrnings of this for settlers shulled be past along. Your omble sarvent, Daniel Boone “.
Note that in this version of the legend of his encounter with the Ozark Howler, Boone claims to have wounded the beast, but not to have killed it. This is remarkable, given Boone’s skills as a hunter, learned as a youth with the Lenape tribe in Pennsylvania. For the Ozark Howler to have escaped his shot wounded but alive is a striking testament to the beast’s incredible stamina.
2005 saw the beginning of yet another high point in sightings that lasted until 2010. In March of 2005, the Howler was spotted several times by a family living north of Van Buren in the Boston Mountains of Crawford County. They determined that the best course of action would be to set out trail cameras after numerous sightings of what they believed to be a cougar. Considering the fact that mountain lions were extirpated from Missouri in the 1920s, even this sighting had them flustered. While the husband and wife team worked to establish a grid of cameras across their 10-acre property, they had an encounter that neither of them will ever forget. They recounted the event to me recently in a phone call interview.
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“The woods felt weird that day. Just…off somehow. Honestly, at first, I wrote it off as having a big breakfast and feeling sluggish, but my husband felt the same way. The air was heavy. It’s that same feeling you get in the woods when you know something has its eye on you. My husband is a big hunter, so that is a feeling he usually likes because it means there is probably game around, but it was pure discomfort to me. To me, it sort of felt like we were the game. You know? So, he was about 30 yards ahead of me setting up a camera. I was pouring coffee from the thermos…just watching the woods and I heard a branch snap. I don’t know if it was underfoot or broken from a tree, but it was loud. It scared me. So bad that I dropped the thermos and ran up ahead to him. He’d heard it too. He had already drawn his pistol when I got to him. If it was just a branch snapping, that would’ve been fine but it didn’t stop. More snapping branches came right after. Heavy footfalls. Something big was clearly moving through the woods and it seemed like it was headed straight for us. Now, I’ve been around wild animals. We’ve had bear encounters up north and those were scary, but the fear that I felt that day was something I’ve never experienced any other time. Suddenly, all the commotion in the woods stopped on a dime. The woods were silent, and I mean not even a bird singing in the distance. And then it hit us with this howl. I guess you could call it a howl. We used to live up in Idaho, so I know when I’m hearing an elk bugle. It was similar but there was something ragged about it. Like a growl mixed in. I don’t know, but we high-tailed it out of there after that. We have heard a lot of stories about the Howler since we came to the Ozarks in the 90s, but after that, I know it’s real.”
While legends of the Ozark Howler permeate the region, it is hard to ignore parallels between the petrifying prowler and one of similar description from across the pond. The British Hellhound. In Scotland, the beast is known as Cu Sith, in Ireland, Cu Sidhe. In Wales, it’s the Cwn Annwn. Black Shuck, Shock, Capelthwaite, Barghest, Hairy Jack, the Gurt Dog, the Church Grim, Gytrash, Padfoot, Shrieker, Yell Hound, Shaggy, Sky Yelpers, Gytrash, Bogey Beast, Striker, Freyburg. Regardless of the name you give it, England’s Black Dog is a legend that has been around for as long as people have gathered around a fire to enjoy a spooky story.
There is an ambiguity of form in the Ozark Howler, being described as a large cat, a great wolf, or even a huge hyena, but is more often depicted as something altogether different. It has the build of a bear, the graceful movements of a cat, and of course that otherworldly howl. Some people insist the Ozark Howler is an abnormally large lynx. Others say it must be a dire wolf, but the ambiguous nature of its physicality certainly leaves room for speculation. As with the English Black Dog, the fear many people feel upon encountering either beast may be more indicative of their own anxieties than of any true external threat. It’s worth noting that the Ozark Howler has never been said to kill any person. To terrify them, or even carry them away, but never to attack physically. It seems, like the British black dog, to be a creature of dread more than violence.
Whether your speculations on the true nature of the Ozark Howler lean toward the strictly zoological or the preternatural, it is hard to argue with over 200 years of essentially consistent sightings. Keeping your wits about you while exploring our nation’s remote wilderness is always a must, but it is fair to say that a trip into the wilds of the Ozarks should, at the very least, call for an extra level of caution. You never know when something as benign as a snapping branch in the distance may lead to a face-to-face encounter with the infamous and legendary Ozark Howler.