Recently, I read about a place in Texas of which I’d never heard, Espantosa Lake. The name is Spanish and loosely translates to “haunted by horrors.” According to many sources, this lake is home to monsters, a wolf girl, ghosts, and ghost sounds of wagons and horses. Are you frightened yet?
One of only three natural lakes in Texas, Espantosa Lake was formed as a rasaca—an oxbow lake formed in the bend of the old Nueces River when the river changed its course millennia ago. It’s spring fed, which is what keeps water in it. The lake and legends are mentioned in J. Frank Dobie’s CORONADO’S CHILDREN and C. F. Eckhart’s TALES OF BAD MEN, BAD WOMEN, AND BAD PLACES.
Espantosa Lake lies between Crystal City and Carrizo Springs in the South Texas brush country. This was on the earliest colonial mission trail between San Antonio and Coahuila, Mexico. When early Spanish explorers came through in 1740s, the lake was reported as “black with alligators.” That would send me speeding far away. I do not like alligators. But by the 1840s, there were no alligators, only water moccasins and an abundance of an ugly fish called alligator gar. Neither of those is as bad as an alligator, but not welcome.
|More frightening to me than any ghost--Alligators!|
When English speaking explorers moved into the area, there were no alligators, but there were hair-raising screams of a woman. This is more easily explained than some of the other legends. Those who are familiar with the scream of a panther (also called cougar, puma, catamount, mountain lion) know that sound mimics a woman’s scream. Was that what they heard?
|Cougar - common in Texas|
One of the earliest recorded fatal instances occurred in the early 1800's, when several Mexican families, en route to San Antonio, made camp there. As the group prepared to retire for the night, one woman went down to the murky water's edge to wash a few clothes. Soon afterward, the others were awakened by her screams of "Por Dios!" (My God!).
Though her companions rushed immediately toward the water's edge, they arrived only to see the swishing tail of a huge alligator disappearing beneath the lake's surface. Unable to recover the woman's body, the other settlers erected a cross at the site in her memory.
Shocked and mournful, the group finally bedded down for what was agreed upon to be the final night there. But their slumber was disturbed again by the same scream, ringing out again and again: "Por Dios!" It was unmistakably her voice. At that, the campers packed up and left, but not before imparting the name "Espantosa."
While true that Espantosa Lake is no longer black with alligators, I venture to say that all waterways in Texas are home to a few alligators. Flood years allow them further up in rivers, then strand them there during dry years. They are not always easily seen, but they're there. Take heed.
Talk of the Mexican woman's death and haunting return combined with a scattering of similar incidents over the next few years, soon created a place of myths. Legend held that a strange species of mermen supposedly inhabited the lake, emerging only to seize young women who dared approach the water's edge after the sun fell from the sky. Um, refer back to the tail of the alligator in the above tale.
Every bit as long-lived is the legend of the treasure-laden wagon. How many tales of lost Spanish treasure do you think there are? In this tale, a Spanish wagon from San Saba was filled with money, gold, silver, and jewels, and found its way to the banks of the Espantosa. The wagoneers decided to camp there for the night, and after watering and hobbling their horses, they bunked down. No sooner had they drifted off to sleep, however, than the ground suddenly began to tremble and shift beneath them. In a flash, the entire party --- men, wagon, and horses --- was swallowed with the collapsing earth. There were no survivors--so who knows what happened? Cave in, sink hole?
Perhaps the strangest tale of the Espantosa, though, is that of George Dent, who had camped near the lake with his pregnant wife while traveling in close proximity to the Beale colony. Possibly out of a wish for privacy, the Dents pitched camp a half-mile from the Beale group and thus were spared from becoming victims of the Indian massacre that obliterated most of the Beale group.
After hiding out from human predators for the second time, Dent maintained the campsite near the Espantosa. His wife was near the end of her pregnancy and was hesitant to travel. A severe thunderstorm occurred one night, during which Dent's wife went into labor. Alarmed, Dent mounted and rode off for help.
He came at length upon a small band of Mexican goat herders. Dent frantically told them of his wife's condition and begged some of the women to come and assist in the child's delivery. Upon learning of Dent's camp location, however, the superstitious Mexicans informed him that they wanted no part of Espantosa's ghostly environs, particularly at night, when the spirits were said to roam the lake and its shores.
Desperately, Dent pleaded with them, and eventually he prevailed upon one old woman to accompany him back to his camp. No sooner had the pair mounted up, though, than the already fierce storm resounded with renewed fury. Thunder crashed, and lightning illuminated the sky. Just such a bolt of lightning struck Dent, in fact, dropping him from atop his mount and killing him instantly.
After waiting out the violent storm, the goat herders mounted up and, following Dent's vague directions, tried to find his camp. At daybreak, they found Dent's campsite with Mrs. Dent dead. She had obviously delivered her child, but the baby was nowhere to be found. After surveying the surrounding wreckage, the fang marks on the woman's body, and the numerous wolf tracks everywhere, the goat herders naturally surmised that the baby had been carried off by a pack of wolves.
|Wolves also frighten me - I'm not a fan|
even of werewolf tales
And that's where the story ended --- until about 15 years later. At that time, four cowboys were herding cattle near the Espantosa. A pack of wolves approached, and the herders chased the potential predators off. But as the wolves fled, the men were stunned at an unbelievable sight. Running with the wolves was what appeared to be a young, naked girl.
Spurring their horses onward, the cowboys managed to separate the creature from her lupine companions and chased her into a steep draw, where they cornered her and used their lassos to immobilize the strange being. They examined her and noted her human appearance, in spite of her wild mannerisms and non-human characteristics. She was nude, but covered with hair, and lacked the capacity for speech, save for her low growling sounds. She was quite agile on all fours, but moved very awkwardly when forced to stand erect.
After some speculation, the men took the wolf-girl to an abandoned farmhouse, where she was locked in a back room. The cowboys took turns standing guard. After darkness fell, the creature began howling in a loud, shrill voice that not only unnerved her captors but pierced through the night and aroused the pack. Before long, the wolves crept toward the house and charged the cottage, clawing and scratching at the doors and windows. Finally, they began attacking the horses and other domestic animals outside, forcing the men to run outside to fight them off.
As the battle between men and beasts continued outside, there arose a din from within the house. Glass shattered and wood splintered. Afterwards, the cowboys examined the locked back room, only to find that its floorboards had been pried open, allowing the "lobo-girl" to escape. The strange creature was gone forever --- or so it appeared.
|Wolf Girl? I'm skeptical.|
Within two years of her capture and escape, sightings of the wolf girl were reported by area residents. Without fail, these claims told of a young, naked, hair-covered girl running with a wolf pack. One Espantosa visitor gave a graphic account of seeing the wolf-girl drinking at the banks of the lake as newborn cubs tugged at her breasts. Subsequent reports followed of wolves with human faces. In 1974, a hunter in this area claimed to have seen her again, in the form of a ghost which vanished before his eyes.
There are more instances which space precludes me sharing. In spite of these claims, the Espantosa remains a popular camping and recreational spot. Regardless of whether its mysteries tantalize or terrify, one thing is certain: the Espantosa's lore and allure will endure. For me, I think I'll vacation elsewhere.
TALES OF BAD MEN, BAD WOMEN, AND BAD PLACES, but C. F. Eckhardt, Texas Tech Universtity Press, 1997.