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Big cat stories in East Texas are numerous but lack proof

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Saturday July 10, 1999.

NEDERLAND -- Until 1925, East Texans were aware of the presence of black bears and panthers that frequented the forests and river bottoms. Such varmints are practically extinct in Texas today.

There are three accounts, however, that make the writer wonder if perhaps Mexican jaguars were not once a rare visitor to the piney woods. A modern encyclopedia notes that jaguars still inhabit some Mexican mountain ranges. A long article in Galveston Weekly News of Feb. 18, 1892, observed that:

"...Quite a curiosity was filed under Jasper Countyís Scalp Law recently, the head of a unusually large Mexican lion, which was killed in the lower section of the county by John Shepherd.... The skull shows the head to be very near, if not equally as large, as an ordinary African lionís head...."

In her autobiography, Mrs. Otis McGaffey wrote that her husband had killed a "tiger cat" along their wagon route between Natchitoches and Jasper County in 1841. Unfortunately she did not elaborate anything else about the animalís appearance.

During a court proceeding of 1876, a well-known Beaumonter testified that he had known Absalom Williams in Beaumont about 1834, and afterward when the latter moved to Hardin County, presumably before 1850. The witness added that "...a Bengal tiger that had escaped from a sideshow" had attacked Williams in his cabin and bitten him badly..." Mrs. Williams had driven off the animal with an ox yoke.

The writer doubts though that the animal was actually a tiger, which weighs about 500 pounds, and wonders if perhaps a jaguar had been mistaken for a tiger. There were no railroads in Texas before 1850 or any towns in East Texas large enough in that year to attract a circus or sideshow. The first circus known to reach Houston was about 1875, and the first circus to reach Beaumont arrived in 1881.

There are nevertheless several instances of panthers killing and eating humans. A panther killed and ate a Florida woman in 1872. In 1874 a panther killed and ate a man in Madison Parish, Louisiana.

The Enterprise of Sept. 17, 1881 described a panther attack near Pine Island Bayou as follows:

"...On the evening of Sept. 2... Henry Winters and Alfred Creswell, colored men, were attacked by 2 large panthers, and then only saved their lives by clubbing them with large sticks. The fight lasted over 20 minutes before the animals retreated, but not until the lower clothing of the 2 men were literally torn off them..."

In 1897 Robert Jordan killed a large panther on the bank of Sabine River, which he had stuffed and mounted in the pilothouse of his fatherís steamboat.

While some articles indicate that some confrontations may have involved jaguars, there is actually no proof, and it was certainly the wily panther that remained the greatest threat in the East Texas forests.

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