Richard G. Santos
Espantosa Lake in Dimmit County got its name in the late 1600’s when a Spanish expedition spent a scary night along its banks during “un tempetad espantosa” (a horrific storm). Like all other names given to rivers, creeks and lakes by Spanish explorers, the name stuck and 300 plus years later it is still known “El Espantosa” or Espantosa Lake. Many have been the stories this writer has collected of fishermen or late night “picnickers” using the lake-side park as a lovers’ lane, reporting strange and scary experiences at the Espantosa. La Llorona (wailing woman), Lechuza (witch-evil bird), ghosts of people who died at the lake and even a headless rider have been reported. There are also the many hidden treasure stories and the sounds of stampedes, heavy clanking wagons and the yells of muleteers racing and splashing into or out of the lake. There was also one fisherman who told of seeing a strange light swimming under the surface of the water near his fishing boat. Finally, Zeke Romero reported how the fish in his pond next to the lake all disappeared overnight without leaving any carcasses or traces of ever having been in the pond. In his case, however, he discovered another rancher had a similar experience at a pond on his ranch some distance away from the Espantosa. Neither property owner ever got a scientific or acceptable explanation as to how and why all the fish had disappeared.
Now comes this interesting story when on June 23, 1834, Jean Louis Berlandier camped at the Camino Real crossing of the Nueces River in Zavala County near the old road by the detention center. Last time I visited the site slightly over three years ago with former County Commissioner David Lopez, the old steel bridge was still standing but slowly falling apart due to lack of use and maintenance. Because a bridge had to be constructed for crossing the high banks of the Nueces, the group spent an extra day along the river banks. The group resumed its march on the 25th continuing on the Camino Real heading toward the Rio Grande crossing near present-day El Indio. Before leaving the Nueces River crossing Berlandier recorded having found a message carved on a large tree. It stated, “the first colony of the Villa de Dolores crossed (here) on 28th of February 1834”. The message was in reference to the families gathered by John Charles Beales for the founding of the township of Dolores in present Kinney County. The township failed but land speculator Beales returned to the Nueces to claim the Aguirre Mexican land grant. However, that is a different story not to be told here and now, maybe later.
But back to the diary of Berlandier’s travels in Texas. On June 25th he and his group marched from the Nueces River pass Espantosa Lake and camped along the banks of Peña Creek in Dimmit County. His entry for that day is most interesting as he noted that many travelers on the Camino Real de los Tejas were afraid of camping along the Espantosa. As recorded by Berlandier, a large mammal (mamifero) lived in/on/at the lake and was known to emerge at night and attack anybody camping along the banks of the lake. Among the victims was a group of Lipan Apaches who had camped by the lake. He also stated that in 1813 “two couriers” who had camped at the lake were attacked by the monster and they managed to kill it. The remains were left on site and Berlandier recorded that he searched for the bones but was not able to find any traces of the monster’s remains.
Before speculating on what Berlandier might have been writing about it is best to give the reader his credentials as a highly respected scientist, naturalist and botanist. Jean Louis Berlandier was born about 1805 on the France-Switzerland border area. He attended the academy in Geneva and earned a degree in botany. In 1826 he traveled to Mexico to gather and identify plants not recorded by the scientific community. In 1827 he joined the Mexico-U.S. Border Commission headed by General Manuel Mier y Teran. The Commission was to set the boundary between Texas and Louisiana but Berlandier took advantage of the trip to investigate, name and collect the unnamed and unrecorded flora of central Mexico, Northeast Mexico and Texas along the various Caminos Real. Thus included in his diaries are interesting descriptions of the cities, towns and villages he visited in Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Tamauilipas and Texas. The diary of his travels from San Antonio to the Uvalde Canyon with José Francisco Ruiz and a group of Comanches is an invaluable insight into the life and culture of the Native Americans. However, being a college educated European with a different world view and value system, Berlandier’s description of the residents of the township in Texas and along the lower Rio Grande is far from favorable. Nonetheless, the published and unpublished work of Jean Louis Berlandier is one of the greatest literary and scientific contributions in Texas, the middle to lower Rio Grande area and Northeast Mexico.
So what man-eating mammal at Espantosa Lake was Berlandier writing about in 1834? Even though he always referred to alligators as caymans, he did know the reptile and frequently reported their habitats wherever he encountered them. So we can rule out the alligator. Because he wrote it was a mammal (mamifero), could the so-called monster have been a jabalina, feral pig or bear? We do not know. All we have is Berlandier’s statement that a large, monstrous mammal lived in/on/at Espantosa Lake and emerged at night to attack anybody camping along its banks. Like the contemporary stories of Big Foot, Nessy at Loch Ness, Chessie at Lake Champlain or the swamp man of the Louisiana bayous, Berlandier was not able to find the skeleton or remains of the “monster of Espantosa Lake”. It should also be noted that it is only in Berlandier’s 1834 diary that we find a reference to said monster. No other diary keeper traversing the area from the late 1500’s to the present period has ever made a similar claim. Ghosts, wagons, buried treasures, stampeding horses, La Llorona, Lechuzas, Gritonas, UFOs reported at the lake; yes. A man-eating mammal at the Espantosa; no!
Berlandier’s massive writings, studies and publications can be found by those interested in reading the material itself. Thus under his name, I recomend you search for (1) Caza del oso y cibola en el noreste de Tejas, 1844, (2) Luis Berlandier y Rafael Chovel, Diario de viaje de la Comision de Limites, 1850, (3) Espedicion cientifica del general Teran a Tejas, 1840 and 1857. Reprints of most books were published in Mexico City in the 1940’s. Book number one above was translated and published by John Ewer in 1980 as The Indians of Texas in 1830. Also in 1980, the Texas State Historical Association published a translation of Berlandier’s diary in two volumes as Journey to Mexico During the years 1826 to 1834. Whereas this two volume translation features the water colors of the flora Berlandier discovered, recorded and named, Ewer’s book published by Smithsonian features watercolors of the Native Americans of Texas in 1828 through 1834. All publications are worth reading with or without the illustrations. I also recommend you read the first editions in Spanish to avoid translation errors.
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Zavala County Sentinel ………. 28-29 October 2009