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What Is a Pukwudgie? If You See One, It’s Best to Stay Away

Pukwudgies were known to Native Americans, who gave them a wide berth.

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  • Photo Credit: Chris Barbalis / Unsplash

Long before Europeans ever stepped foot in the New World, the legends of pukwudgies were already quite robust. Pukwudgies, also known as bagwajinini, were said to live in the wilderness throughout North America. Native Americans believed that pukwudgies were creatures that had once lived in harmony with humans but had turned against them. They featured in the folklore of diverse tribes, from the Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts and Southern New England to the Algonquian tribe of the Great Lakes region. And according to various legends, it was best to leave the creatures alone.

Pukwudgie translates to “person of the wilderness.” They were said to be small creatures, ranging from knee-height to about three feet tall, with human-like features, yet sporting larger ears, noses, and fingers. Their skin has been described as grey and smooth, and they have often been compared to trolls and goblins. The small creatures also have a variety of tricks up their sleeves to taunt or harm humans.

Related: 21 Creepy Mythical Creatures from Around the World That Terrify 

The threat that pukwudgies posed tended to vary from region to region. In some places they were considered benign, even helpful to humans. In others they were mischievous, but harmless. And in other regions–they were murderous.

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    Photo Credit: Cryptid Wiki

The Wampanoag tribe has a particularly detailed origin story of the pukwudgies. Legend has it that the creatures originally got along well with humans, but humans were distracted by their relationship with Maushop, a giant kind-spirited deity who created the land mass we now know as Cape Cod. The jealous pukwudgies were offended that they weren’t as well-loved as Maushop and began to cause more and more mischief. After the Wampanoags had a talk with Maushop’s wife, Maushop exiled the pukwudgies and forcefully spread them far and wide throughout North America. 

However, many of the pukwudgies found their way back and instigated a more belligerent relationship with humans and Maushop, eventually killing Maushop’s 5 sons. Some variations even suggest that they killed Maushop himself, and this legend coincides with the giant disappearing from Wampanoag folklore. 

Related: Jersey Devil: The History of an American Cryptid 

Like leprechauns, the legendary little people of Ireland, pukwudgies are capricious. Their powers depend on which tribe you ask. A human who annoyed a pukwudgie might just be the victim of some unpleasant trickery, but they might also be pushed from a cliff, shot with fiery arrows, or have their children stolen. Pukwudgies could also create fire or orbs that lured people into deep woods to their doom. They had the power of invisibility and in some places could transform into dangerous animals like cougars. Perhaps most frightening of all is the rumor that they had power over the spirits of the people they had killed.

One of the first mentions of pukwudgies in literature comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha, which refers to the “mischievous Puk-Wudgies” that killed the giant Kwasind by pelting him with pine cones. Longfellow was inspired by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who in turn based his works on Ojibwe folklore as told to him by his part-Native American wife, Jane.

Pukwudgies are often tied to specific locations, even today. Many reported sightings come from the woods of Massachusetts. In fact, the police in Freetown, Massachusetts have put up a Pukwudgie Crossing sign near the Freetown State Forest. 

Related: A Walk in the Woods: 7 of the World’s Most Haunted Forests and Woodlands 

Freetown is a state park located in Fall River, Freetown, and Lakeville, Massachusetts. Fall River already has its fair share of violent rumors due to its infamy as the longtime home of Lizzie Borden, who was suspected of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in the 1890s. The pukwudgies put an even darker stain on the town’s history. In the Freetown State Forest, a 100-foot cliff known as The Ledge overlooks a quarry. There have been several suicides at The Ledge by people not known to be mentally ill. Some say the pukwudgies are to blame for luring people to their deaths. 

Massachusetts police may regard the pukwudgies as a joke or prank, but people who have reported sightings seem far from amused. One Massachusetts woman reported seeing a pukwudgie in the forest who continued to pester her by tapping on her window at night as she slept. The mischievous creatures are also rumored to live near West Virginia's haunted Moundsville State Penitentiary, as well as in Round Rock, Texas, home to Bigfoot. 

Whether contemporary pukwudgie sightings are a sign of supernatural activity is unclear, but their status as one of the oldest mythical creatures in North America is uncontested.

Featured photo: Chris Barbalis / Unsplash