DEVILS LAKE, N.D. (KXNET) — During October, we’ve taken a look at a few of the most intriguing urban legends and cryptids surrounding North Dakota — from monsters in the Missouri River to tales of entombed elephants under Fargo schools. But there is one major myth that is famous not only in North Dakota but across the United States — a beast that is said to lurk in the namesake of Devils Lake, ND.

Six Mile Bay, Devils Lake ND (Image Credit: Nancy Ferguson)

While we’ve discussed the likes of the Miniwashitu in the past, its infamy is easily overshadowed by that of the Devils Lake Serpent — a monster that dwarfs the Missouri River in both its size and the scale of its legacy. Dive into the depths of the lake with KX as we close out October by taking a look at the beast’s origins, reported sightings, and a few theories about its existence.

Devilish Design

One may think that the Devils Lake Serpent has many traits in common with a creature like the Loch Ness Monster — but aside from the slender neck, there isn’t much alike between our monster and its fellow cryptid across the pond, and even other local American water cryptids (including the other sea creature located in Oregon’s Devils Lake). While other sea serpents are believed to strongly resemble plesiosaurs, the one that dwells in Devils lake supposedly takes on a much more snaky shape. Thankfully, unlike North Dakota’s other monster, it’s easier to get an idea of what the serpent looks like without being driven mad.

Most of the stories involving the Devils Lake Serpent give it similar features: a long, winding body (usually 50-60 feet long) and a head resembling a snake, with shiny scales and glowing eyes. There are some differences between accounts when it comes to the possibility of fins on the creature’s body, as well as the exact color of its scales. Some reports of sharp, jagged fins on the sides of the beast have been noted, as have claims of the serpent sporting green scales instead of the shining black ones it was first stated to possess.

Stranger than those differences is one odd account posted in the Grand Forks Herald in 1908, which defined a creature seen by tourists (believed to be the Devils Lake Serpent) as “a large fish, only larger,” citing it to be around twelve feet in size and sporting “sharp horns projecting from both sides of the serpent’s head.” Is this a strange depiction, or an entirely different mythical monster?

A Hisss-tory Lesson

Like many other cryptids here in North Dakota, the first records of the Devils Lake Serpent stem from tales told by the tribes in and around the area. Rumors of a monster dwelling in the lake who devoured those foolish enough were spread in tribal tales, with one particular story noting that during a battle between the Dakota and Ojibwe Tribes, the creature supposedly devoured an entire army of Dakotans to avenge the Ojibans slain in the battle.

Unlike a creature like the Miniwashitu, though, not only are there multiple reports of the Devils Lake Serpent being seen by people who have lived to tell the tale, but a few of these encounters have even been jotted down in news articles.

An article on the Devils Lake Serpent (referred to here as Sea Monster) from the Minneapolis Star Journal on February 9, 1941. (Image Credit: Denver-Michaels)

The first published account of the Devils Lake Serpent in 1894, surprisingly, comes not from North Dakota, but from an article in the New York Sun. In these excerpts, the paper mostly refers to the creature as a slow-moving but truly terrifying beast.

All descriptions of the serpent agree that it has alligator jaws and glaring red eyes. Its tail is about 80 feet long. The serpent usually appears in August and about sunset. The red glare of the sunset sky is often reflected in the eyes of the serpent like mirrors and the flashes of red light that go darting here and there as the serpent turns its head strike terror into the hearts of those on whom they fall. The serpent moves slowly along about a half mile from the shore, and in the course of a day or two makes the round of the lake. At times it lashes the water furiously with its tail and it leaves a simple shining wake as it pushes its way along.

Its color is a slimy green, and it is easy to trace the waves of motion that begin at its head and follow along to its tail, three or four distinct waves being in evidence at the same time. It has ragged and enormous fins on its side and horny substances that project from its jaws, or directly behind them, and trail along in the water, but which, when it is angered, stick out in a horrible bristling attitude. Its scales sometimes glisten and sometimes lie so close to its back that they seem to be simply an ordinary snakeskin.

Since the Sun’s story, other rumors of the creature — including a tale from a fisherman who claims he was pulled through the lake after hooking the Serpent — began to spring up. It wasn’t until a 1904 article from the Wichita Beacon regarding a mass sighting of the serpent that was reprinted across the nation that people once again began to take the rumor seriously. An excerpt from this article states the following:

Mrs. C.F. Craig, of Leeds, Mrs. Edgar Larue and Mrs. Carr Cleveland, while strolling along the bank of Devils Lake, at Chatauqua grounds, were terribly frightened by an object that resembled a sea serpent, which was lashing the water into white foam about a mile from shore.

The party secured opera glasses, and on returning, were horrified to see on a close examination, that the serpent was swimming north across the lake, and was leaving a vast wake behind it, as with slow but powerful and irresistible motion, the monster threaded its way through the water, with its long sinuous folds which were like a weavers beam.

The serpent’s body was very thick, and covered with huge and horribly loathesome-looking black scales. Its head was of snake-like formation, with a flashing, darting tongue, and two angry eyes as big as goose eggs, glowed in the monster’s head.

Adding onto the rumors, multiple articles from the Grand Forks Herald from 1906 to 1915 also include their own records of those who claim to have sighted a cryptid in Devils Lake. One of these articles even states that there was ‘already talk of expeditions to get in closer touch with the freak’. These never appeared to bring any results, though, and the monster remains a mystery to this day.

Serpentine Suspicions

What makes both ancient and modern reports of the Devils Lake Serpent so strange, especially when compared to most creatures bound to a body of water, is not only the variance in its depictions but where it is located as well. It’s pretty obvious that the serpent lives in Devils Lake, but the exact places it can pop up at times are where this aspect of the story begins to get confusing.

Some reports of the Devils Lake Serpent state that it has manifested not only in the main lake but near the western side by the Narrows of the lake — which is an area that has no water passage between locations. This led to more speculation about the exact nature of the cryptid — if it was somehow able to travel between bodies of water using underwater tunnels or make a mighty leap over the bridge separating the bodies of water. The possibility of there being two separate serpents was also speculated, though much like the interest in the serpent itself, this idea has faded over time.

The Devil in the (Scientific) Details

Despite all the conflicting ideas, there is one natural phenomenon that may have an answer to both the mystery of the travel between bodies of water and the existence of the serpent itself. In the 1930s, a report written on Devils Lake in the Federal Writer’s Guide for North Dakota stated that under the proper atmospheric conditions, the waters would be able to “throw off a vapor through which birds swimming on the surface can be seen from a distance — highly magnified.” Might the differing traits of birds and waterfowl who traverse Devils Lake explain how many variants there are to tales of the monster’s appearance?

Ironically, as time passes, many residents of the surrounding area are more concerned with the lake itself than the monster. An article by American Scientist indicates that in 2012, the lake had risen 13 meters, and was 32 times larger than its recorded depth and length in 1964 due to climate shifts. As a result, the body of water has now swallowed more homes and farmlands than the serpent who makes the area its home. Truth, it would seem, is more terrifying than fiction…