This chimerical creature is a precursor to other North American mythical fauna such as the hodag, the squonk, and the unserious jackalope. The castorine half of the creature is universally described as having furry hindquarters, webbed feet and the flattened, scaly tail that is almost as common a shorthand for beavers as a pair of overlarge incisors; unsurprisingly, descriptions of the draconic half are highly variable. As the majority of sources describe it as continuing the beaver’s body shape and ending in a horse-like head with an elongated, saurian snout from which fire occasionally issues, the origins of the creature are assumed to be European rather than Asian (although following the Californian gold rush, descriptions of the creature bearing the more prolate body plan and wispy beard of the Chinese or Japanese dragon were common).
The earliest known mention of the creature comes from fur traders working in what would later become Minnesota. In a 1732 letter to his backers, the Englishman William Acker wrote to excuse the paltry number of furs he was sending to Fort Albany by complaining about his French guides avoiding “…a creature in this region they call a castragon, a small beast that as far as I can make out is half beaver and half dragon, but I do not credit it. They make good to tremble in fear, when I mention hunting it, but I think they are trying to deceive me and mean to return to these valleys when I am left and sell the pieces to the Muscovites instead.” Whether the creature was known to the original inhabitants of the North American continent is unknown; no one thought to inquire of them, or if they did (for a number of Chipewyan were in Acker’s party), their responses were not thought worth recording.
Sightings by Europeans piled up over the next century, primarily in the northeast, which perhaps argues for the creature’s existence, given the area’s paucity of large aquatic reptiles that could plausibly be the inspiration for the beast’s front half. As with bigfoot a hundred years later, local variants became quite common. One example, the Schilferiga Boom Eater of eastern Pennsylvania, was said to haunt the foothills of the Appalachians. Virginia lay claim to the Woodgator, while Newfoundland boasted of its Cnoiertan, scourge of homesteaders and friend to those who needed a stand of trees cleared in a hurry. Perhaps the most remarkable was the Schenectady Russian Squirrel Hound, the origins of which name are lost to time, fortuitously one suspects, as the true and likely prosaic source of the name would surely disappoint.
With this plurality of regional variations came a host of behaviors and associations. Marsh lights were said to be flames venting from barely submerged castragons, a claim that intersected with other myths that said the lights marked buried treasure and fostered new permutations of the stories. While its reptilian relative was reputed to hoard gold, in many tales of the castragon this was transmuted into a penchant for the wood of the aspen. As one might expect, a fire-breathing animal making its home in a wooden lodge is not the most harmonious of pairings; settlers would often tell of finding no evidence of a castragon save piles of charcoal next to a stream. Evidence, they would claim, of where it had accidentally burned its lodge down around itself. This unfortunate habit embedded itself in the popular imagination in an outsized manner, and for a time in the 1790’s castragon charcoal enjoyed a period of immense popularity. Bushels of it fetched twenty times the normal rate for charcoal, due to its perceived beneficial qualities, thought to have been imparted when it was formed at temperatures only achievable by dragon fire. The fad made several fortunes, but predictably also led to a flood of fake castragon charcoal entering and subsequently collapsing the market, no doubt due in part to the challenge of authenticating charcoal originating from a mythical creature.
The beast was not merely a favorite of the common farmer and the market speculator. Thomas Jefferson included the castragon in his Notes on the State of Virginia as a minor datum in his attempted refutation of the Comte de Buffon’s contention that the fauna of America were degenerate compared to those of Eurasia. As late as 1886, Mark Twain saw a stuffed one in a town museum in Normal, Illinois, writing to fellow author William Dean Howells that he was “…disappointed by the beast. Beastly it was, if a bit threadbare, and truth be told, I was more amazed that it looked to have worn a corset for many years. The creature’s waist (where the beaver and dragon halves met) was a good handspan slimmer than the rest of the body. I would suggest it as an advertisement for a corsetier, but for the fact that it looks to have taken the extreme step of sewing its flesh together at that point to enhance its slenderness.”
While the increase in population and urbanity in the east saw the decline of the castragon there, the confluence of wood and gold in which the creature played proved enticing to prospectors and as gold rushes drew men west, tales of the castragon accompanied them. Typical among such stories is the following, from a Deer Lake newspaper:
“I had found a lucky fool who was buyin’ rounds for the house to celebrate his find, and, drinkin’ my own sorrows a bit too heavily, woke up miles from nowhere with my head fit to split and sick as a pig. I walked all day, but it wasn’t til evening came on and I started craving food and water again that I saw a puff of smoke risin’ over the next ridge. Thinkin’ I might finally be nearing a settlement, I climbed up and over the ridge, only to see not a stove pipe or a campsite, but a lone tall pine flash up in fire then fall over, leaving everything around it unburnt. ‘Ah,’ I thought to myself. ‘That’s a castragon’s work.’ Sure enough, I could see it standing on its hind legs and tail, its long arms almost touchin’ the ground. It grabbed the still-smoldering fallen tree in its whiskery jaws and dragged it off to a pond, where it dropped it in the water to extinguish the flames, then shoved it up on its dam and pounded it into place with its tail. If I could kill this creature, I would not only have the gold it hoarded in its lodge, but also it being there meant there was a rich seam nearby. Now the thing about castragons most folks don’t know is that onions is poisonous to them, on account of them counteracting the castragon’s fire. So before it got dark I found myself some wild onions, hollowed out a thick aspen branch (aspen is a particular favorite of castragons), and stuffed ‘em inside. After dark, I snuck down to the lodge, which was glowin’ from inside from the castragon’s fiery exhalations. I stood the branch on its end and let it fall right on top of the lodge, then ran and hid. Sure enough, that got the castragon’s attention, and I could see bubbles and smoke come out of the pond as the castragon crawled out and up onto its lodge. With steam pouring from its nose, it found the branch and took it back inside. All I had to do was wait. With the hunger and fatigue of my long day I must have dozed off, because a huge sneeze woke me up and I saw the lodge was all aflame. I musta picked a bit of wild garlic with the onions, on account of garlic makes castragons sneeze something fierce. As I sat there cursin’ myself, the fire spread to the dam, which shortly gave way, drainin’ the pond.”
When the sun rose the next morning I could see that nothing remained of the lodge, it all havin’ been washed away when the dam broke. But I marked a few trees with my knife, and after finding my way back to town late that night, I staked a claim to a few miles up and downstream of that place and sifted out all that castragon’s gold, though I never found its seam.”
Patrick M. Hare‘s work has appeared in The Wellington Street Review, The Stirling Spoon, Vestal Review, and Photochemistry and Photobiology. He lives near Cincinnati, OH, USA but can be found on twitter @nkupmh.