Strange beasts of New England, 1638-9

Don't touch the pineapple!

(Hello, this is Histories, a free weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe.)

Many other stories they told me, the credit whereof I will neither impeach nor inforce, but shall satisfie my self, and I hope the Reader hereof, with the saying of a wise, learned and honourable Knight, that there are many stranger things in the world, than are to be seen between London and Staines…

Are the first-hand accounts from the past which have come down to us ‘reliable’? Well, is anything anyone says reliable, I suppose? We know that diarists often convey their prejudices and opinions, and that all of us write of our encounters in life mediated through the lenses of personality and wider culture. Any historical account has to be considered on these terms, but some present more challenges than others, especially when the writer might be considered… a trifle gullible.

Last week we met the traveller John Josselyn (c.1608-c.1700?), on his way from Olde England to New England to visit his brother Henry in Maine. John was described by one editor as “a writer of almost incredible credulity” for his descriptions of mermen, sea monsters and lions in North America – yet his detailed descriptions of that continent’s flora and fauna have contributed significantly to natural history and the science of his era. It is sometimes hard to tease out the fact from the fiction in his writing, partly because they are presented equally neutrally and because he doesn’t seem to question what he is told by others. But as another editor, Paul J. Lindholdt, has written: “Above all, he is just plain fun to read.”1

We rejoin John this week as he steps out across this New World, only 18 years after the Mayflower sailed. His journal entries are more sporadic after his 11-week voyage, but here are some highlights, focusing mainly on encounters with local wildlife.

About the Tenth of August, I hapned to walk into the Woods, not far from the Sea-side, and falling upon a piece of ground over-grown with bushes, called there black Currence [i.e. blackcurrants], but differing from our Garden Currence, they being ripe and hanging in lovely bunches; I set up my piece [i.e. his gun] against a stately Oake, with a resolution to fill my belly, being near half a mile from the house; of a sudden I heard a hollow thumping noise upon the Rocks approaching towards me, which made me presently to recover my piece, which I had no sooner cock’d, than a great and grim over-grown she-Wolf appears, at whom I shot, and finding her belly stuft with flesh newly taken in, I began presently to suspect that she had fallen foul upon our Goats, which were then valued (our she Goats) at Five pound a Goat; Therefore to make further discovery, I descended (it being low water) upon the Sea sands, with an intent to walk round about a neck of land where the Goats usually kept. I had not gone far before I found the footing of two Wolves, and one Goat betwixt them, whom they had driven into a hollow, betwixt two Rocks, hither I followed their footing, and perceiving by the Crowes, that there was the place of slaughter, I hung my piece upon my back, and upon all four clambered up to the top of the Rock, where I made ready my piece and shot at the dog Wolf, who was feeding upon the remainder of the Goat, which was only the fore shoulders, head and horns, the rest being devoured by the she-Wolf, even to the very hair of the Goat: and it is very observable, that when the Wolves have kill’d a Beast, or a Hog, not a Dog-Wolf amongst them offers to eat any of it, till the she-Wolves have fill’d their paunches.

The Twenty fourth of September, being Munday about 4 of the clock in the afternoon, a fearful storm of wind began to rage, called a Hurricane. It is an impetuous wind that goes commonly about the Compass in the space of 24 hours, it began from the W. N. W. and continued till next morning, the greatest mischief it did us, was the wracking of our Shallop [= sloop], and the blowing down of many tall Trees, in some places a mile together…

1639. May, which fell out to be extream hot and foggie, about the middle of May I kill’d within a stones throw of our house, above four score Snakes, some of them as big as the small of my leg, black of colour, and three yards long, with a sharp horn on the tip of their tail two inches in length.

June the Six and twentieth day, very stormie, Lightning and Thunder. I heard now two of the greatest and fearfullest thunder-claps that ever were heard, I am confident. At this time we had some neighbouring Gentlemen in our house, who came to welcome me into the Countrey; where amongst variety of discourse they told me of a young Lyon (not long before) kill’d at Piscataway by an Indian, of a Sea-Serpent or Snake, that lay quoiled up like a Cable upon a Rock at Cape-Ann: a Boat passing by with English aboard, and two Indians, they would have shot the Serpent, but the Indians disswaded them, saying, that if he were not kill’d out-right, they would be all in danger of their lives.

One Mr. Mittin related of a Triton or Mereman which he saw in Cascebay, the Gentleman was a great Fouler, and used to goe out with a small Boat or Canow, and fetching a compass about a small Island, (there being many small Islands in the Bay) for the advantage of a shot, was encountred with a Triton, who laying his hands upon the side of the Canow, had one of them chopt off with a Hatchet by Mr. Mittin, which was in all respects like the hand of a man, the Triton presently sunk, dying the water with his purple blood, and was no more seen.

[Another story of ghostly figures dancing on the sand is told by a Mr Foxwell, and John, perhaps a little self-conscious at recounting these tales, comments…]

… these with many other stories they told me, the credit whereof I will neither impeach nor inforce, but shall satisfie my self, and I hope the Reader hereof, with the saying of a wise, learned and honourable Knight, that there are many stranger things in the world, than are to be seen between London and Stanes. [i.e. Staines, about 20 miles from London]

[Another entry refers to a Maine farmer whose fat sow was killed, only for it to be discovered she had 25 piglets in her, and this prompts a story from Virginia of a sow giving birth to six offspring which were half lion, half pig!]

The Seven and twentieth day [of September] being Fryday, we Anchored in the afternoon in the Massachusets-bay… I went ashore to Boston, where I refreshed my self at an Ordinary [inn]. Next morning… I met with Captain Jackson2 and others, walking on the back side we spied a rattle Snake a yard and half long, and as thick in the middle as the small of a mans leg, on the belly yellow, her back spotted with black, russet, yellow and green, placed like scales, at her tail she had a rattle which is nothing but a hollow shelly bussiness joynted, look how many years old she is, so many rattles she hath in her tail, her neck seemed to be no bigger than ones Thumb; yet she swallowed a live Chicken, as big as one they give 4 pence for in England, presently as we were looking on. In the afternoon I returned to our Ship, being no sooner aboard but we had the sight of an Indian-Pinnace sailing by us made of Birch-bark, scwed together with the roots of spruse and white Cedar (drawn out into threads) with a deck, and trimmed with sails top and top gallant very sumptuously.

[The ‘monster’ John then refers to was born to Mary Dyer, a Quaker later executed (one of the Boston Martyrs). Her severely deformed stillborn child of 11th October 1637 was documented by other sources at the time – although, of course, the descriptions were typically embellished, especially by Mary’s Puritan detractors.]

The Thirtieth day of September, I went ashore upon Noddles-Island [where he had originally landed, now East Boston], where when I was come to Mr. Mavericks he would not let me go aboard no more, until the Ship was ready to set sail; the next day a grave and sober person described the Monster to me, that was born at Boston of one Mrs. Dyer a great Sectarie, the Nine and twentieth of June, it was (it should seem) without a head, but having horns like a Beast, and ears, scales on a rough skin like a fish called a Thornback, legs and claws like a Hawke, and in other respects as a Woman-child.

[John returned to Britain in mid-October, and I’ll finish with one last amusing little vignette, again an encounter with local wildlife, from his days in New England.]

The Second of October… In the afternoon I walked into the Woods on the back side of the house, and happening into a fine broad walk (which was a sledg-way) I wandered till I chanc’t to spye a fruit as I thought like a pine Apple plated with scales, it was as big as the crown of a Womans hat; I made bold to step unto it, with an intent to have gathered it, no sooner had I toucht it, but hundreds of Wasps were about me; at last I cleared my self from them, being stung only by one upon the upper lip, glad I was that I scaped so well; But by that time I was come into the house my lip was swell’d so extreamly, that they hardly knew me but by my Garments.

When John Josselyn begins his account of his second voyage to New England, almost 25 years after the first, he seems self-conscious again and stung by apparent criticism over the ‘wonders’ he has described hitherto. “It would be difficult to please all,” he notes, “for all mens eyes, ears, faith, judgement, are not of a size. There be a sort of stagnant stinking spirits, who, like flyes, lye sucking at the botches of carnal pleasures… will desperately censure the relations of the greatest Travellers. It was a good proviso of a learned man, never to report wonders, for in so doing, of the greatest he will be sure not to be believed, but laughed at…”

As I’ve said so many times before, you’ll have to make up your own mind.


From the introduction to his 1988 edition, John Josselyn, Colonial Traveler: A Critical Edition of Two Voyages to New-England (University Press of New England)


This is the notable pirate William Jackson.