By Charles M. Skinner in 1896
The remarkable sea serpent has been reported at so many points, and by so many witnesses not addicted to fish tales nor liquor, that there ought to be some reason for him.
He has been especially numerous off the New England coast. He was sighted off Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1817, and several times off Nahant, Massachusetts. Though alarming in appearance — for he has a hundred feet of body, a shaggy head, and goggle eyes — he is of lamb-like disposition and has never justified the attempts that have been made to kill or capture him. Rewards were at one time offered to the seafaring men who might catch him, and revenue cutters cruising about Massachusetts Bay were ordered to keep a lookout for him and have a gun double shotted for action. One fisherman emptied the contents of a ducking gun into the serpent’s head, as he supposed, but the creature playfully wriggled a few fathoms of its tail and made off.
John Josselyn, a gentleman, reported that when he stirred about this neighborhood in 1638 an enormous reptile was seen “coiled up on a rock at Cape Ann.” He would have fired at him but for the earnest dissuasion of his Indian guide, who declared that ill luck would come of the attempt. The sea-serpent sometimes shows amphibious tendencies and occasionally leaves the sea for fresh water. Two of them were seen in Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin by four men in 1892. They confessed, however, that they were fishing at the time. The snakes had fins and were a matter of 50 feet long. When one of these reptiles found the other in his vicinage he raised his head six feet above the water and fell upon him tooth and nail — if he had nails. In their struggles, these unpleasant neighbors made such waves that the fishermen’s boat was nearly upset.
Even the humble Wabash River has its terror, for at Huntington, Indiana, three truthful damsels of the town saw its waters churned by a tail that splashed from side to side, while far ahead was the prow of the animal — a leonine skull, with whiskers, and as large as the head of a boy of a dozen years. As if realizing what kind of a report was going to be made about him, the monster was overcome with bashfulness at the sight of the maidens and sank from view.
In April 1890, a water-snake was reported in one of the Twin Lakes, in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, but the eye-witnesses of his sports let him off with a length of 25 feet.
Sysladobosis Lake, in Maine, has a snake with a head like a dog’s, but it is hardly worth mentioning because it is only eight feet long — hardly longer than the name of the lake. More enterprise is shown across the border, for Skiff Lake, New Brunswick has a similar snake 30 feet long.
In Cotton Mather’s time a double-headed snake was found at Newbury, Massachusetts, — it had a head at each end, — and before it was killed it showed its evil disposition by chasing and striking at the lad who first met it.
A snake haunts Wolf Pond, Pennsylvania, that is an alleged relic of the Silurian age (416.0 to 443.7 million years ago.) It was last seen in September 1887, when it unrolled 30 feet of itself before the eyes of an alarmed spectator — again a fisherman. The beholder struck him with a pole, and in revenge, the serpent capsized his boat; but he forbore to eat his enemy, and, diving to the bottom, disappeared. The creature had a black body, about six inches thick, ringed with dingy-yellow bands, and a mottled-green head, long and pointed, like a pike’s.
Silver Lake, near Gainesville, New York, was in 1855 reported to be the lair of a great serpent, and old settlers declared that he still comes to the surface now and then.
Santa Barbara Island, off the California coast, was, for a long time, the supposed headquarters of swimming and flying monsters and sirens, and no Mexican would pass in hearing of the yells and screams and strange songs without crossing himself and begging the captain to give the rock a wide berth. But, the noise is all the noise of cats. A shipwrecked tabby peopled the place many years ago, and her numerous progeny live there on dead fish and on the eggs and chicks of sea-fowl.
Spirit Canyon, a rocky gorge that extends for three miles along Big Sioux River, Iowa, was hewn through the stone by a spirit that took the form of a dragon. Such were its size and ferocity that the Indians avoided the place, lest they should fall victims to its ire.
The Huron tribe believed in a monster serpent — Okniont — who wore a horn on his head that could pierce trees, rocks, and hills. A piece of this horn was an amulet of great value, for it insured good luck.
The Zuni tell of a plumed serpent that lives in the water of sacred springs, and they dare not destroy the venomous creatures that infest the plains of Arizona because, to them, the killing of a snake means a reduction in their slender water supply. The gods were not so kind to the snakes as men were, for the agatized trees of Chalcedony Park, in Arizona, are held to be arrows shot by the angry deities at the monsters who vexed this region.
Indians living on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, New York, tamed a pretty spotted snake and fed and petted it until it took a deer at a meal. It grew so large that it eventually encircled the camp and began to prey on its keepers. Vainly they tried to kill the creature, until a small boy took an arrow of red willow, anointed it with the blood of a young woman, and shot it from a basswood bow at the creature’s heart. It did not enter at once; it merely stuck to the scales. But presently it began to bore and twist its way into the serpent’s body. The serpent rolled into the lake and made it foam in its agony. It swallowed water and vomited it up again, with men dead and alive, before it died.
The monster Amhuluk, whose home is a lake near Forked Mountain, Oregon, had but one passion — to catch and drown all things, and when you look into the lake you see that he has even drowned the sky in it, and has made the trees stand upside down in the water. Wherever he set his feet the ground would soften. As three children were digging roots at the edge of the water he fell on them and impaled two of them on his horns, the eldest only contriving to escape. When this boy reached home his body was full of blotches, and the father suspected how it was, yet he went to the lake at once. The bodies of the children came out of the mud at his feet to meet him, but went down again and emerged later across the water. They led him on in this way until he came to the place where they were drowned. A fog now began to steam up from the water, but through it he could see the little ones lifted on the monster’s horns, and hear them cry, “We have changed our bodies.” Five times they came up and spoke to him, and five times he raised a dismal cry and begged them to return, but they could not. Next morning he saw them rise through the fog again, and, building a camp, he stayed there and mourned for several days. For five days they showed themselves, but after that, they went down and he saw and heard no more of them. Ambuluk had taken the children and they would live with him forever after.
Crater Lake, Oregon, was a haunt of water-devils who dragged into it and drowned all who ventured near. Only within a few years could Indians be persuaded to go to it as guides. Its discoverers saw in it the work of the Great Spirit, but could not guess its meaning. All but one of these Klamath stole away after they had looked into its circular basin and sheer walls. He fancied that if it was a home of gods they might have some message for men, so camping on the brink of the lofty cliffs he waited. In his sleep, a vision came to him, and he heard voices but could neither make out appearances nor distinguish a word. Every night this dream was repeated. He finally went down to the lake and bathed, and instantly found his strength increased and saw that the people of his dreams were the genii of the waters — whether good or bad he could not guess. One day he caught a fish for food. A thousand water-devils came to the surface, on the instant, and seized him. They carried him to a rock on the north side of the lake, that stands two thousand feet above the water, and from that they dashed him down, gathering the remains of his shattered body below and devouring them. Since that taste, they have been eager for men’s blood. The rock on the south side of the lake, called the Phantom Ship, is believed by the Indians to be a destructive monster, innocent as it looks in the daytime.
So with Rock Lake, in Washington. A hideous reptile sports about its waters and gulps down everything that it finds in or on them. Only, in 1853 a band of Indians, who had fled hither for security against the soldiers, were overtaken by this creature, lashed to death, and eaten.
The Indians of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas believed that the King Snake, or God Snake, lived in the Gulf of Mexico. It slept in a cavern of pure crystal at the bottom, and its head, being shaped from a solid emerald, lighted the ocean for leagues when it arose near the surface.
Similar to this is the belief of the Cherokee in the kings of rattlesnakes, “bright old inhabitants” of the mountains that grew to a mighty size, and drew to themselves every creature that they looked upon. Each wore a crown of carbuncle of dazzling brightness.
The Indians avoided Klamath Lake because it was haunted by a monster that was half dragon, half hippopotamus.
Hutton Lake, Wyoming, is the home of a serpent queen, whose breathing may be seen in the bubbles that well up in the center. She is constantly watching for her lover but takes all men who come in her way to her grotto beneath the water when she finds that they are not the one she has expected, and there they become her slaves. To lure victims into the lake she sets there a decoy of a beautiful red swan, and should the hunter kill this bird he will become possessed of divine power. Should he see “the woman,” as the serpent queen is called, he will never live to tell of it, unless he has seen her from a hiding-place near the shore — for so surely as he is noticed by this Diana of the depths, so surely will her spies, the land snakes, sting him to death. In appearance, she is a lovely girl in all but her face, and that is shaped like the head of a monster snake. Her name is never spoken by the Indians, for fear that it will cost them their lives.
Michael Pauw, brave fisherman of Paterson, New Jersey, hero of the fight with the biggest snapping-turtle in Dover Slank, wearer of a scar on his seat of honor as memento of the conflict, member of the Kersey Reds — he whose presence of mind was shown in holding out a chip of St. Nicholas’s staff when he met the nine witches of the rocks capering in the mists of Passaic Falls — gave battle from a boat to a monster that had ascended to the cataract. One of the Kersey Reds, leaning out too far, fell astride of the horny beast, and was carried at express speed, roaring with fright, until unhorsed by a projecting rock, up which he scrambled to safety. Falling to work with bayonets and staves, the company dispatched the creature and dragged it to shore. One Dutchman — who was quite a traveler, having been as far from home as Albany — said that the thing was what the Van Rensselaers cut up for beef and that he believed they called it a sturgeon.
About the Author: Charles M. Skinner (1852-1907) authored the complete nine-volume set of Myths and Legends of Our Own Land in 1896. This tale is excerpted from these excellent works, which are now in the public domain.