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Like the gospels, the most often retold stories about the South Haven Church took several decades to develop.
The “Story of Daniel Webster’s Trout,” after 100 years of reworking and embellishment, did end up being quite an engaging and entertaining tale.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end up being very closely related to the actual events that gave rise to the story.
I hope the gospels are more reliable.
I have done a rather thorough examination of the famous story of “Daniel Webster’s Trout,” and I found the original newspaper stories of the event that was eventually transformed into the fanciful legend.
I have traced how the simple event of the capture of a very large fish at Sam Carman’s mills became more and more embellished over time.
Rev. Borthwick’s account follows the story as told in 1933, by which time there was very little correspondence between the legend and any actual events. He seems not to have consulted any primary sources at all, nor did he attempt to verify any part of the story, and he even adds a new element to the story.
The 1933 version of the story is attached.
Yes, a very large fish was caught at Carman’s by Samuel Carman Jr. on Sunday, June 24, 1821, and only four days later it had become a story in the New York Evening Post. The story was reprinted in many newspapers, including in the Niles’ Weekly Register of Baltimore.
The story was corrected the next day. It was not a Salmon Trout, it was a Brook Trout.
The Mammoth Trout was NOT caught by Daniel Webster. We know that to be the case because 1) every newspaper story says the fish was taken by Samuel Carman Jr., and 2) Daniel Webster was in Boston. Daniel Webster’s life is well-documented, including his correspondence. He wrote a letter on June 17 which said:
Boston, June 17, 1821.
DEAR EZEKIEL, I have received yours of Friday. Mr. Olcott wrote me on this same subject of the overseers. I am very doubtful whether any good would come of the project. Who would the Board be? Every thing depends on that. It would be injurious, I think, to propose to take this important alteration in the charter before the ground was well explored, and some security obtained that the concession should not be abused.
On the whole, it strikes me that the project, so far as it relates to getting money, is impracticable, and the whole of it not without danger.
I hope to be able to leave here about the 25th. It depends on the adjournment of the court, which is still sitting, and I know not exactly when to expect its adjournment.
Your governor seems to have made a pretty good speech; certainly better than the average of such things. He talks against false economy very justly, and as if he had never shared in the benefit derived from the currency of opposite sentiments. I think you will have a pleasant session. Your house has good men enough in it to prevent great mischief, even if you shall not effect much positive good ; and it is a great thing, nowadays, to keep things from growing worse.
Yours, D. WEBSTER.
Daniel Webster wrote another letter from Boston on July 9, and he was still in Boston on July 11, though the court cases were beginning to wind up.
Daniel Webster wrote a letter to Jeremiah Mason:
Boston, July 11, 1821.
I learned from Judge Story as well as from Yourself that he intends paying you a visit next week--- I have promisd to go with him. . . .
I expect to see the Judge, on his return from Newport, & will fix on the day--- I can go any day, as our Courts are now thin.
It is also the case that the huge fish was brought to New York City.
The three articles confirm elements of the legend,
1) the trout was caught on a Sunday,
2) the fish was caught at the tail of Carman’s mill,
3) the size of the fish was witnessed by distinguished men from New York City, (albeit, a day after it was caught)
4) the trout was, for a time, kept alive in a pen in the tail of the mill, and
5) the trout was ultimately taken to New York City.
As the fish was kept in a pen for a week, I suppose the spectators might have kept the trout well-fed, so it is possible that the fish did weigh 14 lbs 8 oz when it was delivered to Samuel Carman’s friends in New York City.
6)? the trout weighed 14 lbs 8 oz.
We also know:
7) a wood replica of a large trout was made and used as a weathervane (many of us have seen the original trout weathervane)
8) Senator Daniel Webster did sometimes fish at Carman’s.
There even exists a letter that Daniel Webster sent to Samuel Carman on March 31, 1845.
Stories about trout fishing appeared frequently in newspapers and magazines in the nineteenth century. Not one of those articles claims that Daniel Webster caught a very large fish at Carmans.
In fact, during Webster’s lifetime (and for a period long after his death in 1852), there is never any story about Daniel Webster catching an astoundingly large fish anywhere.
Art historians have done a thorough examination of Currier & Ives prints.
Daniel Webster is not depicted in the print that has long been associated with the story of Daniel Webster’s Trout.
[The print is actually a Currier print rather than a Currier & Ives print, as Ives had not yet been made a partner.]
The print is a reproduction of a painting by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905). The locale of the painting is not Sam Carman’s mills; it is an old estate in Brooklyn.
We even know who the people are in the painting. One is Mr. Mosher, the owner of the estate, and the other is J. H. Clark, one of two brothers who were prominent Tammany politicians. The boy is Paulos Enos.
Surprisingly, although Arthur Tait rarely left any record of who the people were in his paintings, in this case he did!
In Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks / An account of His Career by Warder H. Cadbury, A Checklist of His Works by Henry F. Marsh (Univ of Delaware Press; First Edition March 1986, 344 pages), on page 36 is written:
Apart from John Osborn, Tait's most important patron at this time was James H. Clark, a Tammany politician who worked in the auditor's office of the Brooklyn Customs House and who, with his brother, was an enthusiastic sportsman. He paid Tait the princely sum of $450 for Trout Fishing [sic], and then permitted its publication by Nathaniel Currier with the subtitle, "We hab you now, Sar." This is one of the very few instances where Tait has identified the persons in his paintings: "Portrait of Mr. Mosher, JH Clark [on the right] & Paulos Enos (Darky)." [emphasis added]
By 1886, the year the mammoth trout had been caught (1821) was no longer clearly remembered. However, an article did appear that mentions Carman’s, Daniel Webster, and the big trout all in the same article, though all that is said about Daniel Webster is that he was often a guest at Carman’s. There is no suggestion that Daniel Webster was in any way connected with the big trout.
But by the end of the nineteenth century, Senator Daniel Webster was identified as being somehow associated with the mammoth trout.
As the decades passed, the stories of Daniel Webster fishing for trout in the Carman’s River and the story of the mammoth trout that was caught there edged closer and closer together.
The article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle has the title:
DANIEL WEBSTER’S BIG TROUT,
It Weighted Fourteen Pounds and Was
Caught on Long Island.
HIS TRIPS TO CARMAN’S RIVER
Autograph Letters of the Great Jurist
Produced in a Law Suit at Riverhead,
Showing That He Did What He Could
for His Old Friend, Samuel Carman, in
a Dispute With the Long Island Rail-
That story appears 74 years after the trout was caught in the tail of the saw mill.
So, according to the 1895 story, the Mammoth Trout had become Daniel Webster’s Big Trout, but not because he caught it, rather it was his trout because he bought it. He owned it.
From: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday, December 15, 1895, p. 8.
The largest trout ever caught on Long Island was caught in Carman’s river. It weighed fourteen pounds, and when the news of the wonderful catch reached Daniel Webster he went down with a party of friends and paid $100 for the trout, which was served at a big dinner given to Webster’s friends in New York city. . . .
Before Mr. Carman parted with the big trout a facsimile of it was sawed out of an inch board, and this Mr. Carman had rigged up as a weather vane for his barn, and it is still doing duty to show the way the wind blows at the Carman homestead.
Published in December 1895, the article clearly states that Daniel Webster merely purchased the fish (for $100!); he did not catch it, but even a purchase is very unlikely to have been the case.
An article in Forest and Stream, published more than ten years later, in 1906, also has Webster playing a role, and has the title “The Webster Trout,” but in that story also, Webster merely purchases the fish (and for only $10 instead of the $100 in the earlier newspaper article). This is reportedly a tale told by Judge Arlington H. Carman (1851-1924), of Patchogue. (He was only very distantly related to the Carmans of Fire Place.)
[This telling of the story is the one that is most blatantly racist, so be prepared to be offended.]
“One hot June day, when all the townspeople were at church and the minister had just got to his sixthly, Carman's little n[xxx]er boy rushed in, mouth open, eyes bulging, one hand holding up his baggy trousers, and yelling, 'The big trout is in the hole! The big trout is in the hole!' All knew what hole was meant. It was a spring under a big willow tree, where Carman's dairy house had once stood, and sent a little brook into the river. So every man and boy in the house was on his feet in an instant.
“Hold on, brethren,' shouted the parson, who was a fisherman himself, 'let's all have a fair start.' Then they made a rush across the fields for the old spring hole, the women and girls tagging after. Arrived there, their first thought was to stop up the entrance, then they got out Carman's old menhaden seine that hadn't seen the water in ten years and was full of holes, and wrapped it round and round the sides and bottom of the hole, while the big trout made the water boil as an accompaniment.
“At last, having him hard and fast, they went back and completed their devotions. Next day some one sent a telegram to Webster, and he sent back a check of ten dollars for the trout, and ordered him held alive until he arrived. He came as soon as the stage coach could bring him, and in his presence the trout was taken out, laid on a broad oak plank and his outline carefully drawn with chalk. From this a weather vane was cut out and swung on Sam Carman's mill for years, or until a West India cyclone came up the coast and split it so it fell. It is still in existence, however, and you will find it in the shop of Nathaniel Miller, one of our oldest residents.
“Webster took the trout to New York, invited in all his friends and made a grand banquet of it in the Astor House, where he always stopped when in the city. The feast was held in the northeast room, second floor, the Vesey street and Broadway corner.
In this telling, Webster wasn’t in church or even in the vicinity on that Sunday, he only arrived on the following day, which was also the case for the three gentlemen in the true story of the mammoth trout.
[According to the contemporaneous article in the Evening Post, the three gentlemen actually present were: Gamaliel Smith (b. 1774, Suffield, Conn., d. 1823), Peter L(edyard) Vandervoort (b. 1776, d. 1842, of the firm of Vandervoort & Flanders, “celebrated dealers in dry goods” and located next to old Trinity Church), and Peter Crary, Jr. (b. 1781, of the firm E. & P. Crary, also dry goods, especially silks, located at 107 William St., until 1812, then P. Crary, Jr., Co. at 172 Pearl, “Peter moved to 361 Broadway, where he lived many years in great style,” the company failed in 1837, and Peter Crary Jr. died 1843.).]
As the huge fish was captured in 1821, it is remarkable that Judge A. H. Carman claims Senator Webster was informed of the news by telegram, as it would have been at least 15 years before Samuel F. B. Morse had perfected his invention of the telegraph.
Indeed, this story has as many holes as Uncle Sam’s ”old menhaden seine.” This trout could not have been the same mammoth trout that was recorded in the newspaper articles of 1821, as the Astor House, erected by John Jacob Astor, was not even built until 1836.
This is not the first author to claim that the trout was captured with a seine, however. The first such report was very much earlier, in 1843, but as this would still have been 22 years after the event, it can hardly be treated as reliable.
Boston Journal of Natural History. Vol. IV. No. 3. April, 1843, p. 265.
Art. XXIII. —ENUMERATION OF THE FISHES OF BROOKHAVEN, LONG ISLAND, WITH REMARKS UPON THE SPECIES OBSERVED.
By William O. Ayres, of East Hartford, Connecticut.
(Continued from page 264.)
Salmo Fontinalis. Mitch.
The trout, for which the streams and ponds of Long Island are famous, are often taken of very considerable size; those of three or four pounds are not uncommon; and eight or ten years since a trout was caught at Fireplace, which weighed fifteen pounds. It must, I suppose, have been this species. It was called by many who saw it a salmon trout, on account of its great size or perhaps some peculiarity in the coloring, but the most experienced fisherman who was engaged in taking it (it was caught with a seine) considered it only a very large individual of the common brook trout. I may here remark, that on that stream, and possibly in other parts of the island, the name salmon trout is often applied to any specimen very strongly tinged with red on the abdomen, and it may have been so in this instance.
Eugene Connett’s story of 12 April 1919 is the first I’ve found that correctly states that the “wooden effigy was used later as a weather-vane on the South Haven Presbyterian Church, and years later was given to the oldest living member of that church, Ellen C. Miller.” [Ellen Carman Miller (1827-1914) was Samuel Carman, Jr.’s daughter.]
Connett doesn’t identify who caught the fish other than to state that it was caught by “two distinguished sportsmen” who had arrived on the Sag Harbor stage the evening before (Saturday).
Robert B. Lawrence, a wealthy resident of Mastic, wrote in May 1919, that in the story he had been told, the trout wasn’t caught by fishing at all. Instead:
. . . the big trout was left by the outgoing tide in a shallow spring hole and was not caught by fishing. The account of the rush of the congregation from the church agrees with what I heard, but Daniel Webster, who had frequently come down to Carman's River after trout, was notified of its capture and came down post haste and, purchasing it, returned with it to New York, where it was enjoyed at a banquet. Its weight was said to have been over fourteen pounds. It was spoken of as the “Daniel Webster trout.''
Even Edna Valentine Trapnell, writing in 1933, does not claim that the trout was actually caught by Daniel Webster, but she does have, for the first time, Senator Webster actually being present at the time the fish, “after a short and lively struggle,” “was netted by Uncle Sam’s skillful hand.” She does state that it “fell to the skill and rod” of one of the three important people who had been at the church service: Daniel Webster, Edward Stevens, or Martin Van Buren, but she knows not which one.
(Although Eugene Connett also has “gentlemen” from the city being present, and also states these two gentlemen caught “The Big Trout,” he does not identify them by name. In Connett’s 1919 version, the congregation witnesses the capture only after the fact. A “ragged little colored boy,” who was snoozing, was awakened by the shouts of jubilation of the fishermen, then went down to the water “below the dam,” where the “youngster beheld the fish flopping in the bottom of the boat.” It is only then that he runs up to the church and excitedly announces that the Big Trout has been caught.)
The first instance I have come across in which Daniel Webster is said definitely to have caught the trout is in the recounting of the tale by Rev. George Borthwick in The Church at the South: History of the South Haven Church, written about 1938, but not published in hard cover until 1989. However, Rev. Borthwick’s version of the “Daniel Webster’s Trout” story also widely available before 1989, as it was published under the title “Webster at South Haven Church” in the Long Island Forum in September 1939 (p. 13).
1. Daniel Webster may have purchased a mammoth trout that had been “caught” by Samuel Carman Jr. (though considering the letters he was writing in Boston at the time, it is unlikely). If true, this would make the mammoth trout “Daniel Webster’s Trout” not because he caught it, but because he bought it.
2. Daniel Webster wrote a letter to Samuel Carman, Jr., on 31 Mar 1845, thus establishing the two were acquainted.
3. The “Currier & Ives” print by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait has nothing whatsoever to do with any fishermen at Carman’s.
But as they say, what God has joined together (or, at least, what Rev. Borthwick joined together), no one can pull asunder.