J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Fishy Tale about Salmon

Yesterday I described the unsuccessful hunt for hard evidence that workers in colonial Massachusetts got sick of being fed so much lobster that they sought legal protection.

In that search, I came across many mentions of a very similar tale in the British Isles. The Irish novelist Charles Robert Maturin alluded to it in his Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, published in 1820:

There was the slink-veal, flanked with tripe; and, finally, there were lobsters and fried turbot enough to justify what the author of the tale asserts, “suo periculo,” that when his great grandfather, the Dean of Killala, hired servants at the deanery, they stipulated that they should not be required to eat turbot or lobster more than twice a-week.
There’s an even more widespread story about servants in Scotland insisting that their contracts guard them from being fed salmon more than three times a week.

Discussing British salmon in his Natural History of the Fishes of Massachusetts (1833), Jerome V. Smith stated:
Salmon are known to change their haunts; in many rivers in which they were formerly so abundant, that “farmer’s servants stipulated to have them only twice a week as food,’ not one is now to be found.
Other authors also invoked this factoid to show how much more plentiful salmon had once been. The story made it into the records of Parliament in 1838 and many other publications.

The abundant salmon didn’t remain on one side of the Atlantic Ocean. George Wingate Chase's History of Haverhill, Massachusetts, published in 1861, declared:
It is well authenticated, that at one time it was nowise uncommon to stipulate in the indentures of apprentices, that they should not be obliged to cat salmon oftener than six times a week!

As the streams and outlets of the ponds became obstructed, and their waters defiled, by dams, mills, and bridges, the supply of salmon rapidly diminished, and at the present time but few are annually taken in the Merrimack, while the quality of these is much inferior to those of former times.
Like the similar statements from the past quarter-century about colonial workers eating lobsters, no author ever quoted or cited an actual document. They were all passing on what older generations had told them.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, British authors began to challenge the authenticity of this tale. They asked for evidence. After all, the burden of proof should be on the authors who make a historical statement; it’s not the skeptics’ responsibility to refute it.

The editor of the Worcester Herald offered a reward for anyone proffering an old indenture with a clause limiting salmon meals. Some authors claimed to have seen contracts with that fishy stipulation, only to have to draw back and acknowledge they hadn’t.

By the end of the century, the salmon legend was officially the stuff of folklore studies. And so apparently is the tale of Massachusetts workers complaining about having to eat so much lobster.

Of course, if anyone does find an apprenticeship contract, or a law in Maine, or a petition in the Massachusetts archives that limits the number of lobster meals, I’d be happy to quote it here on Boston 1775.


Charles Bahne said...

Thanks, John, for getting to the bottom of this fish story. Interestingly, the British citations are early 19th century, old enough to possibly be within memory of oral traditions. But the ones you found from this side of the pond are all clearly modern inventions, less than 25 years old.

Of course, the lobsters referred to in the legends from England, and even from Virginia, are very different animals from the Homarus americanus that is considered such a delicacy in New England today.

Next, maybe, you can fish around for the truth about another lobster legend, that the crustaceans were once known as "mud roaches". I wasn't able to find anything definitive on Google.

J. L. Bell said...

“Mud roach” might be derived from “mud bug,” term for crayfish that’s been around for at least half a century. Some sources say that’s Cajun, but the roots are English.

In a quick search, I didn’t find any old mentions of lobsters as “mud roaches.”

John L. Smith said...

Well another fun folk tale runs aground of the truth. Oh well...at least we all still have Betsy Ross sewing the first flag. Uh...right?...right? Sheesh.

J. L. Bell said...

There’s a new biography of Betsy Ross just out! But yes, the sewing-the-first-flag story remains dubious. On the other hand, Ross did sew some flags for the early U.S. government.

The “too much salmon” folk tale is interesting in that British scholars were working to debunk it well over a century ago. And yet it appears to have popped up again!

maine character said...

I've read the lobster story at least three times in magazines the last five years. Always thought it was legit. Thanks for tracking it down - most interesting.