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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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Midshipman Preble Chases a Sea Serpent

Yesterday I quoted the memories of George and Luther Little of the day in May 1780 when their Massachusetts frigate chased a sea serpent off the coast of Maine. But did anyone besides the Little lieutenants leave a record of that giant fish that got away?

One of the youngest officers aboard that ship, the Protector, was Midshipman Edward Preble (1761-1807), later a celebrated U.S. Navy captain. James Fenimore Cooper’s profile of Preble for Graham’s Illustrated Magazine in 1845, republished in Naval Biographies, included his version of the chase:
Preble related the affair substantially as follows: The Protector was lying in one of the bays on the eastern coast, which, has been forgotten, waiting the slow movements of the squadron. The day was clear and calm, when a large serpent was discovered outside the ship. The animal was lying on the water quite motionless. After inspecting it with the glasses for some time, Capt. [John Foster] Williams ordered Preble to man and arm a large boat, and endeavor to destroy the creature; or at least, to go as near to it as he could. The selection of Preble for such a service, proves the standing he occupied among the hardy and daring. The boat thus employed pulled twelve oars, and carried a swivel in its bows, besides having its crew armed as boarders.

Preble shoved off, and pulled directly towards the monster. As the boat neared it, the serpent raised its head about ten feet above the surface of the water, looking about it. It then began to move slowly away from the boat. Preble pushed on, his men pulling with all their force, and the animal being at no great distance, the swivel was discharged loaded with bullets. The discharge produced no other effect than to quicken the speed of the serpent, which soon ran the boat out of sight.

There is no question that in after life, Preble occasionally mentioned this circumstance, to a few of his intimates. He was not loquacious, and probably saw that he was relating a fact that most persons would be disposed to doubt, and self-respect prevented his making frequent allusions to it. . . . Preble stated it as his opinion, that the serpent he saw was from one hundred, to one hundred and fifty feet long, and larger than a barrel.
Preble’s anecdote, filtered through Cooper’s novelistic imagination, left out Lt. George Little as the officer in charge of the boat, putting Preble in his place. Preble’s serpent was three times as long as the Littles’.

In fact, there were such differences between the Little and Preble accounts that some later sea serpent scholars treated them as separate incidents. But Preble was probably just a junior officer who went out in the boat under George Little. His anecdotes of that event, passed along orally to Cooper, offer another, less reliable look of the mysterious creature.

TOMORROW: One more memoir from the Protector.

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