Tall Tales From The Land Of Steady Habits

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In 1781 an embittered American clergyman, a Loyalist living in exile in England, published a book entitled General History of Connecticut . It was, in fact, an amalgam of actual happenings, righteous tirades, and wild fantasies. The author, the Reverend Samuel A. Peters, was born in Hebron, Connecticut, was a graduate of Yale, and, after being ordained in England, was in charge of the Anglican churches of both Hebron and Hartford. His leanings were deadely monarchical, and his life-style was that of an English country gentleman. He abhorred the republican views of his parishioners, and they, as the Revolutionary War approached, harassed him into fleeing his home. For thirty-one years Peters lived in England, and so irascible was his temper that he even lost a pension awarded by the Crown as the result of a quarrel with William Pitt. Peters returned to America in 1805 to press, in vain, a land claim m what is now Minnesota and ultimately died in poverty in New York City in 1826, at the age of ninety-one. The following description of the town of Windham, Connecticut, is taken from his General History , reprinted recently by Gregg Press, and may serve as an example of why Peters became known as the first American spinner of tall tales.

Strangers are very much terrified at the hideous noise made on summer evenings by the vast number of frogs in the brooks and ponds. There are about thirty different voices among them, some of which resemble the bellowing of a bull. The owls and whippoorwills complete the rough concert, which may be heard several miles. Persons accustomed to such serenades are not disturbed by them at their proper stations; but one night in July, 1758, the frogs of an artificial pond, three miles square, and about five from Windham, finding the water dried up, left the place in a body, and marched, or rather hopped, towards Winnomantic [Willimantic] River. They were under the necessity of taking the road and going through the town, which they entered about midnight. The bull-frogs were the leaders, and the pipers followed without number. They filled the road, forty yards wide, for four miles in length, and were for several hours in passing through the town unusually clamorous.

The inhabitants were equally perplexed and frightened: some expected to find an army of French and Indians; others feared an earthquake, and dissolution of Nature. The consternation was universal. Old and young, male and female, fled naked from their beds, with worse shriekings than those of the frogs. The event was fatal to several women. The men, after a flight of half a mile, in which they met with many broken shins, finding no enemies in pursuit of them, made a hault, and summoned resolution enough to venture back to their wives and children, when they distinctly heard from the enemy’s camp these swords: Wight,’ Hilderlun, Dier, Tete. This last, they thought, meant treaty, and, plucking up courage, they sent a triumvirate to capitulate with the supposed French and Indians. These the men approached in their shirts and begged to speak with the general; but, it being dark and no answer given, they were sorely agitated for some time betwixt hope and fear: at length, however, they discovered that the dreaded inimical army was an army of thirsty frogs going to the river for a little water.

Such an incursion was never known before nor since; and yet the people of Windham have been ridiculed for their timidity on this occasion. I verily believe an army under the Duke of Marlborough would, under like circumstance, have acted no better than they did.

In 1768 the inhabitants of Connecticut River were as much alarmed by an army of caterpillars as those of Windham were at the frogs; and no one found reason to jest at their fears. Those worms came in one night and covered the earth, on both sides of the river, to an extent of three miles in front and two in depth. They marched with great speed, and eat up everything green for the space of one hundred miles, in spite of rivers, ditches, fires, and the united efforts of 1,000 men.They were, in general, two inches long, had white bodies covered with thorns, and red throats. When they had finished their work they went down to the river Connecticut, where they died, poisoning the waters, until they were washed into the sea. This calamity was imputed by some to the vast number of logs and trees lying in the creeks, and to cinders, smoke, and fires, made to consume the waste wood for three or four hundred miles up the Connecticut River; while others thought it augurated future evils, similar to those of Egypt. The inhabitants of the Verdmonts would unavoidably have perished with famine, in consequence of the devastation of these worms, had not a remarkable Providence filled the wilderness with wild pigeons, which were killed by sticks as they sat upon the branches of the trees, in such multitudes that 30,000 people lived on them for three weeks. If a natural cause may be assigned for the coining of the frogs and caterpillars, yet the visit of the pigeons to the wilderness in August has been necessarily ascribed to the interposition of infinite Power and Goodness. Happy will it be for America, if the smiling providence of Heaven produces gratitude, repentance, and obedience, amongst her children!