Arthur Britton Smith’s Kingston! Oh, Kingston! is a fun anthology which comprises a large number of mostly primary source accounts of Kingston. They range from the French occupation in the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, and are really fascinating to look through, not least because some of them are really quite strange. I think Britton Smith, despite the fact that he was a lawyer and RMC graduate, must have had a slight taste for the weird as he compiled this book, which is fine by me!
For example, his book includes two accounts of enormous aquatic animals that were apparently seen in Lake Ontario, as well as a story about a strange colourful bird, and some kind of fruit-bearing plant with poisonous roots. Most of the events aren’t strictly about Kingston, they simply took place in Ontario, but I’m including them anyway. If you have any ideas as to what these creatures could be, please let me know!
Let’s start with the lake animals. The first comes from a book called Travels through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 by Isaac Weld. It was published in London in 1799. Weld writes,
Sea wolves and sea cows, amphibious animals, weighing from one to two thousand pounds each, are said to have been found in Lake Ontario; of the truth of this, however, there is some doubt; but certain it is, that in sailing across that lake animals of an immense size are frequently seen playing on the surface of the water.
A couple of things here: Weld writes sea wolves and sea cows, implying there is more than one variety of these huge creatures. This raises the question, what is the difference between them? More specifically, what on earth is a sea wolf? I’m having a hard time trying to imagine it. He also writes that these animals are amphibious. Did he really mean that they could swim in the lake and walk on land? Weld is apparently unsure whether these have actually been found, but says it’s “certain” that huge animals have been seen in Lake Ontario. Super weird.
The next is from an account called Visit to the Falls of Niagara in 1800 by John Maude, published in London in 1826. This portion of the account takes place when Maude is sailing from Niagara to Kingston. He writes,
We had fishing lines out the whole day, but did not take a single fish: nor did we see the wonderful snake. A boat that had sailed from York, the present seat of Government, unexpectedly returned again; the people on board relating, with great terror, their having seen a great Snake, at least thirty feet long, which, from its rearing head and fore-part of its body out of the water, they conjectured meant to attack them! All this they deposed on oath before a Magistrate. The Indians present, who have always a corroborating story ready . . . asserted that their people had seen three such Snakes, and had killed two!
In North America no Snake that was ever measured exceeded seven feet. In South America Snakes have been killed and their skins sent to Europe, in size equal to this great Snake of Lake Ontario.
Here we literally have a giant lake monster rearing up and trying to attack a boat-load of innocent travellers. This is insane stuff. It really raises the question of what these people actually saw (supposing they, or Maude, aren’t lying for some reason), because I can think of no animal that lives in Lake Ontario that would even come close to resembling a thirty-foot-long evil snake monster. Apparently, life was way more exciting two hundred years ago.
The next two stories are more plausible, so really try to think hard about what these could be because I’d love to hear some suggestions. The first was recounted by Samuel de Champlain, in The Voyages and Explorations of Samuel de Champlain, 1606-1615, taken from a 1911 Toronto reprint. The incident took place in the fall of 1615. Champlain writes,
In the beginning, when we set out for the hunt, I went off too far into the woods pursuing a certain bird, which seemed strange to me. It had a beak like that of a parrot, and was as big as a hen and and yellow all over, except for its head, which was red, and its wings, which were blue. It made short flights, like a partridge. My desire to kill it led me to follow it from tree to tree a very long time, until it flew away.
I can’t think of any bird that looks like this. Granted, I’m no expert in local wildlife so there could be something similar in the area, but I’m drawing a blank for a chicken-sized bird with blue wings and a red head. Could it have been some kind of species which is now extinct? After all, it was four hundred years ago. February 10, 2015 update: Could it have been a Carolina parakeet? (Feb. 16 – This guess is also made in the book Before Ontario: the Archaeology of a Province.)
Lastly, here is the fruit story. (Strictly speaking, it’s not cryptozoology, but you get the point.) It’s entirely possible this is some plant that I don’t know about or am just not thinking of. It comes from Baron de Lahontan‘s New Voyages to North America, in an English edition from 1735. He says,
The Citrons of North-America are so call’d, only because their Form resembles that of our Citron. Instead of a Rind, they have only a single Skin. They grow upon a Plant that rises three Foot high, and do’s not bear above three or four at a Time. This Fruit is as wholesome as its Root is dangerous; for the one is very healthy, and the juice of the other is a mortal subtile Poyson. While I stay’d at Fort Frontenac, in the year 1684, I saw an Iroquese Woman take down this fatal Potion, with a Design to follow her deceas’d Husband . . . [She] had no sooner swallowed the murdering Juice, than she fell into two or three shivering Fits, and so expir’d.
Because this is a translation from French, I don’t know if the original text actually meant a citron (a large-ish lumpy fruit) or a lemon or some other kind of citrus. After doing a bit of internet research, it sounds like the plant described may be water hemlock, except it doesn’t have very big fruit and the whole plant is poisonous, not just the root. Ingesting it does, however, cause sudden seizures and will kill you within a few hours. So don’t go trying this at home, kids!
Well, that’s it for cryptozoological curiosities in Ontario. Finding passages like these is one of the rewards of primary-source research. Hope you enjoyed them!
Britton Smith, Arthur, ed. Kingston! Oh Kingston! Kingston, ON: Brown and Martin, 1987. This book is available at the public library.