On The Waterfront: The legendary Lake Ontario sea serpent

Pictured above, an artist rendering of what the animal witnessed by John Maupin and James Sigler may have looked like.

OSWEGO — Is there a prehistoric monster in Lake Ontario?

Probably not, according to experts, but that hasn’t stopped the legends. For centuries, sailors have reported seeing strange creatures emerge from the lake’s cold, deep waters.

Some describe a creature residing in the waters around Jefferson and Oswego counties, as well as near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River as long as a yacht with a “large red and venomous looking tongue,” while others report a 10-foot, snake-like creature. A ship captain said it looked like “the mast of a vessel” with “monstrous dimensions.” The moniker “sea serpent” appears to have been used since at least 1821 to describe the alleged creature. One dispatch from 1867 even claims that a resident of Blind Sodus Bay had tamed the beast, keeping him “under close confinement.”

Oswego’s iconic historian Rosemary Nesbitt penned her own children’s book re-telling the stories of the “serpent,” as “The Monster of Lake Ontario.” The book continues to be a beloved fixture of the H. Lee White Maritime Museum.

Reached on Friday, officials for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) said they could not confirm the existence of a sea serpent, or sea serpents, in Lake Ontario.

“Current DEC Lake Ontario fisheries staff are unaware of any accounts of Lake Ontario or St. Lawrence River ‘sea monsters,’” a DEC official told The Palladium-Times. “Any reports of abnormally large aquatic organisms resembling “sea monsters” are likely embellished accounts of large lake sturgeon.”

Below are “first-hand” accounts, as compiled in the local press. As The Palladium-Times can not independently verify claims from the 1800s, we recommend the largest grain of salt available when taking the following:

Oswego Palladium

September 14, 1821

“The sea serpent navigating the western lakes.”

It will be seen by the following depositions that the western lakes are like to engender as big snakes as the Atlantic, though the inhabitants on their margin have hitherto been prolific in the manufacture of big stories to correspond - an advantage long enjoyed by our Yankee Atlantic brethren.

The following affidavits of John Maupin of Montreal, and James Sigler of Jefferson Co. N. Y. describes a very large and singular animal that has made its appearance in Lake Ontario, resembling that celebrated sea fish or snake, which has crowded the columns of the eastern papers for the last two or three summers. This, there is but little doubt, is one of the same species, and that which was seen ascending the St. Lawrence last spring by some boatmen.

On the morning of the 25th July, 1821, about one hundred miles from Niagara and about 20 from land, aboard the canoe Lightfoot, on our passage from Montreal to Mackinac, in company with eight voyagers, we discovered at the distance of five or six hundred yards a large body floating on the surface of the water, very much like a burnt log from 20 to 25 feet length; but on approaching it three or four hundred yards closer, it proved to be an animal motionless and apparently asleep.

We continued to advance towards it until within 30 yards, when the animal raised its head about 10 feet out of the water, looking around him in the most awful and ferocious manner, and darting forward with great velocity, making the water fly in every direction, and throwing columns of it at a vertical height of 7 to 8 feet with his tail.

After having gone in a western direction about one or two miles, he appeared to resume his former state, we then resolved to attack him, and accordingly loaded our guns for this purpose, and moved slowly toward him within gun shot. We here had a good view of the animal, he is at least 37 feet long, 2.5 feet in diameter, (if measured through the thickest part of the body) is covered with black scales which appeared to create consternation only, he disappearing as before - he has a tremendous head and similar to that of a common snake — frequently thrusting from his mouth a large red and venomous looking tongue. After the animal disappeared we continued our course with a lively oar as may well be imagined. His figure when in motion is serpentine.

Oswego Palladium

July 1, 1833

“The American Sea Serpent in Lake Ontario.”

Our office has been visited by Captain Abijah Kellogg of the schooner Polythermus, of Sacket's arrived this morning from Rochester.

This gentleman has related to us such a tale of wonder, a tale so incredible, that we scruple some, as the Yankees say it, laying his narration before our readers, lest they might think it but the creation of your imagination.

Capt. Kellogg states that yesterday evening (June 15) about 7 o'clock, as he was making for Kingston harbor, the "Ducks" bearing northwest distant two miles, he saw something lying still on the weather bow that looked like the mast of a vessel. Observing it more attentively, he was surprised and alarmed to see it in motion, and steering towards the schooner. Singing out to his hands to take care of themselves, he put the schooner up to the wind, lashed the helm a lee, and run up the main rigging, waiting for the monster to approach. The serpent neared the vessel fast and passed immediately under her stern, taking no notice whatever of the schooner or those on board, but affording to everybody an ample opportunity to observe and note his monstrous dimensions.

In length he was about 175 feet, of a dark blue color, spotted with brown; towards either end he tapered off, but about the middle his body was of the circumference of a flour barrel, his head was peculiarly small and could not well be distinguished but from the direction in which he moved. He swam with an undulating movement, keeping the best part of his body under water, but occasionally showing his entire length. he was in sight full fifteen minutes and when last seen was making the best of his way down the St. Lawrence. On board the schooner were two young men, the vessel's crew, together with three passengers, who are willing to be qualified to the truth of what has been here stated

British Whig

September 26, 1849

“A Miniature Sea-Serpent.”

We have been informed, not by an actual eye-witness, but by one on whose word we can rely, that one day last week, as the schooner Enterprise was coming up Big Bay, a snake described as being some 12 feet in length, and having a large head, which was elevated a couple of feet above the water, was discovered by the Captain following in the wake of the vessel, at a fast rate, and finally passed her, in sight of the crew on board, and also of two individuals residing in town, who were in a small boat in tow of the schooner. We have frequently heard of snakes being seen in the Bay, but never before of the size here described. If any think the story "fishy," they are referred to the eye-witnesses, who watched the "marine monster" until it was out of sight; his snake ships appearance in these waters, and apparent haste, have given rise to various conjectures, - amongst others, that as free navigation is about to be introduced, he was on a tour of inspection to report the feasibility of cutting a canal, in order to unite the waters of the Bay and Lake.

Pultneyville Commercial Press

September, 1867

“The Sea Serpent.”

As the story has gone the rounds of the press, that a sea serpent has been seen in our lake by parties at different times, it would perhaps be well to state for the benefit of the public, the facts in the case as they have been told to us.

Mr. Henry Stowell, of Oswego, says he owns the animal of which so much has been said having imported him at great expense from the Humbug Islands. he keeps him at Blind Sodus at which place he has him boarded during the hot weather, and as soon as the weather becomes cool he intends to skim him and have it stuffed, of which men are coming from New Bedford for that purpose. He sands him from Oswego two old canal horses a week, of which costs him but a trifle, and they are towed up behind the American Steamers, are cut adrift in the lake when opposite that place, when they are then towed in by boats for his use. It has been the intention of Mr. Stowell to keep him under close confinement, and for this purpose only was Blind Sodus selected for his home. He has occasionally stolen away and visited different localities about the lake, and when he has been seen, has made hideous noises in imitation of the parties present. Mr S. has now sent up a horse tamer to subdue him.

Maritime historian Richard Palmer highlights the rich history of Lake Ontario, including shipwrecks and port and shipping history.

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