Posts Tagged ‘freshwater porpoise debunked’

Identifying the Species of Fish Described by John Lawson in 1710 (Part 1)

August 27, 2014

John Lawson wrote the first American natural history book circa 1710 after settling in North Carolina.  (See:  I often consult his work to obtain insight about the early unmodified environments of the southeast.  His chapter on fish is particularly confusing because he uses arcane common names, no longer in usage.  He also mistakenly refers to some species as the same as those found in England.  This is not true of any species.  So I gave myself a little project and attempted to decipher which species he was referring to in each individual description.  I used descriptions typed into search engines and information found from the obscure book referenced below to identify almost all the species he catalogued.  It’s evident that he directly encountered some species, but only knew about others from hearsay.  I now offer the results of my study.

Lawson includes the whales with the fishes.  Like most people living during this time period, he never enjoyed the benefit of a biology class and was unaware that whales are mammals.  He wrote about 4 “sorts” of whales.  He did not know of the many more species that live off the coast of Carolina.  He reports 1 “sperma ceti” whale washed up on Currituck Inlet, and how the local beachcombers “profited” from it.  Apparently, there were people living along the coast then who made a living scavenging shipwrecks and dead whales.  His “sperma ceti” whale is obviously known today as just the sperm whale.  He was also aware of the bottle-nosed whale, a deep sea species that lives in underwater canyons where it feeds upon squid and fish.  Bottle-nosed whales can stay submerged for an astonishing 2 hours.

Bottle-nosed whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus).  Lawson was aware of this deep water species of whale.  He mistakenly classified whales as fish.

Lawson mistakenly refers to killer whales as 2 different species–the thrasher and the crampois.  He claimed bottle-nosed whales always washed ashore minus their tongues which were eaten by “thrashers” and swordfish.  Killer whales will attack and eat other whales but swordfish do not.  Lawson also knew dolphins as “bottle-noses.”

I could not identify 2 other whales Lawson catalogued.  I could find no whale matching the description of a “shovel-nosed” whale, and there is no whale that is 60 feet long but just 3 or 4 feet in diameter.  I assume he was just wrong about the measurements.

I was excited when I read Lawson’s account of porpoises being found in a freshwater lake in North Carolina.  I thought I had come across a unique curiosity.  However, large lakes on the North Carolina coastal plain are Carolina Bays with no outlet to the sea.  And the lake is described as being located in a “great sound” which would mean it was saltwater.  Therefore, I’ve concluded Lawson was mistaken again.  Instead, he may be referring to a bay in Maryland known as Porpoise Bay and the porpoises  it’s named after may have been dolphins.  Porpoises are a cold water species that differ from dolphins by having shorter snouts.  They do range as far south as North Carolina during winter, so it’s possible the place was named based on the correct animal.

Porpoise Pond is located in Assawoman Bay, Maryland.  Is this the body of water where Lawson claimed porpoises lived in freshwater?  I think he wrongly was told this was a freshwater body of water, but it is actually saltwater.

The manta ray was known then as the “divel fish” and still is in some archaic circles.  Lawson recounts a case when a “divel fish” got caught in a sloop’s anchor line and dragged it at least a mile against the tide.  A similar even occurred in 1933 off the coast of New Jersey.

Giant Devil Ray

This manta ray with a 20 foot wingspan almost sank a boat.  A Coast Guardsmen shot it 20 times to save the endangered men on board.  Happened off the coast of New Jersey in 1933.

Lawson includes 2 “sorts” of sharks on his list, but he called one a “Paracooda” that I interpet as a misspelling of barracuda which is not even a shark.  He later adds the dogfish to his list and correctly categorizes it as of the “shark kind.”

Many of the species in his catalogue were easy to identify because the names he used are still their common names–Spanish mackerel, mullets, swordfish, shad, stingray, thornback stingray, conger eels, eels, lamprey eels, red drum, black drum, sheepshead, flounder, trouts of saltwater, croaker, toadfish, ocean sunfish, and herring.  Others took just a little deciphering.  His name for menhadden was fat-back, an obscure name little used today.  His description of the “guard” indicates he probably misheard the locals as they referred to this fish as the gar.  Lawson classified the gar as a saltwater fish.  Although gars are common in brackish waters, they are considered a freshwater species. 

Cavallies was a little more difficult to decipher, but I learned this is an archaic term for crevalle jack (Caranx hippo). His bass, or rockfish, is the striped bass, still known as rockfish by many.  The fish he calls a “sea tench” is most likely the tautog (Tautoga onitis).  Boneto is a mispelling of bonita, a type of tuna.  His angelfish includes members of the Pomancanthidae family.

Crevalle jack (Caranx hippos).  Lawson called them Cavallies. He wrote they stayed sweet for twice as long as other fish.







Tautog-a wrasse that lives as far south as South Carolina.

Lawson lists smelts as a fish living in the region, but he probably was referring to a similar-looking fish known as the silverside (Meridia meridia).  Smelts do not live as far south as Carolina.  The fish he calls a “sea bream” is likely a porgy from the Caridae family.  I could not determine what fish he named the “taylor.”

The culinary properties of the fish he catalogued seemed to be the most important attribute in his descriptions.  This is not surprising–his diet mostly consisted of wild animals he could kill and vegetables he could grow.  He praised the good eating qualities of crevalle jacks, mackerel, drums, sea trout, and eels.  He liked sheepshead but wrote that it was no better than many other species of fish, despite its fine reputation.  He thought bluefish among the best of fishes, “full as good meat as salmon.”  Menhaden contained so much natural oil they could be fried directly in a pan without the addition of fat, and Lawson referred to them as “a very sweet food.”  Menhaden comes from the Indian word meaning fertilizer, and today this is the most common use for this species.  Early Settlers liked to eat menhaden as well as to use them to fertilize their crops.

North Carolina is famous for its bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix).  Lawson said they were as good meat as salmon.

In my next entry, I’ll decipher Lawson’s descriptions of freshwater fish.


Lawson, John

A New Voyage to Carolina

North Carolina Press 1967

Smith, Hugh

The Fishes of North Carolina

Originally published in 1907, republished by Cornell University in 2009