Long Island, NY
Brookhaven-South Haven BLOG: news, events, and commentary
One of the many stories or legends still told of early Brookhaven/South Haven is that of the famous Senator Daniel Webster, and of the monstrous trout caught in the pond below the Samuel Carman's mills on the Connecticut or Carmen's river.
The New York Gazette of 29 June 1821, is said to have reported: “A very large salmon-trout, weighing thirteen pounds eight ounces, and three feet in length, and seventeen inches round, was caught by Mr. Samuel Carman, Jr., in his pond at Fire-Place, Long Island, on the 24th inst.” The New York Evening Post is said to have confirmed the story “by three of our most respectable citizens.”
The above accounts likely report the origin event that led to the “Webster” trout legend which became much embellished with time. It is interesting to note that Daniel Webster was not mentioned in these origin accounts.
Others, however, date the Webster trout event variously dates in the 1820s. Sources for these dates have not yet been found.
There are several artifacts still extant almost two centuries after the event which assist in telling the story. One is a wooden carved weathervane said to have been based on an original drawing made at the time of the catch, and which, for a time, rested atop the South Haven Presbyterian Church steeple; another is a Currier and Ives lithograph thought by some (generally in fishing circles) to depict Daniel Webster catching the trout in the river; and the third is a plaque on a pew in the nearby old South Haven Presbyterian Church identifying the Suffolk Club, a well know hunting and fishing club which occupied the banks of the river and to which Daniel Webster is said to have been associated, at least in its early 19th century iteration.
There is little question that Daniel Webster and Samuel Carman were friends, and that Webster, along with other wealthy and influential New Yorkers, regularly visited the Carman tavern and inn to fish in the adjacent river. However, there is little contemporaneous evidence that Webster himself caught the record-sized trout, or that the event took place in the context of a Sunday morning church service, as some recount below.
Pictured below is said to be the trout that, in the 1895 Brooklyn Eagle article below, was “sawed out of an inch board, and this Mr. Carman had rigged up as a weather vane for his barn, and it is still doing duty to show the way the wind blows at the Carman homestead.”
The fish was reluctant to maintain its perch, however, and was twice dislodged after 1976—the most recent in a violent nor'easter on March 13, 2010, with recorded winds of 60-75+ mph, which caused considerable damage across Long Island.
Some have suggested that the so-called “Daniel Webster” trout caught
in the Carman's River was probably what is known as a "salmon-trout"
which, it is said, can grow to enormous size, and spends part of its
life cycle in salt water. See Richard A. Thomas references, this
In addition to the above mention in the New York Gazette and New York York Evening Post, the giant fish is mentioned in the Niles Weekly Register of the same period—specifically attributing its capture to Samuel Carmen, Jr.
The following article from the Brooklyn Eagle is the first account of the trout legend so far found that connects Daniel Webster with a huge trout caught in the Carman's River. While modern telling of the story has Daniel Webster catching the fish, we have not found any 19th century accounts where Webster is the actual fisherman. In this account he just purchases the trout at extraordinary cost after it has been captured by others. If one were to read just the headlines, one can see how the legend was beginning to develop.
It is also interesting to note that in this account no mention is made of the South Haven Presbyterian Church, or that the drama of the fish's capture has anything to do with the church.
Many local skeptics believe that the fish was caught by some anonymous local, or perhaps Samuel Carman himself, and embellished, as fishermen are wont to do, over the decades.
The major focus of this this article is the dispute between landowners—in this case the famous Suffolk Club and the Tangier Smith family—over who actually owned the Carman's River. This was a dispute that continued into the 20th century.
By the 1930s, this Webster legend had grown such that, as the story now goes, Daniel Webster was attending the church service at the Presbyterian church nearby when a slave/servant came in and loudly whispered to Webster that the giant fish was seen in the pond. Webster quickly got up and left. The remaining congregation also soon went outside and lined the pond's bank, causing the minister to terminate his sermon and join them. Webster then makes a dramatic catch, has the wood carving made, and takes the fish to New York where a feast is prepared hosted by Webster at Delmonico's.
This version, as detailed by the Rev. George Borthwick (known for his story telling) in his book The Church at the South, A History of the South Haven Church, now takes three pages to tell.
An expanded bibliography of trout references, especially as they relate to Long Island, New York. By Dr. Richard A. Thomas. 6 July 2011.
In addition to the references displayed on this page, Dr. Thomas, in this bibliography, lists other references to trout (including their textual content), especially "big" trout, as they may relate to Webster's "trout."
Catching a Trout, We Hab You Now, Sar!—While the subject of this N. Currier lithograph is widely reported, both locally and elsewhere, as being of Daniel Webster and his slave (or servant) at the Carman's River in South Haven, L.I., NY, the preponderance of evidence is that it has nothing to do with either Daniel Webster nor the catching of a giant trout in the Carman's River.. It was done by Otto Knirsch ca. 1854-7 after a painting by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait some 35 years after the reputed Daniel Webster incident.
See Dr. Richard A. Thomas: