“The Black Fox”: an American poem

By John Grenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) from Legends of New-England (1831).

[There is a strange legend relative to the “Black Fox of Salmon River” Connecticut, which has been versified below. Brainard alludes to it in one of his finest poems:]

“And there the Black Fox roved and howled and shook
His thick tail to the hunters.”

IT was a cold and cruel night,silver-fox-19th-century
Some fourscore years ago—
The clouds across the winter sky
Were scudding to and fro—
The air above was cold and keen,
The earth was white below.
Around an ancient fire-place,
A happy household drew;
The husband and his own good wife
And children not a few;
And bent above the spinning-wheel
The aged grandame too,
The fire-light reddened all the room,
It rose so high and strong;
And mirth was in each pleasant eye

Within that household throng—
And while the grandame turned her wheel
The good man hummed a song.
At length spoke up a fair-haired girl,
Some seven summers old,
“Now, grandame, tell the tale again
Which yesterday you told;
About the Black Fox and the men
Who followed him so bold.”
“Yes, tell it,” said a dark-eyed boy,
And “tell it,” said his brother—
“Just tell the story of the Fox,
We will not ask another;”
And all the children gathered close
Around their old grandmother.
Then lightly in her withered hands
The grandame turned her reel,
And when the thread was wound away
She set aside her wheel,
And smiled with that peculiar joy
The old and happy feel.
“‘Tis more than sixty years ago
Since first the Fox was seen—

‘Twas in the winter of the year,
When not a leaf was green,
Save where the dark, old hemlock stood
The naked oaks between.
My father saw the creature first,
One bitter winter’s day—
It passed so near that he could see
Its fiery eye-balls play,
And well he knew an evil thing
And foul had crossed his way.
A hunter like my father then,
We never more shall see—
The mountain-cat was not more swift,
Of eye and foot than he.
His aim was fatal in the air
And on the tallest tree.
Yet close beneath his ready aim
The Black Fox hurried on,
And when the forest-echoes mocked
The sharp voice of his gun—
The creature gave a frightful yell,
Long, loud, but only one.

And there was something horrible
And fiendish in that yell;
Our good old parson heard it once,
And I have heard him tell
That it might well be likened to
A fearful cry from hell.
Day after day that Fox was seen,
He prowled our forests through,
Still gliding wild and spectre-like
Before the hunter’s view;
And howling louder than the storm
When savagely it blew.
The Indians, when upon the wind
That howl rose long and clear,
Shook their wild heads mysteriously
And muttered, as in fear;
Or veiled their eyes, as if they knew
An evil thing was near.
They said it was a Fox accurst
By Hobomocko’s will,
That it was once a mighty chief
Whom battle might not kill,

But who, for some unspoken crime,
Was doomed to wander still.
That every year, when all the hills
Were white with winter snow,
And the tide of Salmon River ran
The gathering ice below;
His howl was heard and his form was seen
Still hurrying to and fro.
At length two gallant hunter-youths,
The boast and pride of all—
The gayest in the hour of mirth,
The first at danger’s call,
Our playmates at the village-school,
Our partners at the ball—
Went forth to hunt the Sable Fox
Beside that haunted stream,
Where it so long had glided like
The creature of a dream—
Or like unearthly forms that dance
Under the cold moon-beam!
They went away one winter day,
When all the air was white,
And thick and hazed with falling snow,

And blinding to the sight;
They bade us never fear for them—
They would return by night.
The night fell thick and darkly down,
And still the storm blew on;
And yet the hunters came not back,
Their task was yet undone;
Nor came they with their words of cheer,
Even with the morrow’s sun.
And then our old men shook their heads,
And the red Indians told
Their tales of evil sorcery,
Until our blood ran cold,—
The stories of their Powwah seers,
And withered hags of old.
They told us that our hunters
Would never more return—
That they would hunt for evermore
Through tangled swamp and fern,
And that their last and dismal fate
No mortal ear might learn.
And days and weeks passed slowly on,
And yet they came not back,

Nor ever more, by stream or hill,
Was seen that form of black—
Alas! for those who hunted still
Within its fearful track!
But when the winter passed away,
And early flowers began
To bloom along the sunned hill-side,
And where the waters ran,
There came unto my father’s door
A melancholy man.
His form had not the sign of years,
And yet his locks were white,
And in his deep and restless eye
There was a fearful light,
And from its glance we turned away,
As from an adder’s sight.
We placed our food before that man,
So haggard and so wild,—
He thrust it from his lips as he
Had been a fretful child;
And when we spoke with words of cheer,
Most bitterly he smiled.

He smiled, and then a gush of tears,
And then a fierce, wild look;
And then he murmured of the Fox
Which haunted Salmon Brook,
Until his hearers every one
With nameless terror shook.
He turned away with a frightful cry,
And hurried madly on,
As if the dark and spectral thing
Before his path had gone—
We called him back, but he heeded not
The kind and warning tone.
He came not back to us again,
But the Indian hunters said
That far, where the howling wildernessRed_Fox_(during_its_black_pelt_color_phase)_-_Ridgeline_Open_Space_-_Castle_Rock,_Colorado
Its leafy tribute shed,
They found our missing hunters
Naked and cold and dead.
Their grave they made beneath the shade
Of the old and solemn wood,
Where oaks, by Time alone hewn down,
For centuries had stood—

And left them without shroud or prayer
In the dark solitude.
The Indians always shun that grave—
The wild deer treads not there—
The green grass is not trampled down
By catamount or bear,—
The soaring wild-bird turns away,
Even in the upper air.
For people say that every year,
When winter snows are spread
All over the face of the frozen earth,
And the forest leaves are shed,
The Spectre-Fox comes forth and howls
Above the hunters’ bed.”


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