Janet Emily Demarest

Storyteller, Author and Educator

Tales from the General Store: The Legends of Long Island (Excerpt)

Well, there are many stories about the natives and the new settlers… but none of them are quite as real and enduring as the Tale of the Smithtown Bull. Out of all of the Long Island legends, this is the one most people still know, even today! It is one of our oldest tales; the legend has been around since the middle 1600’s.

If you take a ride into Smithtown, you might be surprised to see an enormous statue of a bull there greeting you right at the beginning of the town. That is Whisper, the Smithtown Bull – and it is because of Whisper that Smithtown actually became a town.

How could that have happened? Well, it's like this…

People came to America from England as far back as the year 1585. After a few unsuccessful attempts, the English finally established a thriving colony in Virginia. Most of these early settlers were unmarried men, adventurers who wanted to make a life for themselves. But just a few years later, there was a different king in England. Because he wanted everyone to worship the way he did, many people got upset and decided to flee the country. These were not adventurers but common people who had very strict religious beliefs, and they were known as Puritans, or Pilgrims. When they came to America, they came with wife and family, and landed north, in New England, eventually establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other colonies in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They were so strict that they did not even celebrate Christmas! They felt that the best way for survival was for everyone to think and behave the same way, and not be too outrageous. The young, energetic, enthusiastic Richard Smith, who had ideas and plans and ambition and drive, was just too much for the elders of his settlement. They kicked him out.

Did that stop Richard Smith? No! He went across the Sound to Long Island. He looked around and saw a wonderful parcel of land – acres and acres of good land – and determined that he was going to obtain that land and begin to build a town of his own. There was only one problem – the natives who lived on the land refused to sell it to him!

Did that stop Richard Smith? No! He quietly traded with the Indians and watched them carefully. He noticed that they liked to play games, particularly games of chance. So one day, Richard Smith went to speak to the chief, and made him a wager. “You know that parcel of land that I have been speaking to you about?” Richard Smith asked. “If I can circle it completely in one day, while riding on the back of a bull, will you sell it to me? If I cannot do it, you can have my bull. What do you think? Do we have a wager?”

The natives laughed hysterically. What fool would make such a wager? The chief agreed, and Smith set the date of the bull-riding wager as June 21. Why June 21? Well, that day is known as the summer solstice – the longest day of the year. Richard Smith was no fool. He knew he needed as much daylight as he could possibly get in order to circle the entire parcel on the back of his bull.

But this was no ordinary bull, although it may sound so at first. This was the marvelous Whisper, Richard Smith’s pet bull...

Quick Links

Selected Works

Christmas History and Traditions
Filled with amazing and obscure facts, the fascinating stories and histories of the things we do at Christmas every year - often without ever understanding why! - is certain to delight young and old alike.
Nonfiction
From Manhattan to Montauk, to read alone or aloud, the best loved legends and lore of Long Island!