Because John Greenleaf Whittier looked upon them as source material for creative writing, he was among the first American folklore collectors to gather oral traditions intentionally. Whittier’s status as one of the earliest collectors of American folk traditions is evidenced in two works, the Supernaturalism of New England (1847), the work at hand, and Legends of New England (1831), which is also available from Clearfield Company.
As folklorist W.K. McNeil writes in his new Introduction, “Whittier was convinced that the Puritan settlers of New England assimilated American traditions and grafted them onto European lore . . . .” Unlike his literary contemporaries James Athearn Jones and Mary Henderson Eastman, whose works were solely concerned with Native American traditions, Whittier, in the Supernaturalism of New England, concentrated on superstitions and supernatural tales transmitted by the white settlers of the region. While the accounts vary, most deal with the appearance of ghosts or specters as omens of death, fulfillments of the wishes of deceased persons, or clues to the identities of wrong-doers. In poems and tales like “The New Wife and the Old” which he recalled from his own childhood, “The Black Fox” which reputedly haunted the Salmon River in Connecticut, or the tale of William Morse’s haunted house in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Whittier has preserved the “innocent nature and simple poetic beauty of the traditions in question.”