Let's Have a Turtle Frolic

| 11/17/2020 3:01:00 PM

A diamond back terrapin. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I lived in Ohio, my favorite restaurant was the Springfield Grille in Boardman, not least because they served an excellent turtle soup. While rooting around on the ‘net not long ago, I found this 1891 account of “Trapping the Terrapin. Various Methods of Trapping the Toothsome Turtle” Terrapins are small turtles usually found in fresh or brackish waters of the eastern U.S. Due to over-hunting, terrapins are scarce today so snapping turtle or sea turtle meat is used in soup instead.

But in the 1700s and 1800s, the terrapin population was still large, and folks of that time loved turtle; there are stories from those days of events called “turtle frolics” where attendees were served hot turtle soup from three-foot upturned turtle shells, while there are accounts of John Adams, George Washington and Abe Lincoln all enjoying savory bowls of the stuff. A famous Swiss physician, Samuel Tissot, wrote of the blood-cleansing properties of turtle soup in 1760.

The 1891 article points out that the terrapin is a swift and strong swimmer unless, being a cold blooded reptile, he is sluggish from cold weather. When the beasts are active, a trap made of coarse netting with an inward pointing funnel-like entrance at one end is used. Fish bait is put inside and the turtles enter through the funnel and can’t find their way out again. Part of the net trap must be above water so the turtle can surface to breathe air.

In the Chesapeake Bay area terrapin were hunted with dogs, of all things. A well-trained terrapin dog was said to be worth $100 and took at least six months to train. The dogs were used during the turtle spawning season when the critters left the water to lay their eggs. The dog would follow the water’s edge until he sniffed out a fresh turtle track, which he would then follow to the nest under some grass or bushes. When the dog located the egg-laying turtle he would put a foot on her back to hold her in place and bark loudly. The hunter would run up, grab the unfortunate amphibian and drop her in a gunny sack. The story claimed that “as many as fifty terrapins have in this way been caught by one dog in a single day.”

In some places hunters dug long shallow ditches in the marshes in the fall and, while the tide was out, stirred the bottoms of these depressions into a soft mud, into which the turtles would burrow, thinking they had found a good safe spot to spend the winter. When cold weather arrived, the hunter took a pitchfork and probed the mud. He could tell the difference between hitting a rock or a turtle shell and if it were the latter he dug it up, and into the bag it went.


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