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The Founding Fish

John McPhee

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

It's In The Details

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
— Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste


It’s no secret that history is written by the winners. Hell! If you’re a loser, you’re dead or off hiding with your tail between your legs. And it’s also no secret that, until recently, history has been Whitewashed. (Some could easily argue that it still is.) With the help of historical revisionists, we’re starting to see the larger picture that is the tapestry of world history, including how non-Whites helped form our collective past. But what we don’t learn in school, what we have to dig deeper for, are the little things that make up history.


Adam was first married to Lilith, but she wouldn’t obey her husband so an obedient wife (Eve) was made. Jesus Christ had siblings, but the image of the Virgin Mary has muted that. Moses makes a cameo in the life of Muhammad—read the Qur’an, it’s in there—but Heaven forbid our religions be linked.


The founding fathers wrote, “All men are created equal”, yet a majority of them were slave owners. (That’s one of those little things that have been Whitewashed out of history.)


John F. Kennedy just might be the most beloved President ever, but he really did nothing in the way of advancing America. Yes, he started the push to the moon, but aside from that all he did was look good, screw Marilyn Monroe and get shot.


One of these “little things” worth knowing but never taught is just how important an overly anxious fish is to Americans. Dubbed “the founding fish,” shads are a skittish lot. They never sleep (at least not as we think of sleep); instead they rest at the bottom of the river with their eyes open. Shad travel and mate in the dark, yet will procreate in the light if need be. And, sadly, they’ll ram into the walls of glass holding tanks at the slightest sound. Frankly, however, they have every reason to be worried sick: everything out there, from other fish to man, wants to eat them, their eggs and their brood.


So, how did a worrisome lot of silver-white fish save a nation? The British knew the 12,000 soldiers (three-fourths of the entire Continental army) were stationed at Valley Forge, and they also knew the soldiers were worse for ware: they had no clothes and even less food. Day after day, week after week the American soldiers trudged barefoot through snowy fields. Starving and freezing, George Washington’s men were ready to mutiny or die. Using this knowledge, the British tried to dam the river, preventing any and all fish from getting to their enemies. However, according to folklore, in February 1778, despite the dams, the shad began migrating through shivering waters. When they reached Washington’s men, the soldiers were so excited to see food that the fish were plucked from the river and eaten raw.


For this, for saving the men at Valley Forge—if three-fourths the Continental army died or mutinied, surely there would be no America today—the apprehensive little fish was crowned “the founding fish”.


But (there’s always a “but”), just like the schools don’t teach us the little things that stitch together the quilt of history, they also refuse to separate fact from fiction. Or, better yet, lies from the truth.


Just as George Washington’s birthday is not February 22—it’s February 11, but was doubled and moved to the 22nd so that Washington’s and Lincoln’s were separated by more than a lone day—just as li’l G.W. (the original, not this office buying imposter) never chopped down a cherry tree and, thus, never proclaimed, “I cannot tell a lie . . .”, his men were not saved by school upon school of shad. No. They were saved when supplies finally arrived. Plain and simple.


The water was frozen, or at the very least, too cold for shad to migrate their way. By the time it did thaw, the crisis at Valley Forge was over. No more mutinous thoughts. Like the river, the men were warm and full and were ready to move again.


So why has their role as “the founding fish” survived for 225 years? Well, you’re asking the wrong guy. If you want the real answer, you should turn to McPhee who, thanks to the million of friends he makes no bones about naming, has outlined everything there is to know about one little fish and it’s impact, fact and fictional, on American history.

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