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A Yankee Notebook

April 23, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I was leaving on a trip – going to be gone a week – and needed reading material. Usually I take magazines and shed them as I read them. But this time I’d carelessly exhausted the current crop. I needed a book, paperback; no way I’m going to carry a hardbound book everywhere for a week. So I casually scanned the bookcase for something I had either not read or had forgotten.

I came up with Their Own Voices, a collection of oral accounts of early settlers in Washington County, New York. Most unpromising. But I was in for a surprise. It was a page-turner.

Washington County isn’t very big – anymore. Squeezed between the Vermont border and the Hudson River, it was originally much larger and named Charlotte County, after George III’s queen. Following the Revolution, it was, for obvious reasons, renamed Washington, and lost portions of its territory to Vermont and its surrounding counties. We pass into it on our way west, when we cross the Poultney River and leave Vermont. Shortly after, we cross the Champlain Canal at Whitehall and either turn south toward Glens Falls or north toward Ticonderoga.

There’s nothing much of high mark in Whitehall – a brick National Guard armory, a Gothic mansion named Skene Manor in honor of the founder of the town, a soporific McDonalds, and a sign proclaiming the present canal site to be the “Birthplace of the American Navy.” Some grumpiness lingers in Whitehall that Annapolis is celebrated as the Navy’s cradle, because its first fleet actually was built in Whitehall (then Skenesborough) and used by Benedict Arnold inhis successful delaying action against the British fleet at Valcour Island in 1776.

What makes the county fascinating is its location, on the main north-south travel corridor in the 18th century. The south end of Lake Champlain overlaps the north end of Lake George here, and only a few miles farther south lies access to the navigable Hudson River. Over 200 years ago there were several portages here from one watershed to the other. If the world had been a peaceful place then, the valley would have been a thriving capital of trade. But three wars – Seven Years’, Revolution, and 1812 – instead trampled across it and kept it in a constant state of turmoil.

Our nation is surprisingly young, as nations go. My great-grandmother, who was baby-sitter for me and my sister 70 years ago, could remember seeing, as a young child, parades in which old Revolutionary War survivors waved feebly, but cheerfully at the crowds. Personal accounts of private lives during that period are to me more interesting than the analyses of historians, valuable as they may be. Their Own Voices, which my wife picked up in a bookstore in Old Forge, is a gold mine of reminiscences. One Dr. Asa Fitch, a physician and naturalist, started recording the stories of old-timers in Washington County. He must have been a whiz at at dictation; he left behind about 500 handwritten pages of oral accounts, along with diaries, deeds, and town records.

The first settlers arrived before the French and Indian War, most of them emigrants from western Massachusetts, and before that, from Ulster. Here, they were called “Scotch-Irish.” Dutch settlers at the same time had been moving up the Hudson Valley, settling mostly at river fords or sources of water power. Other immigrants, from eastern Massachusetts, frugal and cantankerous, were referred to without enthusiasm as “Yankees.” – an identifiable subspecies even then. One settler admits, though, that “one Yankee would outchop three Scotchmen.”

You can imagine that this social stew, composed of many different opinions in matters of religion, loyalty, and politics, was easily stirred into passion by the frequent warfare. Living in Washington County at that time was like trying to sleep in a busy hallway. Advancing and retreating forces of French, British, Indian, and Continentals thundered back and forth, their approach heralded only by word of mouth; and armies leave behind them lots of muddy footprints.

During the Revolution, the county’s residents were divided by the question of loyalty to the King. As various alarums were raised, they fled for protection to either Tory strongholds or the farms and forts of Whigs. At the slow, steady advance of Burgoyne’s army, the Whigs buried their valuables and fled their farms with families and livestock. Two notorious murders committed by Burgoyne’s Indian allies – of the large Allen family and young Jane McCrea – stiffened local resistance. But life went on. Isabel Duncan McIntyre recalls: “All day long we at Munro’s Meadows heard the sound of the cannon at the battle of Saratoga although it was thirty miles away. My mother was confined and my youngest sister was born upon that day.”

After Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, the Loyalists fled north. You can meet their descendants today in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where English is spoken more than in any other part of the province. But Burgoyne’s defeat didn’t end the war; it simply thwarted the British plan to divide the colonies militarily. Raids up the lake from Canada continued into the ‘80s, with the British at Montreal paying 8 dollars a head for American prisoners, and a bounty for scalps.

It’s fascinating to read the words of the people who lived through those times. There’s one great story about Elijah Dunham, taken prisoner by the British, who begged leave to marry his sweetheart. Sorry, he was told. Then he mentioned that he needed to marry her right away for the sake of her reputation; they’d committed a “misstep.” Naturally, the British officer let him go.

Photo by Willem lange