No Escape

The iron bridge connecting Springfield, Vt., and Charlestown, N.H., is straight and narrow, similar indeed to the live-free-or-die creed of rugged individualism and no taxes on the Granite State side.

So, no, I can’t say it’s a bit surprising that this contemporary, libertarian mind-set squares nicely with that of the hardy Massachusetts Bay Colony pioneers who founded Charlestown in the early 1740s with construction of The Fort at No. 4 on the east bank of the Connecticut River as a garrisoned northern outpost protecting isolated settlements in the lower valley.

It was that fort across from the Black River outflow on the Connecticut’s west bank — the mouth of which is a doorway to the ancient natural corridor slicing through the Green Mountains to the Hudson Valley — that indirectly drew my Sanderson ancestors to Whately, and sparked my interest in the historic site. Those two factors pulled me to the reconstructed fort’s annual French & Indian War re-enactment weekend Saturday with my wife and grandsons. It’s never too early to plant seeds of family discovery in a child: my mission.

The Connecticut was swollen, the framing landscape a vibrant green after soaking rains, and we had a blast, all of us, combined or solo, making our rounds about the festive fortress. We meandered through my seventh-great-grandfather Capt. Isaac Parker’s northeast corner home with a cannon in the bedroom, conversed with folks in the bordering encampments, and haggled with an array of interesting bohemian sutlers stationed along the outer palisade perimeter. I later overheard and concurred with my wife’s description of the trip as a home run, especially for little Arie, soon to be 4. The kid was all eyes and full of questions, racing around, enjoying the liberty to do so, learning much, some of it not from his grandfather. It must have seemed like a fanciful dream to the boy, a far cry from the typical, stifling, law-and-order classroom I’m most familiar with, have always objected to. There’s just something liberating about soldiers and settlers, sutlers and Indians and loud, smoky, 18th century battle re-enactments. Try it sometime if you doubt me. You won’t be disappointed.

One campsite that immediately caught Arie’s attention sat outside the fort’s southern gate. Near a sign identifying the small group as Col. Ebenezer Hinsdale’s Garrison, a small pile of round logs burned hot in an open fire. Some two feet above the flames, two whole chickens dangled from wet strings tied to the horizontal bar topping a six-foot-tall, four-legged metal cooking frame. The chickens, a moist, delicious, golden brown, were dripping into the fire, each greasy drop igniting tall, hissing flames that produced a most savory scent. I wanted to talk to the folks there because Col. Hinsdale, Fort Dummer’s chaplain, was from Deerfield and, even better, the older brother of Samuel Hinsdale, an early Greenfield settler who started the historic Meadows tavern I call home. So the site was rich in personal history I believed Arie could get his head around.

I approached the man tending the chickens and immediately initiated one of those spirited conversations I so enjoy inciting.

“I suppose you know Ole Ebenezer was a Haaavaaad man,” I blurted out with faux Ivy formality. “What you may not know, however, is that he was intemperate, possibly the result of being born in captivity and living with the humiliation of community uncertainty about the identity of his father. I suppose his intemperance was a reason they shipped him out of Deerfield to a hinterlands fort out of public view.”

The warm-eyed man flashed a wry grin and quipped, “Yup, I’ve heard that. They say he liked to hit the bottle.”

Little Arie was listening, and clueless.

“What’s ‘intemper,’ Grampy?”

“Drinking too much.”


I don’t think he grasped it. I hope not. He’ll find out soon enough. Saturday wasn’t the day. Too young. The jesting had gone far enough. But then, as so often seems to happen in this wayward world of mine, not 75 feet away, just around the southeastern corner, lo and behold, a saucy sutler manning the “Geronimo Trading Company” tent, right up my alley, named after the rebel of all Indian rebels, the proudest and most defiant of all Apache warriors. While fellow tribesman Cochise tried to get along, Geronimo was determined to rid his Southwestern homeland of greedy, Caucasian invaders. Plus, the horse-trader who owned the company, one Mark Humpal, a barter-economy devotee, well, he too was right up my alley and soon was digging into a hidden location at the back of his tent for a clear canning jar filled with a most powerful peach moonshine taken in trade somewhere along the trail. How do I find these folks, anyway? I seem to have a knack for it. Must have picked it up in a stupor from the red Woodstock mud and clung to it evermore.

Anyway, this fella Humpal was quite a character from the nearby hills of Cornish, NH, and he drew quite a crowd, obviously a regular at such events, a throwback, to boot. Back in the days of Fort No. 4 and Rogers Rangers, colonial authorities frowned upon such traders because they were too friendly with the Indians and, for a price, willing to supply them with guns and liquor, a deadly combination that often resulted in the most hideous carnage. That isn’t to say the woodsmen they fought against were any better. Many of the frontiersmen went into battle drunk, too, which only complicated matters further. But don’t tell anyone. Conventional wisdom tells you buckskinned militia and cavalry soldiers alike were valiant heroes, and that those who besmirch their reputations today are “revisionist historians,” a pejorative description indeed. Not me. I believe in revisionist history, the mission of which is clearing the dense, manipulative fog borne of “official” government reports.

This too I will someday teach my grandsons, and one path will return straight through The Fort at No. 4, where ancestors learned the Indian way, respected it, used Native battle techniques to defeat a superior British oppressor and, later as disgruntled anti-Federalists, had a way of staying two steps ahead of the government on a western exodus known as manifest destiny, which ended late in the 19th century.

Today, there’s nowhere to run. We’re trapped like rats and forced down conformity’s funnel.

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