Traveling north on the interstate along the west bank of our Great River, it is near the large green Bellows Falls sign where, under clear skies, pointed Mt. Ascutney first calls — its distant, faded peak towering above nearer foothills.
Long before roads existed, this distinctive Vermont peak served as an important landmark for approaching travelers trekking Native paths through primeval forest between the Connecticut and Hudson valleys. Footpaths and waterways led through the Green Mountains, to and from the Lakes Region of George and Champlain, a picturesque corridor stained by colonial blood, poisoned by lead and rum and human greed. Do not all wars carry the stench of avarice? Well, I guess not in the homogenized history force-fed our schoolkids by chauvinistic sophists. But why belabor that tired subject? Propaganda’s as old as indigenous trails.
Ascutney today stands tall, steep and bold overlooking Windsor, a river town for some reason called Vermont’s birthplace, despite its central location. Though I have never visited the peak, I’m sure Mt. Monadnock is prominent in the southeast from this swollen wisdom tooth separating two important Connecticut River tributaries — the Black and White rivers, both of their valleys important ancient east-west travel corridors between our valley and that of the upper Hudson, where rugged terrain and stunning scenery eventually connects to the St. Lawrence Seaway, wrapping around Canada’s Maritime Provinces and out to sea. From the Hudson headwaters came legends of: forts William Henry, Ticonderoga and Crown Point; provincial soldiers Robert Rogers, Moses Hazen and Ethan Allen; foreign generals Abercromby, Amherst and Montcalm; and brave, elusive, St. Francis tribesmen, many displaced from their southern and eastern homelands by 17th-century European intrusion. All of these colonial protagonists held deeper connections than armchair historians realize to the Pioneer Valley we call home.
Wouldn’t you know that Ascutney in the north is invisible from Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, N.H., where I brought grandsons Jordan and Arie Sunday for an annual French & Indian War reenactment. From this once-vulnerable northern outpost, the only hills visible are three shallow humpbacks south of the Black River confluence across the Connecticut. Salmon undoubtedly made their way up this tributary each spring during the mid-18th century, but not shad, which could migrate no farther than Fort No. 3 at Walpole, N.H., across from Bellows Falls, where frontiersmen and, before them, Natives congregated for springtime bounty. Though unseen, Ascutney has always loomed large in the background. And, no, it’s not a coincidence that the supposed birthplace of the Vermont and, a short distance south, the location known in early vernacular as “Number Four” sit on its eastern apron.
My Groton/Middlesex County bloodlines run directly through old Fort No. 4, particularly in the fortified homestead of Capt. Isaac Parker in the northwest corner. Arie, nearing 3, is too young to understand genealogy, but Jordi, 6, is not. He “got it” last year when we toured Parker’s upstairs bedroom with an iron cannon beside the bed, and on Sunday he carried an entitled air. How cool is that for a young boy, to realize his ninth great-grandfather had a bedside cannon to fight off surprise Indian attack?
In the Native American room just before the fort’s southeast corner, Arie fascinated by a bearskin hanging on the wall, a blue-eyed man of Native blood was sitting on a rough, splay-legged stool speaking about his proud Abenaki/St. Francis lineage. He said the director of the fort was the descendant of a Deerfield Stebbins grandmother who had been captured as a child in the 1704 raid and decided to stay with her adopted tribe and Abenaki husband, an occurrence far more common than the old Puritan historians wanted anyone to believe. When I informed the spry, articulate octogenarian that I was a Capt. Parker descendant, it got his attention. “Congratulations,” he quipped. “Maybe you can tell us where he got all his money. Unlike the others here at the fort, he carried the title of Gentleman.”
Unfortunately, I had no answers. In fact, it was the first I had heard of Parker’s wealth. I promised to “look into it” upon visiting Groton someday soon to pore over ancient town records. Groton was an early market town, I explained, a fur-trading outpost controlled by the Willard family, which also had a strong presence in the 18th century forts between Northfield and No. 4. The Willards were to Groton what the Pynchons were to Springfield, and my ancestors who settled there before coming to Whately were likely tanners, a lucrative trade at such a location. The progenitor of my Sanderson line, goldsmith Robert, a master of ye mint at Boston, likely was an investor in the fur trade and had sent eldest son William there as a tradesman. That, I have not yet documented, I told him, but I intend to do so in retirement. It’s fascinating to put together such family puzzles; at least for me it is. Maybe I’m weird.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to “plant the seed” of family discovery in my grandsons. I’m working on it, would love future research companions.