The Winooski

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The New Yorker, wielding an ax, advanced. Remember Baker, cousin to Ira and Ethan Allen, stood his ground. It was late September of 1772. The ground was the fertile Winooski river valley, between New York and New Hampshire, near Lake Champlain, where competing land grants had not yet been settled, where it was not yet Vermont. The New Yorker was one Captain Stephens, a land surveyor. Land surveying in those days was a lively occupation. Stephens had four armed New Yorkers and ten Native Americans with him. Remember Baker’s party numbered seven. New York claimed this land, and so did that “shapeless blob who ruled the colony of New Hampshire,” His Excellency Benning Wentworth. The Green Mountain Boys were taking advantage of the situation, using New Hampshire’s grants to usurp New York’s authority. They had earlier taken prisoner two of Stephen’s men. Ira was there, armed with a pistol.

Instead of resisting, Baker opened his shirt, bared his chest, and encouraged Stevens to start chopping—if he dared.

“Why are my men tied?” demanded Stevens.

“It’s my pleasure,” Baker said. Stevens looked around. He could see down the barrel of the one gun Allen’s men had. Perhaps he would spare Baker—for the moment, at least. He drew a scalping knife and started for the place where the men were tied but had taken only a few steps when Allen pulled his pistol.

“Take one step further or touch the pistols in your pocket,” Ira warned, “and your portion is death.” Stevens blanched. At the bank his men were getting ready to launch an attack. Allen turned his head to one of his men, Vanornam, who could speak Indian. “Tell the Indians they and we are brothers. They are welcome to hunt on our lands when they please. Tell them this is a land quarrel that’s no concern of theirs.” In the colorful tongue that Vanornam had learned when a prisoner of the Indians, he started to speak. The Indians hesitated, held a brief conference, then jumped into their canoes and paddled away. The coup made prisoners of Stevens and his men. He capitulated.

“Would you,” asked Stevens of Allen, gathering evidence he thought he could use later, “have fired if I hadn’t stopped?” Allen pointed his pistol to a mark smaller than a dollar on a pole thirty feet away.

“Suppose,” he said, “that pole was your body, and that mark was your heart.” He fired. The bullet struck half an inch under the mark. Allen had still not answered Stevens’s question. He had no desire to be tried by the Supreme Court of New York for murder or outlawry. At the same time, these were the New Hampshire Grants. He had bought this land from men who had been granted charters for it by the royal governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth. New Yorkers had no business on the Onion River—or in any part of the Grants.

I am bicycling west along Route 2, along the Onion River valley, now named (or again named) the Winooski. This is the land that Stephens wanted. Compared to the White Mountains, or even the hills of Maine, the ride is easy. I am mostly going downhill, even as I cross the backbone of the Green Mountains. In some parts, there is room enough in the valley just for six lanes of traffic — I-89 and Route 2 — and the river. In others, flat farmland generously spreads out. I pass trunks of shaggy, deeply furrowed bark and look up to see the white flowers of locust trees.

The Winooski has been carving through this rock ever since it was thrust from the ground. It is an antecedent river; it predates the ground over which it runs. This is why it cuts through the mountains.

I stop at roadcuts and take photographs. What are those horizontal lines? Do they indicate the changing water level of the river? Are they scratches made by boulders moving in ice? The rock here and there has been turned nearly vertical. I am in the dip of the anticline of the Green Mountains.

The river valley
The river valley
Some kind of stripes in rocks west of Montpelier
Some kind of stripes in rocks west of Montpelier
A moth in Plainfield
A moth in Plainfield

I stop in Richmond, outside of Burlington. I listen to Tom Ashbrook’s On Point while refueling on peanut butter and oranges. Tom is talking today about “The Internet of Things,” whereby objects in the real world maintain a virtual representation, and they may be coordinated by computers. He is talking to Bill Wasik, editor of Wired Magazine, about door locks that will automatically lock and unlock as an owner approaches the doorway. Bill is excited for the possibilities. I find it puzzling. What’s so hard about keys?

Were it 14,000 years before Ira Allen, I would be underwater here, in glacial Lake Vermont. As the Laurentide ice sheet melted, receding north, modern Lake Champlain flooded far into the mountain valleys, as far as Plainfield. Plainfield is 500 feet above Champlain — Lake Vermont was that much deeper. Drainage to the ocean was plugged by ice to the north, at the St. Lawrence River. Icebergs floated in the lake. As they melted, they released pebbles and rock, which stuck to the mud floor.

Geologists say that when the plug at the St. Lawrence opened, the water level fell 300 feet in days.

Bicycle museum at Old Spokes
Bicycle museum at Old Spokes
The Intervale
The Intervale

I stay in Burlington a few nights. My hosts are gracious; I eat pulled-pork pizza, my clothes are washed, I am taken to the jazz festival. Burlington is a small city — there is only one high school — but it is remarkably diverse and vibrant. Judging by the malls and big-box stores blanketing Plattsburgh, across the lake, today’s New Yorkers continue to have no business on the Onion River.

I cycle along the dirt paths of the Intervale — the large, flat, fertile bottomland of the Winooski, near the delta. Here Ethan Allen settled. His homestead is now a museum. I am prevented from visiting it by mud on the trail. This area was once a municipal dump. Now there is a compost center, and much of it has been returned to farmland — which, for its size and proximity to Burlington, is remarkable. In the still noon sun, cottonwood seed shines and lingers like uncertain snow.

Ira died poor. He had been chased out of Vermont by creditors. The legislature of Vermont at the time did not even note his passing.

The story about Remember Baker and Ira Allen comes from The Winooski, by Ralph Nading Hill.