This Place In History: Black Snake Affair


At 'This Place In History', we visited a couple of sites along the Winooski River in Burlington, Vermont with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

"We're talking about the Black Snake Affair and we're starting at the Ethan Allen Homestead because that's where the signage is that talks about it. It sounds cool, Black Snake. Black Snake actually refers to a boat that was painted black, or covered with tar to make it completely black. It was this really cool smuggling vessel that plied the waters for Lake Champlain," introduced Perkins.

"This happened back in 1808. So in 1807, Thomas Jefferson, President of the Untied States, was worried about both England and France causing problems with our trade; England actually attacking our vessels and impressing sailors and taking goods. He didn't want to get into war, but he said I need to punish them. So his best idea was to create an embargo. The United States was not going to send any goods to Europe."

"And Vermonters said wait a minute. How do we get rid of our logs, cattle, pigs, grain and very important potash? We sent is north to Canada, usually through Lake Champlain. So we get terms like Smugglers' Notch out of this time period. And they start dispatching revenue officers to get to the area. And a group of Vermont militia were called up and put on a boat called The Fly, a revenue cutter, meant to stop illegal trading on Lake Champlain."

Moving to the Intervale Center, behind Gardener's Supply along the Winooski River, Perkins continued the story.

"So the Black Snake has arrived at the base of the [Winooski Falls]. They know The Fly is coming behind them. So they decide to stash the boat. They stash it on this island that's behind us on the Winooski River. The Fly comes up. The smugglers have unloaded their guns, including this big, huge cannon called a punt gun, which was like a huge shotgun. It was about eight feet long and loaded with all sorts of nasty things."

"Lt. Farrington, who's in charge of The Fly says okay, we're going to take the Black Snake, we're going to put some guys on shore and some guys in our boat The Fly and start bringing the Black Snake back down the river toward Lake Champlain."

"Of course, everyone's been drinking because that's what they did in the morning, both the militia men and the smugglers. The Smugglers decide, this is enough, we're going to shoot. And then the smugglers just open up and let this cannon loose. It kills three men all in one shot and wounds quite horrifically Lt. Farrington. I think the smugglers realized, oh no, we just did something wrong. They kind of run in all directions. Bystanders and militiamen finally catch them all and bring them back to one of the houses which is up near the Intervale here. They're then brought to Burlington for trial."

"So we have this battle between smugglers and militiamen right here on the river. They're fighting over states' rights versus federal rights, open-border capitalism versus protectionism. These are international to hyper-local events that are all unfolding right here on the Winooski River."

"Really it's building up this fervor on the Federalist side. So Vermont then flips after being really in support of Thomas Jefferson and his Democrat Republicans, they become Federalists. Vermont has four Congressional seats at this point. They elect three Federalists and the governor switches to a Federalist."

"We don't talk about this much. 1808 was a long time ago. But it's part of what our country back into war with Great Britain and really affected the economy and people of northern Vermont.

For more from our 'This Place In History' click here.

To view a map of Vermont's roadside historic markers, click here.

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