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Champlain’s Past with Piracy Turns into Festivity

“Raise your glass to smugglers, for they help small towns survive and now the lake’s alive with snakes — the potash business thrives,” sings Pete Sutherland in his song, “The Black Snake and The Fly,” about the epic battle between the two ships on the waters of Lake Champlain. The Embargo Act of 1807, issued by Thomas Jefferson in an attempt to prevent war and force Great Britain and France to recognize and respect America’s rights, ended up causing more harm to our country than good, especially for the small towns in the Champlain Valley. Trade with British Canada, forbidden…

“Raise your glass to smugglers, for they help small towns survive and now the lake’s alive with snakes — the potash business thrives,” sings Pete Sutherland in his song, “The Black Snake and The Fly,” about the epic battle between the two ships on the waters of Lake Champlain.

The Embargo Act of 1807, issued by Thomas Jefferson in an attempt to prevent war and force Great Britain and France to recognize and respect America’s rights, ended up causing more harm to our country than good, especially for the small towns in the Champlain Valley. Trade with British Canada, forbidden in the act, was a main source of income and led to a large smuggling industry. One of the most famous smuggling vessels in the region, The Black Snake, earned its keep by sneaking potash, an impure form of potassium used back then in soaps, gunpowder, and fertilizer, into Canada under the orders of Captain Truman Mudgett.

Edward Butts, author of “Running with Dillinger, The Story of Red Hamilton and Other Forgotten Canadian Outlaws,” writes, “The Black Snake had a crew of a dozen men, all of them reputed to be tough and dangerous. They were armed with muskets and clubs and had long pikes for repelling boarders. Their most fearsome piece of armament was an 8-foot-long wall gun, a type of blunderbuss, which fired a load of 16 1-ounce lead balls…” In 1808, The Black Snake had a run-in with The Fly, which carried men tasked with upholding the embargo. Pirate performer Ron Carter says, “They got in a shoot out with some federal agents and because of that, at least one of the smugglers was hanged in Burlington.” The hanging was a huge event, with an estimated 10,000 people out to watch Vermont’s first official execution.

The rest of the smugglers became the first inmates at Windsor State Prison in Vermont. Although the Embargo Act was withdrawn in 1809, the smuggling industry continued on in the North Country. The Phoenix was another potential victim of Lake Champlain’s pirates. In 1819 the vessel, on its way to Plattsburgh, mysteriously caught fire, causing the captain and passengers to jump ship before it sunk, although not everyone made it out alive. Thea Lewis writes in her book, “Ghosts and Legends of Lake Champlain,” that the fire may have been set deliberately as a distraction for someone who intended to rob the ship. Butts agrees, saying in his book that, “there was circumstantial evidence of sabotage by a rival company.”

The Phoenix shipwreck is open to the public and you can scuba dive down to its visibly fire-charred remains. Divers at Ellenburg A&M Scuba can take you to the Phoenix though owner Archie Jones warns that it’s an advanced dive; 110 feet underwater at a steep angle. “There’s mostly skeleton left,” Jones says. “It’s a very interesting dive. Nothing is quite like it because you’re going back so far in time.”

Pirate Race in Vermont

There are two approaches to running a road race while dressed as a pirate: fit yourself with unobtrusive adornments to ensure your place among the fastest finishers or forgo speed altogether in a bid to take top place in the costume contest. “We had one young woman two years ago who built a boat around her that held on with suspenders,” Lisa Condon says, president of Red Sapphire Consulting. “People go all out for the pirate race.” The 5k began in 2011 as part of Vermont’s Lake Champlain Maritime Festival. The festival, heading into its ninth year, showcases Burlington’s waterfront with mostly free events across four days in the summer. It’s a downtown street party where you can catch a concert, grab lunch or see an exhibit at the ECHO Aquarium. Before taking in the sights and sounds of the festival, however, make sure to pack an eye patch along with your running shoes for the next race set August 2015.

Pointe-à-Callière, Museum of Archeology and History of Montreal

Plaques filled with the Northeast’s pirate history cover the walls, providing a glimpse at the lives of several pirates, such as John Rackham, Anne Bonny, Mary Read and Edward Teach, better known as Black Beard. These pirates and privateers still live on at the Museum of Archaeology and History of Montreal. The pirate who played the most vital role in Montreal during the 1696 battle between France and England was privateer captain Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville. Louis de Buade, governor of Frontenac, authorized Le Moyne to sail to Newfoundland in order to drive out the English. The French vessel Le Machault sank off the Acadian coast and the English won the war.

The end of the war also brought about the end of international privateering after the Declaration of Paris was signed in 1856. The museum allows tourists to gain knowledge about the history of pirates and how they inhabited waters of the Northeast. The “Pirates or Privateers?” exhibit opened new doors for the museum and drew in young visitors ages 8-12. “It’s like being in a playground and an exhibition at the same time,” says Claude-Sylvie Lemery, the museum’s director of communications and marketing. Anchor-shaped stickers on the floor lead you downstairs to life out in the open waters. The floors represent the different levels of a vessel. The third floor harbors a large pirate ship with a plethora of interactive activities surrounding it, including a compass activity, a barrel smelling of fresh fish heads and two wood boards on springs to demonstrate the sensation of being on a ship traveling over choppy waters.

Whether you want to know more about the history of Montreal and its early settlers or are interested in the lives of pirates on the St. Lawrence River, the Museum of Archaeology and History of Montreal has an adventure waiting for visitors to climb aboard.

Kid’s Pirate Festival at Lake Champlain Maritime Museum

“I don’t have a sword. I don’t have a knife. I roll like a pirate, but I roll real nice,” sings Ron Carter, also known as Rockin’ Ron the Friendly Pirate, one of the pirate performers at this annual event. When participants aren’t listening to his educational songs, they can walk around the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum to look at its many boat-themed and nautical displays, make pirate-themed crafts, embark on a treasure hunt or try to find their way through an obstacle course. “People will always really like pirates,” says Brandon Berry, captain of the New England Brethren of Pirates (NEBP), another pirate group performing at the event. “It’s all about freedom. Pirates do what they want to do.”

Children can climb into the NEBP’s gibbet, a cage where captured pirates would have been displayed until dying, or they can greet the Brethren’s Kraken prop, lovingly named Lola. Admission for kids 5 and under are free. The event, June 13 and 14 this year, gives children an opportunity to learn about both the history of their lake and the history of pirates, which actually go hand in hand. “There are so many things you can learn from studying the history of pirates. You learn about geography, history, government, economies of the past, culinary of the past, nautical items,” says Carter. “The study of pirates is limitless.”

Written by Christian Burek, Nicole Hebdon, Seth Thomas
Issue 5: Summer-Fall 2015

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