Real Vermont Stories


Real Vermont Stories

Beth Kanell

Beth Kanell lives in northeastern Vermont, with a mountain at her back and a river at her feet. She writes poems, hikes the back roads and mountains, and digs into Vermont history to frame her “history-hinged” novels. Her poems scatter among regional publications and online. Follow her research and writing process at

Published Works

The Darkness Under the Water (Vt. eugenics, 1930),

Cold Midnight (ethnic complexity and murder, 1921),

The Secret Room (teens insist on truth, in terms of the local "Underground Railroad" and their own complex lives).

The Long Shadow (Winds of Freedom Book 1, Vermont's moral stance before and during the Civil War).


Two Kinds of Truth

            Because I write historical fiction, I require two kinds of historical “truth” for my books: The first, obviously, is the dates-and-places-and-names kind, which underlies each scene and the forces of history. The second is emotional truth. And that is the harder truth to find.

As an example, consider Abolition: the movement to abolish slavery. Many Vermonters proudly proclaim that Vermont did away with slavery in its state constitution – which turns out to not be true in the first sense, since the phrasing was “no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law, for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.” If you read this precisely, you’ll find that child slavery was legal. Research in the past decade has uncovered a shocking amount of it.

            A lot of fair-minded Vermonters are sure that the Civil War veterans in their families joined up to fight to get rid of slavery – but more Vermonters fought for the sake of holding together the Union of states. People also picture their ancestors deciding that white people and dark-skinned were somehow equivalent and thus should be citizens and not enslaved. Here, emotional research shows a different picture: Most Vermonters who cared about Abolition did so from a religious point of view, considering the soul and the damage done to a soul by becoming an enslaver.

            Even tougher is figuring out the emotional truth of Vermont’s earliest years—the lives of veterans who’d fought in the Revolutionary War. A sort of fife-and-drum, Yankee Doodle Dandy image suggests merriment and derring-do. But the first sort of truth shows us soldiers who ranged from barely old enough to hold a weapon, to men in their sixties and older with seasoning in the “French and Indian War” (1754-1763). Some of these developed engineering and problem-solving skills they were eager to keep using. Others learned to pull groups of diverse men together.

            Among Revolutionary War veterans from my town of Waterford, in the Northeast Kingdom, I found men who probably knew each other in the “Colony of Connecticut” before they enlisted; others who ended up here fought together in some battles. (The war veterans of Wilmington, at the other end of the state, show similar patterns.) Why did veterans head so far north into what was wilderness at the time? (Col. William Williams of Wilmington ended up in Stewartstown, N.H., almost in Canada.)

            Possibly the rigors of battle made some of these men uncomfortable around the increasingly crowded towns of lower New England. The effort of clearing land, cutting trees, opening fields, erecting cabins, may have soothed them. I wish they’d kept the sort of journals that would let me confirm this, instead of just writing of weather and acres and bushels.

            Today’s military historians write about post traumatic stress syndrome as a consequence of those battles, mitigated by less time served for most Revolutionary War soldiers. PBS presented Dr. Matthew Friedman, Executive Director, VA National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, who spoke of “Soldier’s Heart,” a term in use after the Civil War to describe presumed changes in soldiers’ bodies after wartime service. He also mentioned “nostalgia,” which he suggested would be the urge of a Vermont soldier to miss his home. takes it back further, to the French Revolutionary Wars (right after ours): “The Austrian physician Josef Leopold Auenbrugger wrote about it as ‘nostalgia,’ because soldiers, who suffered from homesickness, reported feeling anxious and depressed while also experiencing sleeplessness.”

            So that’s where I can start, for the Revolutionary War veterans who step into the chapters of my 1850s series “Winds of Freedom.” I’ll look for their “nostalgia,” and make it concrete, with sleep disorders and more.

            And that, I hope, will suit both forms of historical truth.

Real or Not Real? Famous Words of the Vermont Supreme Court

The most famous quotation from a Vermont Supreme Court judge dates back to 1804, when [illus.] Theophilus Harrington (1762-1813), a man with plenty of experience but no formal legal training, examined a suit where an attorney for the “owner” of a fugitive slave presented a bill of sale for the fugitive, in an effort to get the “property” back.


The court that day met in Middlebury and it was Harrington’s first year. Even the court was new: Vermont’s constitution  established courts in each county in 1777, and the next year, the legislature created a Superior Court. According to the official Vermont Judiciary history (, the chief judge and four other judges were chosen each year by a hodgepodge of officials: the governor, the governor’s council, the House of Representatives. Meeting four times a year in four different locations, to spread justice around the state, these judges made decisions—but in turn, the decisions could be appealed, to the very same bodies that appointed the men in the first place.


A few years later, in 1782, the legislature restructured both the county courts and the upper court, which became the Supreme Court. The legislature got to elect its five judges, and these met as a court in each county once per year. Within seven years, legal training had prevailed and all the Supreme Court justices were lawyers, though clerking could take an aspirant to attorney status, without schooling.


Still, formality emerged slowly. It took until 1797 for the decisions to be put into writing and recorded. By 1823 those decisions even got published.


But not so in 1804. Numerous accounts of Harrington’s noted declaration cite each other, but there’s no existing court record of exactly what was said to decide that suit. What we do know is that when Harrington, as a first-year judge on the court, explained his reasoning to the attorney seeking the fugitive, chief judge Jonathan Robinson and assistant judge Royall Tyler concurred.


What was Harrington’s point? He insisted the bill of sale presented by the attorney didn’t go back far enough in time. Neither did the second one provided, showing purchase of the fugitive man’s mother. The frustrated attorney asked what documentation would suffice, and it’s reported that Harrington declared, “Nothing short of a bill of sale signed by God Almighty Himself.”


In the years that followed, Vermonters praised Harrington’s reported words as honestly representing the intent of the 14th state’s constitution. And after the Civil War, in 1886, the legislature promoted a monument to Harrington, at his burial site in Clarendon’s Chippenhook Cemetery.


All good background for writing historical fiction set in Vermont. But there are four major flaws in how “real” this story is. First, there’s no record of Harrington’s actual words, because court reporting hadn’t developed in 1804. Second, there are no accessible newspaper accounts to confirm this, either—Vermont’s early newspapers in current digitized form only date back to 1836. Third, we know more clearly today that the state constitution’s wording around enslavement—“no person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person as a servant, slave or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person's own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like”—allowed de facto enslavement especially of children, a shameful aspect of our history. (See Harvey Amani’s 2014 book, “The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777–1810.”) And fourth, alas, opinion around slavery and abolition was far from unified in 1804, “even in Vermont.”


More on that final point, in another “Real Vermont Story.” It matters—to our integrity, and to the books I’m writing in the Winds of Freedom series.