- Historic Sites
Thomas Jefferson Takes A Vacation
ON IT HE GAVE THE NEW nation a new industry, wrote a protoguide to New England inns and taverns, (probably) did some secret politicking, discovered a town that lived up to his hopes for a democratic society, scrutinized everything from rattlesnakes to rum manufacture—and, in the process, pretty much invented the summer vacation itself
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
Jefferson and Madison did more than make journal entries; they went fishing. The “abundance” of fish “added to our other amusements the sport of taking them,” the Secretary of State wrote. They caught salmon trout “of 7 lb. weight,” speckled trout, Oswego bass “of 6 or 7 lb. weight,” rock bass, and yellow perch. Jefferson noted wild ducks and seagulls—also “in abundance"—and he doubtless heard the loon. “Rattlesnakes abound on it’s [sic] borders. Two of which we killed,” he noted, and as any visitor to the area in late May would know, the lake was also “infested with swarms of mosquitoes and gnats, and two kinds of biting fleas.” That was a man of science, observing that they were two kinds of flea while swatting and picking off the insects.
What most impressed James Madison was finding a free black farmer whose house stood all alone at Lake George’s north end, on what is now called Black Point. “He possesses a good farm of about 250 acres which he cultivates with 6 white hirelings,” Madison wrote. The “free Negro,” named Prince Taylor, a native of Massachusetts and a veteran of the Commissary Department in the Revolutionary War, had paid about $2.50 per acre, “and by his industry and good management turns [it] to good account. He is intelligent; reads, writes and understands accounts and is dexterous in his affairs.” Not all of Madison’s observations were so serious. At Fort Edward he noted, “Here we saw a sow having a litter, belled in the manner of cattle and sheep.”
They stopped over at the ruins of Fort Ticonderoga, toured its ramparts, and enjoyed a French meal at an inn owned by a family of refugees from Canada who had helped the revolutionists during the war. The next day Jefferson and Madison sailed out onto Lake Champlain, and into one of those sudden, fierce storms that can make the mountain-ringed lake so treacherous. After a full day gaining little headway, they lodged for the night at an inn on Chimney Point, on the Vermont shore. The following morning Jefferson was delighted to discover what was for him a new species: “We have met with a small red squirrel, of the color of our fox squirrel with a black stripe on each side, weighing about six ounces generally.” Red squirrels were “in such abundance, on Lake Champlain particularly, . . . that twenty odd were killed at the house we lodged in ... without going ten steps from the door. . . . We killed three which were crossing the lakes, one of them just as he was getting ashore where it was three miles wide and where, with the high winds then blowing, he must have made it five or six miles.”
Jefferson vented his frustration in his journal: “Lake Champlain is a much larger but less pleasant water than Lake George.” Yet he jotted down his admiration for the Vermont shore, calling it “champagne” country with rolling golden fields of wheat running up to the Green Mountains. He wrote Patsy: “We have been obliged by a head wind and a high sea to return, having spent a day and a half in sailing on [Lake Champlain]. Our journey hitherto has been prosperous and pleasant.”
Sailing and driving south sixty-two miles in the next two days, they retraced their route to Saratoga, crossed the Hudson, and went at Vermont from the southwest, riding thirty-one miles over a bone-jarring dirt road to Bennington, stopping every day at blacksmiths to have their horses reshod.