Traveling With A Sense Of History

PrintPrintEmailEmailTo grow up in New England is to grow up with an inescapable sense of history, a heritage that a New Englander carries with him wherever he goes.In Boston, where I was born, we paraded every April 19 to honor the patriots of 1775, and every schoolchild was supposed to memorize Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”: “One if by land, and two if by sea;/And I on the opposite shore will be. “” In Vermont, later, we acquired a farm just down the road from the estate where Rudyard Kipling had once lived, and all Brattleboro schoolchildren had to memorize “Gunga Din” and “Recessional”: “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,/Lest we forget —lest we forget!” In Concord, where I went to high school, we often swam in Thoreau’s Waiden Pond, and the parades on April 19 led out to the battlefield, where Daniel Chester French’s heroic statue of the Minuteman bore Emerson’s no less heroic lines: “Here once the embattled farmers stood,/And fired the shot heard round the world.”

 
A sense of history is a sense of who and where one is, in time as well as place.

To acquire a sense of history is to acquire a sense of who one is, a sense of where one is, in time as well as place. Conversely, to lack all sense of history, to scramble continually after what is new and fashionable, is to lack all sense of identity. David McCullough, the historian, gave eloquent support to this view of the whole nation when he told last year’s graduating class at Middlebury College: “Imagine a man who professes over and over his unending love for a woman but who knows nothing of where she was born or who her parents were or where she went to school or what her life had been until he came along, and furthermore, he doesn’t care to learn. What would you think of such a person?”

The highest social prestige in Concord was claimed by the survivors of those families like the Buttericks or the Wheelers who had inhabited the town since “before the fight,” meaning 1775. My own ancestors had not been there then, for they had already gone West somewhat earlier, West being the Connecticut River valley and beyond, the Berkshires, the wilderness. I was thinking of them when I visited Fort Ticonderoga not too long ago and reached that majestic stone parapet where the row of black cannons stands guard over the southern tip of Lake Champlain. There are a few buildings nearby, of course, but as one gazes out over the thickly wooded hillside sloping down to the lake, one can imagine that this is the way everything once was. Here in 1758, when the stronghold was known as Fort Carillon, the Marquis de Montcalm and his thirty-six hundred men beat back a British force four times as large; here, nearly twenty years later, the British occupiers were surprised and overwhelmed by Ethan Alien and his Green Mountain Boys.

But the scene before me was all illusion. The fort was abandoned after the Revolution, and neighboring farmers made off with everything that remained in the ruins: stones, window frames —everything. There was virtually nothing left when Stephen Pell fell in love with the place and, beginning in 1908, spent the next half a century rebuilding the vanished stronghold. And if the handsome fort now boasts the world’s largest collection of eighteenth-century cannons, it is partly because one of Pell’s friends went roaming through the Caribbean, soliciting antique guns from Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic.

It was long before Fort Ticonderoga was even built that my great-great-greatgreat-great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Wait came wandering through these same woods in search of his kidnapped wife. Wait had been out harvesting his crops in Hatfield, Massachusetts, on September 19,1677, when he heard shouted warnings of an Indian surprise attack. He hurried back to town to find that his house was a smoking ruin and his pregnant wife, Martha, had been taken captive. With only one companion, whose wife also had been abducted, Wait set out into the wilderness in pursuit of the retreating Indians. They hired a Mohawk to guide them to Lake George. They carried their canoe two miles overland to Lake Champlain. Then, with very little idea of where they were going, they continued paddling northward into the wilderness. According to one account, they “traveled three days without a bit of bread or any other relief but some raccoon’s flesh which they had killed in an hollow tree.”

 

In early January 1678, four months after the pregnant Martha Wait had been kidnapped, Wait and his companion found their wives and more than a dozen other captives in an Indian camp near a little Canadian town called Sorel. The Indians were not averse to a bargain with two such devoted husbands, so for two hundred pounds sterling, the colonists bought back their wives and all the other captives. One of these was Martha Wait’s new baby, my great-great-great-greatgreat-great grandmother, whom they named Canada Wait.