In the early years of the 1800’s Great Britain and France were fighting furiously in the Napoleonic Wars. Britain used economic warfare to try to damage France’s economy by restricting trade between their enemy and the newly independent United States. This seriously impacted the U.S. merchant marine. Congress and President Thomas Jefferson responded with Embargo Act of 1807, which limited trade with Canada (still a British colony at that time).
Many residents of the Champlain Valley relied on this trade with British Canada for their livelihood, and to provide a living they resorted to smuggling. Vermonters got angry. Their business was cut off and the potash trade forbidden. They saw no reason to let the faraway United States government tell them what to do. By boat and by pack horse, they carried potash to Canada and exchanged it for cash or store goods. From Canada the potash went to England. The illegal commerce continued via Lake Champlain and through the mountain passage that became known as Smugglers’ Notch.
In August, 1808, a revenue cutter named Fly, while enforcing the embargo on Lake Champlain, encountered a smuggling boat called Black Snake, a forty-foot, single-masted boat, known up and down the lake for smuggling potash to Canada. It was called the Black Snake because its hull was painted with black tar (some say this kept it from being spotted at night). Its captain, Truman Mudgett of Highgate, was equally famous. Lieutenant Daniel Farrington of Brandon, Vermont and thirteen federalized Vermont militia learned that the smugglers had gone up the Winooski River to take on potash destined for Canada.
August 4, Farrington rowed up the river searching for the smugglers. After he found Black Snake beached, he placed some crewmen aboard Black Snake and headed down the river with both boats. This prompted threats against the revenue officers as they took Black Snake. The smugglers then moved down the bank of the river and shot at Fly killing the helmsman, Ellis Drake. Farrington put ashore to capture the smugglers, but walked into an ambush in which he was wounded and another of his men, Amos Marsh, and Jonathan Ormsby, a farmer, were killed.
In a few days all of the smugglers were captured – some as they tried to flee to Canada, and most were tried within a few weeks. The trial of these men stirred up anger between those who supported the United States president and the embargo, and those who did not. So many Vermonters agreed with smuggling that it was hard to pick a fair jury for the trial. Ethan Allen, Jr., son of the famous hero, was dismissed from jury duty after saying the prisoners were not guilty of any crime and should be set free.
Four of the men were found guilty of manslaughter, but three later were pardoned. However, the court sentenced Cyrus Dean, perhaps the most vocal of the smugglers, to be hanged. On November 11, a large crowd (perhaps 10,000) watched his execution in Burlington. The incident became known as The Black Snake Affair.
The following is from a song written shortly after the Black Snake Affair:
Then Farrington sailed down the Lake,
And this he to the rebels spake,
‘Orders I have to take the Snake,
And all the smugglers on the Lake.
The men who laid this smuggling plot,
Was Sheffield, Mudgett, Dean, and Mott ,
And many others who were not clever,
Spread out their sails on Onion River.
Then Mudgett gave a threatening word,
To all the men on board,
“The first that steps into the Snake,
A lifeless corpse of him I’ll make . “
(The song goes on to tell about the fight,
the murder of the soldiers by the smugglers,
and their capture.)
These men were tried all for the same crime,
Why not alike their sentence find;
Dean was sentenced to the halter,
The rest convicted of manslaughter.