SWANTON — The Maquam Shore landing, down Lake Road, doesn’t seem to see a lot of foot traffic. It’s a small, peaceful pocket of land before a shallow bay, out of sight of the central village.
Maybe it’s hard to believe, then, that here, 206 years ago, between 1,000 and 1,400 British soldiers trudged up the bank of the Maquam Shore, disembarking from 47 longboats.
The British marched down what is now Lake Road. Local workers had only laid the road the year before, and it was still swampy, a marshy area of Maquam.
Swanton native and historian Jason Barney is tracing their march from the present.
“Just imagine being a British soldier,” Barney said, driving the British route, down Lake Road, in a vehicle they couldn’t have imagined.
“It’s an eighty-degree day. … You’ve got forty to sixty pounds of supplies on your back. You’ve got your musket. And you’re treading through, basically, swampy, marshy area.”
The Brits couldn’t look forward to an easy march across the Missisquoi River, either. There was no bridge across the river at that time. High water undermined an earlier attempt.
But there was a ferry. The British caught it on the north side, near what would become the Riviera Hotel, firing into the air to frighten the ferry operator into compliance. They rode it across the river, landing near what is now called, tellingly, Ferry Street.
In the next several hours, the British fanned out across the Village of Swanton, then around 1,600 people, one of Vermont’s largest communities, and burned the military barracks facing the village green, its own lumber culled from the green’s trees.
They took County or Middle Road, afraid they might run into militia coming back up Lake.
They didn’t encounter militia. They returned to their boats and shipped off, Swanton’s barracks decimated by fire.
Barney vividly recreates this British invasion in his book Northern Vermont in the War of 1812, which the History Press will publish this coming Monday, Aug. 19.
Barney said the book “weaves [multiple sources] together in a story that hasn’t been told before.”
The above-described incident, which happened one August morning in 1813, is just a piece of the larger local story Barney tells in the book, a tale less of marching than of smuggling, raids and the struggles of those it surrounded.
Parked overlooking the bay at Highgate’s Tyler Place, Barney said, “I grew up in this area. I remember coming here as a kid. … So to think that there were historical events that were unfolding … in the area where I had tramped through as a kid was pretty cool.”
Barney clearly gets a thrill out of uncovering the history on which most residents unknowingly walk day in and day out.
He himself has traced those British soldiers’ path “a couple times,” he said, a roughly 45-minute walk.
“A couple of times I’ve actually done it on the anniversary,” Barney said. “So on the morning of August 2 I’ll come here, or my wife will drop me off here, and I’ll walk into town.”
Barney’s book came about through a serendipitous series of events. His wife, Christine Eldred, a genealogist working with the Colchester Historical Society, signed Barney up for a CHS presentation when the society was looking for programming.
That led to an email from a History Press editor, perusing the programming of local historical societies and intrigued by Barney’s take on northern Vermont’s role in the War of 1812.
Barney collected research in the summer of 2018, then “pretty much wrote the book over a cup of coffee each morning between 4:30 and 7:30,” he said, “going over different drafts, checking different sources, making sure all the information was chronological.”
Barney himself learned of the Swanton invasion through the Barney-Perry History of Swanton, published in the late 1800s, partially written by Barney’s own distant relative. Accounts of the attack weren’t published until well after the incident, and thus, their details vary.
Barney has tied those accounts together using his own local insight and modern technology, like the ability to easily scan historic newspaper archives.
In doing so, Barney discovered, for example, that the local reaction to the barracks’ burning “was not as patriotic as a lot of us might think.”
Soldiers constructed the barracks here due to the proliferation of local smuggling.
“It’s not because they expected a huge battle with the British along the Missisquoi Bay,” Barney said. “It’s because they were trying to cut down on the amount of smuggling.”
Swanton’s population regularly smuggled timber, beef and pot ash into Canada. Many Swantonians lived off the smuggling.
“It’s just so neat to have memories of playing here as a kid, but then to enter adulthood and to learn that, a little more than two hundred years ago, there’s smuggling activity happening all throughout here.”
Barney even surmised that soldiers in a unit corralled from Highgate likely helped the smugglers.
“It would be nothing for Conrade Saxe or one of his guys to be like, ‘Well, the patrol’s going to be moving out at this time period. Make sure you’re not in the area.’”
But even more mysterious than smuggling ties is the location of the burned barracks. No one is exactly sure where they are.
Like the Holy Grail in an Indiana Jones movie, clues exist to the barracks’ final resting place, specifically references to village properties in the Barney-Perry book and the note that the barracks consisted of three buildings in a crescent shape facing the village green, with a parade ground in-between.
Barney has his own estimation of where the barracks might lie, and he and Missisquoi Valley Union students, where Barney teaches, have already participated in several backyard digs. So far, he said, they haven’t uncovered anything.
But there’s still plenty of ground to search. Take the ravine near Flowers by Debbie, for example, on Grand Avenue, a feature of the natural landscape people drive by every day without thinking of it. Barney said barracks soldiers likely tossed their garbage in the ravine, meaning “archaeological treasures” could well have floated to the neighboring properties.
And while there’s archaeological debate over the best manner of historic excavation — digging risks damaging artifacts, but the non-invasive ground-penetrating radar is imprecise — Barney said he hopes to convince state officials to aid local efforts to find the barracks in the not-so-distant future.
In the meantime, Barney’s book is the closest many of us may come to living in that daring, intrigue-laden Swanton of the early 19th century. Barney wrote the book in vivid language less like research notes and more like a fireside narrative, but with all the detail and intricacy of thorough research.
Barney said his high school history teachers inspired him, but even they might have spent one class on the War of 1812.
“It’s nice to know that teachers who did their job with me, and did well thirty years ago … I can take a historical topic and expand it on a little bit.”
Or, honestly, a lot.
Northern Vermont in the War of 1812 is available Aug. 19 from booksellers everywhere. Barney will be at the Eloquent Page here in St. Albans for a signing on Aug. 24.