Mountain Passes: Smugglers Notch

During Thomas Jefferson’s second term, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, forbidding Americans to trade with Great Britain or its dominions such as Canada. This meant that citizens would have to buy products manufactured in the United States rather than less expensive ones made abroad. 

The passage and enforcement of the Embargo Act caused economic hardship for many Vermonters, who had an established route of trade with Canada and had been trading with Montreal merchants for several generations. Herding their cattle northward, Vermonters traded them for silk, lace, and whiskey. Hauling home the trade goods, they then sold them throughout New England. Many Vermont traders were so infuriated by the Embargo Act that they refused to obey the law and thus became smugglers.

At first the smugglers used ships to sneak in Montreal goods: sailing a ship on Lake Champlain was much easier than carrying crates on horseback or foot through thick forests and over hard mountains. But the government appointed law officers, called revenue men, to capture and imprison the smugglers. In June of 1808 ten revenue officers under the command of Chief James Watson stopped the Black Snake, a boat carrying smuggled goods on Lake Champlain. The smugglers fired on the revenuers, who shot back. One officer was killed and Chief Watson was badly wounded.  The other side fared worse: one smuggler was killed, two badly wounded, five captured — and the government confiscated the Black Snake. The prisoners were tried for murder and smuggling: one was executed and four went to prison for life. But Sandy McPherson, the captain of the Black Snake,  eluded capture.

After capturing the Black Snake the government agents guarded Lake Champlain so well that smugglers dared not use their water route — they resorted to the slower, more difficult method of smuggling goods over land. In order to do that, they had to cross the Green Mountains at some point. The pass they chose was a high, dangerous one between Mount Mansfield and Sterling Peak.  (Mount Mansfield is Vermont’s highest peak, standing at 4,383 feet.)  In places the notch was so narrow that people and horses edged single file along a ridge with 1,000-foot drop-offs.

Not only were there drop-offs: there was snow. Because passes are lower than the surrounding mountains, they fill with snow. And fill. And fill. The normal snowfall in Smugglers Notch, for example, is 271” a winter — that’s almost 23’ of snow, as high as a two-story house. To be trapped in a mountain pass filled with snow and to be unable to walk across that snow would mean death. The smugglers were experienced winter travelers: they wore snowshoes.

If the smugglers thought that nobody would find them or the smuggled laces, silks, and whiskey that they hid in the notch’s many caves, they were wrong. Henry Matthews, recently graduated from the University of Vermont, joined the revenue service: after Chief Watson was wounded in the battle with the Black Snake, Matthews was put in charge of finding Sandy McPherson and his gang. Henry Matthews did not suspect how personal this assignment would become.

According to local history pamphlets and magazine articles, the following story is true. A young woman named Anna Barry lived in Burlington with her father and their large Newfoundland dog, Wolf. During the summer of 1808 Sandy McPherson asked Mr. Barry to help the smugglers by hiding their goods on his property. Anna’s father refused. McPherson vowed revenge. He waited until a day in August when Mr. Barry and Wolf were gone. Then he forced his way into the house and demanded that Anna tell him where her father kept his money. When she wouldn’t tell him, McPherson kidnapped Anna and left a ransom note asking $1,000 for her return. Anna Barry was Henry Matthews’ fiancé.

Northern Vermont was a land of rugged mountains and rushing rivers, with yowling catamounts prowling the thick forests.  McPherson must have felt that nobody could find him and the cave in which he kept smuggled goods. That night he took Anna to the cave, a huge twenty-foot by thirty-foot room hidden from the outside by jutting rocks. Boxes of smuggled goods were piled high inside the cave, which was in Smugglers Notch. McPherson, Anna, and several other smugglers spent the night there. 

According to legend, Mr. Barry returned home that evening with Henry Matthews. As soon as they saw what had happened, they found the kidnapper’s footprints and commanded Wolf: Find Anna. Putting his nose to the scent, Wolf followed the trail, leading Henry Matthews and Mr. Barry to the secret cave by morning.  Matthews found a way through the rocks into the cave. He saw the boxes of smuggled goods; he felt the warm ashes of a recent fire. But he did not find Anna.

Smugglers Notch

Mountain Range: Green Mountains
Elevation: 2,162 feet
Grade: 7-15%
Location: Vermont, in the Mount Mansfield National Forest, in Smuggler’s Notch State Forest.

Early that same morning, Sandy McPherson had set off through the wilderness with Anna. For two full days they traveled through thick forest until they reached the house of Jake Glass and his wife Molly, both of whom were fellow smugglers. McPherson left, ordering Jake and Molly to keep Anna prisoner.

Barry and Matthews and Wolf continued the search, but eventually Wolf lost the trail.  While Mr. Barry continued to search for his daughter, Matthews felt it was his duty to seize the smuggled goods. Taking several men with him, he returned to the cave, captured three smugglers without firing a shot, and confiscated the goods.

Anna did not wait for somebody to rescue her. She watched and waited. After Jake Glass went hunting one morning, Anna locked Molly Glass into a room, gathered food and a blanket, and escaped into the forest, heading in the direction she thought home. For two full days she walked and slept beside fallen logs until, finally, she met an Indian who led her to a white settler’s house. The settler took Anna back to Burlington, where she was reunited with her father, Henry Matthews, and Wolf.

Although every sign warned him to stop smuggling, McPherson thought he was smarter than the revenuers. In September he and six other smugglers returned from Montreal with seven horses loaded with goods.  McPherson knew that his Smugglers Notch cave was no longer secret, but he must have thought he could spend one night there anyway. 

Close on McPherson’s trail, Henry Matthews and his men surrounded the cave in the middle of the night. When they closed in on the smugglers at daybreak, the revenue men were driven back by gunfire and several were wounded. All morning, afternoon, and evening the gun battle continued. Matthews requested reinforcements from Burlington: he also requested a keg of gunpowder.

Still according to legend, during the middle of the second night Henry Matthews carried the powder keg close to the cave. Then he lit a long fuse and ran. The blast shook the earth, bringing down part of the mountain and  killing the smugglers, who were buried with their goods beneath thousands of tons of rock.

Due to the presence and actions of the revenue men, smuggling along the Vermont-Canadian border stopped for nearly a century.  In 1809 the unpopular Embargo Act was done away with. But the mountain pass has kept the name it received back then — Smugglers Notch. Escaping slaves used the notch to reach Canada and freedom. During the years of Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal in the United States, Canadian whiskey was smuggled south through the notch, which by that time had a road running through it.

Today Smuggs, as the locals call it, is a highly popular skiing area as well as an official state scenic drive.

Smugglers Notch

Snuggled,
smuggled.
Blasted,
forgotten.

Woe is
the fate
of goods
ill-gotten.

———————————————

Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Yellow Mountain Gap.