Suppose Vermont history had started off differently? What I mean is, let’s take a look at the very first European to set foot in the state. Who was he – or possibly she? Used to be the answer was simple, but nowadays there are many theories – a Viking, a Celt, a Phoenician… maybe even an extraterrestrial.
However in historical terms, “first status” is traditionally awarded to the earliest explorer to leave a written record of his visit. On that basis the winner is French explorer Samuel de Champlain. In 1609 he made his way south into the lake that now bears his name. And he left diaries to prove it. In other words, the French discovered Vermont.
But there’s another document that suggests someone else got here first – an Englishman. In December 1853, two Swanton workers were digging near the bank of the Missisquoi River. About a foot down, embedded in a piece of sod, they saw something that should not have been there: a gray metallic tube about five inches long. The tube was fashioned from a sheet of lead, apparently molded around a stick, and sealed at both ends. From inside they extracted a piece of heavy paper and deciphered it with difficulty. It was a message written in what appeared to be archaic English. It said: “This is the Solme day I must now die this is the 90th day since we left the Ship all are Perished and on the Banks of this River I die to, farewelle may future posteretye know our end” It was signed Johne Graye and dated November 29, 1564. So who was he and what was he doing here some 45 years before Champlain?
Well, we don’t know. One historian suggested Mr. Graye had been a member of one of Sir Martin Frobisher’s expeditions to discover the Northwest Passage. Perhaps the men belonged to a scouting party that got lost. Or maybe they’d been put ashore to fend for themselves when supplies ran low. But that was just one guess of many.
Over the years the mystery of Johne Graye’s message has pretty much died out. Though it may have the potential to change the history of our region, most people have never heard of it. But whether it’s hoax or history we’ll never know because mystery piles upon mystery: The original document – and its lead container – have vanished. A facsimile was kept at the Highgate library, but the whereabouts of the original, the origin of Johne Graye, and the circumstances of his lonely death must remain one haunting episode from Vermont’s undiscoverable past.
This is Joe Citro.
Joe Citro is a novelist and native Vermonter who lives in Burlington. His new book with Philip Baruth is Vermont Air: Best of the Vermont Public Radio Commentaries.”