Six days before Christmas in 1783, a tree fell in the forest near Middlebury village and barely made a sound. All across the region, settlers were clearing land and putting up firewood for the winter, but the fall of this particular tree was different. It took the life of a Revolutionary War veteran named William Douglass who was out cutting wood with his two young sons. We may never know what went wrong that day.
Douglass was 48 years old when he died. He had been an ensign in the 12th Regiment of the Vermont Militia headquartered at Bennington. (Ensigns were commissioned officers who carried the colors.) We know that Douglass served in Captain John Stillwell’s company for 16 days in the fall of 1781, that he traveled 40 miles, and was paid four pounds, one shilling, and four pence for his service. Whether Douglass served at other times during the Revolution and what his company did, where they went, and whether they ever encountered the British is not known. All that remains is his payroll card from the war and his grave site—the grave on the Middlebury College golf course.
Why is there such an incomplete picture of William Douglass? He died before the first U.S. census in 1790. He didn’t live long enough to document his service for a Revolutionary War pension. His death predates the existence of the first churches in Cornwall and Middlebury where early records were kept. There were no newspapers in the region at the time. And fires in 1800 and 1814 destroyed most of the Revolutionary War documents in the custody of the War Department.
“Fire and floods, mold and neglect,” says Amy Morsman, associate professor of history at Middlebury. “These are not good for historians. Primary source materials like original records are the building blocks of history. They are your absolute smoking gun in terms of historical research.”
Without primary sources, a historian has little option but to dig deeper. “Pursuing the past, running down loose ends, taking paths that turn out to be dead ends and then turning around and digging some more—this is what makes history interesting for students,” Morsman says. “When they have to go out and do that research themselves, when they have to go up to a real person and ask questions, and it’s not all at the point-and-click of a mouse, that’s when they realize that they can be the person to unlock a mystery.”
Douglass was one of the first settlers of Cornwall, Vermont, and yet his place in history is obscure. And except for the fact that his tombstone lies alongside the 11th tee on the golf course, he could have been forgotten.
The town clerk spins around in her chair and says, “It’s missing. Vital Records Book Number One for the Town of Cornwall is gone and has been since the early 1960s when some researcher borrowed it”—or so the story goes—“and never brought it back.” With that lament, another lead into the life and death of William Douglass has vanished. The book recorded the births, deaths, marriages, and town reports of Cornwall, from 1763 to 1855.
From secondary sources written in the 19th century, we learn that Douglass was from the town of Cornwall, Connecticut, where both of his parents were teachers. He arrived in Vermont in 1774, along with a handful of others from Litchfield County who staked their claim to land along the western bank of Otter Creek. Like most of the region’s pioneers, they endured life in the rugged river valley until the British retook control of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, and it was no longer safe to stay.
Douglass was preparing for the return of his wife and daughter when he met his demise in 1783. He is not on the roster of veterans recognized by either the Sons or Daughters of the American Revolution. And while there is a plaque in Cornwall that honors 78 Revolutionary War veterans from the region, his name is not among them. There is no building or creek or hill that bears his name. So unless you hit an errant tee shot, you would never see his grave site or know a thing about him. You could call him Vermont’s forgotten patriot.
“In researching William Douglass, you have to look for every piece of documentary evidence out there, like journals, diaries, letters, speeches, sermons, wills, deeds, and genealogies,” says William Hart, associate professor of American history at Middlebury.
“And sometimes, when the vital records are missing, we have to rely upon the works of early historians, since we don’t work in isolation. We are always building on the findings of the credible historians who have gone before us. And,” Hart says pausing, “you always have his grave site.” It always comes back to the grave site. Originally a marker of wood or rock, it was replaced with a marble tombstone, probably by his son James around 1810, that reads:
Mr. William Douglas, born June 22, 1735, was killed instantly by the fall of a tree, December 19, 1783.
Here life and all its pleasures end,
Here mourners wander, read and weep;
Soon each succeeds his fallen friend,
And in the same cold bed must sleep.
“That sure is dark,” Hart offers. “And the icon carved on top”—a ribbon tied into a bow cascading down into chains—“is a mystery. In the 18th century we tend to see death masks that are dark and frowning. Later, into the 19th century, God was thought to be more benevolent. A more hopeful outlook was on the rise, and we see willow trees sprouting out of urns, a symbol of rebirth. But that verse about sleeping in the cold earth . . . that’s pretty bleak, isn’t it?”
Hart studies Native Americans, African Americans, and working-class colonials—he terms much of the work he does as “giving voice to the voiceless.”
“I am often asked, how much is knowable about these people? If they didn’t leave any written records, how will we ever know their stories? That’s when I say it’s too important to tell their stories so we have to adopt a different kind of methodology to do so, one that is more multidisciplinary, and we piece the story together that way.
“We borrow tools used by scholars in other disciplines,” Hart adds. “For example, we use material culture from anthropology and archaeology, textual analysis from literary studies, quantitative and statistical analysis from economics, maps from geography. Most historians today would say we must look beyond the written record.”
Or as Amy Morsman would advise, dig deeper. That’s why Paul Carnahan, librarian for the Vermont Historical Society, is on the phone. “It looks like your William Douglass may have also served in the French and Indian War in 1759.” Really? “Yes, and he was the company clerk, too.” That makes sense; we know Douglass could read and write. “You might want to come over here and take a look at these records.”
Piece by piece a more complete picture of William Douglass is taking shape. It’s as if the sound of that tree falling in the forest is getting louder all the time.