Run, Chamberlain, Run! A new book

"Solving the 200-Year-Old Mystery"
    Motivated by what he has read on this blog, Runaway Ponders, Dennis Chamberlain of Davis, CA, a great-great-great grandson of Spencer Chamberlain, one of the principal actors in the events of June 6, 1810, has written and published a book titled Run Chamberlain, Run! Solving the 200-Year-Old Mystery of Runaway Pond. The book is a detailed and impassioned defense of the story of Runaway Pond as told by Spencer Chamberlain to his family and others and as set to verse by Spencer's daughter Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips sometime after 1860. Dennis Chamberlain relies heavily on an account written by Orson V. Percival, based on interviews with Spencer Chamberlain and other eyewitnesses. This account was published in 1877 in the Proceedings of the Orleans County Historical Society. Mr. Chamberlain also relies on an account written by E.T. Wilson of Barton, VT, which was published in a local paper in 1890. Wilson interviewed Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips when she was 77 years old and also used Percival's account as a source.
    Dennis Chamberlain makes numerous references to questions I have posed in Runaway Ponders and unfortunately I think he misconstrues my aim in writing about the various versions of the Runaway Pond story. My aim was not to unseat Spencer Chamberlain as the generally acknowledged hero who "raced against death" in a selfless attempt to save the lives of others.  My aim was, rather, to examine all the versions of the story included in Wayne Alexander's compilation Runaway Pond: The Complete Story and to ask questions and offer answers that might help us better understand the events of June 6, 1810 and the way the different stories and storytellers have interacted over time.
    I also hoped to spur others to think about the story of Runaway Pond and Dennis Chamberlain is the first to take up the challenge. He heard the story in the 1950's when he was about 10 years old, and was surprised to discover, a few years ago, that the story was known outside his family. Descendants of Spencer Chamberlain had moved west in the mid-nineteenth century and Dennis grew up in Utah, far away from the original scene. As the bicentennial of the event approached, he was contacted by Joan Alexander of the Glover Historical Society, and by me seeking information about how the story was passed down in the Chamberlain family. He has been able to add some new information from old letters preserved in his family. His book includes information about both the ancestors and descendants of Spencer Chamberlain.

His Argument
    Mr. Chamberlain clearly states his aim in writing Run, Chamberlain, Run! on page 11: "My goal in writing this detective story is to describe that hot spring day in the life of Spencer Chamberlain as it unfolds and present a case that proves beyond a reasonable doubt the true runner and the exact course that he ran".  Chapter Four, the longest chapter in the book at 30 pages, is titled "June 6, 1810".  It is a detailed narrative that the author claims is "limited by a commitment to strict non-fiction".  It is based principally on the account written by E.T Wilson, who had interviewed Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips and was also using O.V.Percival's previously published account. Mr. Chamberlain intersperses quotations from a 1902 article by Willametta A. Preston that appeared in The Vermonter. Mr. Chamberlain correctly characterizes this piece as "somewhat romanticized", and tells us nothing about Ms. Preston's sources, but includes it under his definition of "strict non-fiction". He also intersperses his own comments and interpretations.
    Does he succeed in his aim? From his point of view he succeeds admirably. He presents a detailed, coherent narrative of the days events as Jeanette Chamberlain and others remembered them being repeated over many years by Spencer Chamberlain. They were set down in writing some 75 to 80 years after they happened. Are they "the truth"? Are they, as Dennis quotes his favorite detective, "the facts ma'am, only the facts".
    The story, as told here, may well be an essentially accurate record of the days events but it seems to me that an impartial observer must admit that there is plenty of room over all those years of telling and retelling for some details to be lost and others to be found, for emphasis and interpretations to change with the times and the tellers. I believe that it is perfectly natural (if that is not an oxymoron) for people to change over time, to change the way they see things that happened in the past, to adjust the emphasis or details of a story for the immediate audience, and, perhaps, to tell a story in a way that presents their role in the best possible light, or that makes themselves (or another) the butt of the joke.
    There is nothing wrong with this. We are all human beings, we are not gods, we are not truth machines. Historians often attempt to overcome this natural predilection, to assess their sources with a critical eye, to thoroughly investigate all versions of a story, and to cast aside personal bias as they make judgments of what to accept and what to doubt. It is a difficult job and what seems like success at one moment may be called into question moments later as new evidence or new interpretations are brought forward. Oftentimes judgement must be reserved until more information becomes available and the historian must hold on to multiple versions perhaps forever.

The Coventry Conspiracy?
    In 1860 when Glover and Orleans County set out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Runaway Pond, the Rev. Pliny White of Coventry was selected to research, write and deliver the main address. The text of this speech is reprinted in Runaway Pond: The Complete Story. Spencer Chamberlain is mentioned only in a humorous anecdote and Solomon Dorr, the son-in-law of  Aaron Willson the mill owner, is named as the man who ran before the flood to warn those who might be at the mill. It seems that Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips was very surprised that this honor was not bestowed on her father, Spencer, and she set out to write a poem telling his version of the story. Spencer had died in 1853 at the age of 76 or 77 and could no longer defend his claim himself.
    In Run, Chamberlain, Run! Dennis Chamberlain presents a conspiracy theory as a possible explanation of Pliny White's failure tell the "truth" about who ran to warn on June 6. He notes that Deacon Loren Frost, one of the original participants, lived in Coventry in 1860, as did Solomon Dorr and his wife Elizabeth, as well as Isaac Parker who later wrote about Runaway Pond. They were all members of the Congregational Church where Pliny White was minister.
    Mr. Chamberlain casts doubt on Loren Frost because he is sometimes called Loren Frost, sometimes Deacon Frost, and sometimes Deacon Loren Frost. He was given the title of deacon because he held that office in the Coventry church. But more to the point, he is on record as having told several others that there had been no plan to dig a ditch and divert water from Long Pond to the Barton River. Rather, some young men had gone fishing on June 6 and not having much success they decided to pull up a few small trees and scratch a ditch in the sand to "watch the water flow the other way". Dennis acknowledges that this fabrication may have been an attempt by Frost to protect some men involved in the actual digging from court actions threatened against them. He sees this as reason to doubt any other statement made by Frost.
    From Mr. Chamberlain's point of view Solomon Dorr can't be trusted as a source because he also claims to have made the run from the pond to the mill on June 6. Dennis also advances the theory that there may have been the desire on the part of some in Orleans County to take credit away from Spencer Chamberlain because of his Native American ancestry. He casts doubt on whether Pliny White actually wrote the speech he delivered in 1860: "Where did White's information come from? I was unable to find any source or references for the facts of his address….So, did White write his address himself? Or was the address written by Judge Isaac Parker of Coventry?"
    In fact, Rev. White cites his sources in the first paragraph of his address: "Very fortunately some of the leading incidents were recorded by an eyewitness at the moment of their occurrence, and the faithful memory of some of the actors in the scene has preserved other incidents which are now for the first time committed to the care of the art preservative of all arts". It seems likely that he has the letter written by Joseph Owen two weeks after the flood, a true eyewitness report, and he has interviewed other participants.
    In regard to Pliny White's interest in and ability to write his own address I submit the following evidence taken from the Memorial of the Life and Services of Rev. Pliny H. White delivered by Henry Clark at the Annual Meeting of the Vermont Historical Society after White's death in 1869. Born in 1822 in Springfield, VT, White was left fatherless and in poverty at the age of 3. His early disposition towards learning and his own hard work earned him the beginning of an education. He clerked for a lawyer in southern Vermont and was admitted to the bar in 1843. His interest in journalism led him to editing the Brattleboro Eagle and other newspapers. In 1858 his long study in theology culminated in his being licensed to preach and he was ordained pastor in the Coventry Congregational Church in Feb. 1859.
History was another of his many interests: "Perhaps the most arduous and useful labors of his life, and those which were congenial to his natural tastes, have been in the field of local history and biography, in which he had few, if any, equals in our whole country - ever on the alert to gather and place in methodical order, for use at any moment, all scraps of history pertaining to Vermont in any form, or to the local history of towns or individuals. He was probably better acquainted with the personal history and peculiar characteristics of more Vermont men than any man now living, and his materials for the biography of individuals were far more exact and voluminous than any other collection in this country".
He was long associated with the Vermont Historical Society and was serving as its president at his death. His obituary in the Barton Standard says: "He was a remarkable man both in the extent of his knowledge and the readiness with which he could apply it on all occasions. He was a walking encyclopedia of historical facts and dates, and it will be a long time before Vermont can furnish his equal in this particular. He was a warm and genial friend, a temperance man of the strictest sect, and, as we believe, a consistent Christian." Describing his writing and speaking style, Clark wrote: "The main excellence of his style consisted in a clear, vernacular, consecutive train of manly thought and methodical arrangement".
    He died at the age of 46 "after an illness of paralysis of the brain, undoubtedly occasioned by overwork". The preceding quotations are taken from The History of Orleans County Vermont published in White River Junction, VT, 1882. An engraved portrait of Pliny White faces the title page and he supplied the Orleans County Introductory Chapter as well as the chapters on Coventry, Jay, and Salem.
    Based on the foregoing evidence, I think we can readily acquit Pliny White of any charges of conspiracy or cover-up related to his version of the story of Runaway Pond as presented in his address of 1860. He had been in Orleans County just less than 2 years when he wrote the address. Though it is likely that he had heard the story of Runaway Pond before he arrived here (he had lived and worked in St. Johnsbury from 1853 to 1857) he may not have had the time to interview all possible sources and obviously missed Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips. I don't imagine that he could have been duped by a Coventry cabal, and I don't believe that he would have any knowing part in bending the historical record to suit racial bias.

The true course of the runner's path
    In his book, Dennis Chamberlain works hard to try to determine the actual path that must have been taken by Spencer Chamberlain as he ran from Long Pond to Willson's mill. He focuses on this because he believes that the details of the run, as passed down from Spencer, will verify that he was the runner because only he will have seen the valley and the flood from this vantage point. Dennis is working from the old written descriptions and from topographic maps of the post-flood contours of the Barton River valley. I would like to make three points in this regard:
    1. The topographic maps show the river valley as it looks today, not as it was on June 6, 1810. From all the accounts of the aftermath of the flood, the valley, especially in its upper reaches, was greatly changed by the torrent of water, mud, rocks, and trees that tore through it after the natural dam was breached. The high spots were washed away, the low spots were filled in, projecting spurs were cut back on either side, and all vegetation was stripped off leaving barren rock in some places and huge piles of debris in others. Between the old descriptions and the modern maps one can get a sense of the valley in 1810, but attempting to plot a detailed path through it is bound to lead to errors.
    2. Mr. Chamberlain is working at a great distance from Glover and, as a result, has not seen or walked the actual landscape. This leads to misinterpretations of the old accounts. On page 73 of Run, Chamberlain, Run! he discusses the runner's route along the east side of Mud Pond and quotes Wilson's account which says in part: "This (the wooded slope between the two ponds) was no hindrance to the great column of water which swept away all barriers, and rushed into a narrow valley with steep wooded hills either side;  here the water rose to a great height clearing the hillsides of timber and lowering the surface to the level of Mud Pond under whose eastern hill Chamberlain was running, his path continually obstructed by fallen timbers from the high ledges".
    Dennis interprets this as: "When the water flowing over the hard pan crust of the lake bed undermined it, the sheer weight broke through the crust and sent tons of water straight down. This caused a hydraulic explosion in the heavily timbered north shore and sent cedar trees flying through the air like matchsticks, littering the shores of Mud Pond and obstructing his path with 'fallen timber from the high ledges' ."
    If one walks today on Route 16 along the eastern shore of Mud (or Clark's) Pond and looks up into the woods and sees the steep hillside leading up to the base of rock cliffs at the top and thinks about the water level of the pond being 20 or 30 feet higher in 1810, it should be clear that the "fallen timbers from the high ledges" that were impeding Chamberlain's run were not the flying matchsticks of the author's imagination, but were the fallen trees on a steep hillside in an old growth forest.
    3. Mr. Chamberlain spends several pages (74-77) theorizing about how Spencer might have crossed from the east to the west side of the Barton River in the course of his run.  Crossing the Barton River at this point in its course is not really a big problem. Right now, May 24, in a year of more or less normal rainfall, the stream is about 8 feet wide and one foot deep. The stream from the outlet of Shadow Lake, which joins in here, is of a similar size and even the combined streams could be easily crossed by any man who was capable of running four or five miles through the woods. And, as we know so well, 1810 was the second of two dry years and the Barton River was very low.  Maps are excellent aids, but they really are not a substitute for some on the ground investigation.

Time for Another Theory and a Proposal
    I would like to propose an alternative to thinking about this as a necessary choice between Spencer Chamberlain and Solomon Dorr as the true runner and hero of June 6, 1810. Spencer Chamberlain enjoyed a reputation as a great runner and when he was called upon to exercise his talent in a lifesaving mission, given the fact that he was, as Dennis Chamberlain comments, clearly not risk-averse, he started right off. We should have no trouble believing this story. He put everything he had into the race and could rightfully claim success.
    We also know that Solomon Dorr had good reason to attempt to beat the flood to Willson's mill. He had started off with John Crane, soon after the first trickle of water entered the ditch, to help Crane insure that the freshly sawn lumber he had stacked outside the sawmill would not be washed away by the rising waters. The whole idea of this project was to raise the level of water in the mill stream. Crane had good reason to be concerned. As they traveled toward the mills, Crane and the men with him would have heard and felt the breaking out of the north end of Long Pond. This must have caused Dorr, who worked for his father-in-law at the mills, to consider the fate of the mills and anyone who might be near them at the time. According to the story, his young sons often spent their days around the mills and we must believe that a father's natural instinct would be to make every effort to get to the mills before the floodwaters and insure their safety.
    Dorr, Crane, and the others with them had something of a head start on Chamberlain but we have no idea how much. Chamberlain doesn't mention passing them on his run, but they were all traveling through an unbroken forest.  How did the two stories come to share certain details? They both stop for a drink, apparently at the same house. They both arrive at the mills just before the deluge sweeps them away. Was Dorr entering the sawmill just as Chamberlain was entering the gristmill? They both escape uphill having been caught to the waist or to the neck or to the knees in the water. They both suffer from the effects of the run for the rest of their lives.
    Did something happen in the 19th century that made Glover too small for two heroes? With the expanded horizons of the 21st century can we allow ourselves to celebrate two men? If we were in their boots on June 6, 1810, we certainly would have done our best to beat the flood and warn our friends and relatives.
    I had written in an earlier post to Runaway Ponders that I have been searching through the old accounts "to unearth some ancient nugget that had been buried so long it had carbonized and, when brought into the clear air of the 21st century, it might spontaneously burst into flame and illuminate some dust-bunnied corner of humanity's Gloverian history". Dennis Chamberlain seems to understand this quest as he quotes the line twice in his book.
I would now like to propose a Bonfire of the Dust-Bunnies as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of Runaway Pond. The air of the 21st century may not exactly be clear, but perhaps we can do a bit of provisional clearing of the 19th century air, declare a truce and crown two victors. The main actors have long ago made their final runs. Can we also rest, at least on this one point? It may have been a great run for a man, or two men, but it didn't shake the earth like the deluge unleashed that day.
The willingness of an individual to risk his or her life for the good of others has often garnered benefits for human society. We celebrate this human trait. Is the other side of the coin the willingness to risk everything for one's own benefit or the benefit of a few? Is the oil gushing out of a 21-inch pipe 5,000 feet down in the Gulf of Mexico just one of the Runaway Ponds of today? How many others are about to burst or are flowing without our knowledge?
These may be difficult questions to answer, more difficult even than settling the debate over who ran on June 6, 1810. Humans seem to be born to push their limits. A few miles of river valley flooded temporarily with no human lives lost is a small corner of the big picture, but today we are able to do so much more. Will we ever be better at keeping the big picture and the small picture in our minds at the same time? Like holding two alternate versions of a story in mind, it requires practice and commitment. Do we have the desire? Do we have the time?  We can run, but do we really know why? Or where?