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Mudgett: Ann Story

03/28/12 5:55PM By Jill Mudgett
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(Host) As part of VPR's recognition of Women's History Month, commentator and historian Jill Mudgett - who writes about cultural, environmental, and regional topics from her home in Lamoille County - considers how the public story of Vermont pioneer Ann Story was invented, expanded, and has changed over time.

(Mudgett) Vermont historians have been talking about the pioneer Ann Story for 200 years now, and the narrative hasn't changed very much. Ann came to the Vermont wilderness as a widow with young children. She built a cabin in the Salisbury woods. She remarried twice and died an elderly woman. We talk about these things, of course, but mostly we talk about her ruggedness and her manly strength and bravery as she defended her family and home from Tories and Indians. Sometimes we talk about her role as a spy or informant for the Green Mountain Boys. More than anything, though, we talk about the earthen cave that she and a male settler dug into a bank along the Otter Creek, the cave where her family spent the night when it seemed unsafe to stay in their cabin. The cave is no longer visible along the creek bank, but  the story of the family in the cave is exotic, filled with adventure, and totally beyond the normal realities of our own lives. It never loses its appeal.

Most of what we know about Ann Story and her cave comes from an author named D. P. Thompson, whose 1839 novel the Green Mountain Boys drew inspiration from writers like James Fenimore Cooper. It's offered generations of readers a Vermont wilderness full of romance and populated by men and women who were hardy, clever, and fearless.

Courtesy, Vermont Historical Society
Earlier accounts were less romantic. In 1814 - three years before Ann's death - a man named Josiah Dunham solicited Vermont town histories for material for a book that was never published. First settlers mattered to nineteenth century town historians. In Salisbury 's response, there isn't much in the way of revolutionary intrigue but there is an account in which a woman called "Widow Story" and her children were Salisbury 's first settlers. We're told that life in early Vermont wasn't easy for her and that she worked really hard at chores generally assigned to men. The account isn't exactly romantic, but simple, inclusive, and matter-of-fact.

What I like best about it is how it segues directly from Ann Story to the second woman in town. A woman referred to as Mrs. Waterhouse - along with her husband and children - lived for a time with the Storys in their log home. At one point the little cabin sheltered 21 people. Although I wish we were told Mrs. Waterhouse's first name, I love that the account of the Waterhouses begins with her. When we start by considering the historical contributions of one woman, we often find ourselves recalling, as did the author of the Salisbury account, the stories of other women as well. The cave is in the account too, but to find it the reader has to follow a paper trail from one pound sign added to the end of a paragraph to the corresponding pound sign and note on a scrap of paper folded into the pages of the report. The cave exists in that early text as an afterthought, both a literal and figurative footnote to the story of an important Vermont woman.
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