April 21, 2014

‘An Interesting Relic’

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By Richard H. Allen

Philetus Teachout decided to go fox hunting out his back door one day in November of 1872. As he gathered his gun and coat and packed a snack of cornbread, he told his wife, Margaret, that he would be back for supper. Margaret was busy looking after the four children, Thomas, 9, David, 8, Edward, 6, and Mary Elizabeth, 4.

As he stepped out of his house, perched on a hill in Williston above Hubbell’s Falls he could hear the sound of the Winooski River as it flowed over the dam below. Some wagons were passing through the covered bridge that connected Essex Junction and Williston, the creak of the wheels and clomping of horses hooves was familiar to him.  He did a quick check on the stock in his red barn, making sure they had water and enough to eat.

Hunting was one way Philetus could escape the hectic scene of his homestead. The fox hunting, often with his partner Hyman Barber, was relaxing as well as profitable. He could bring in a few extra dollars with every pelt delivered to Burlington, where it was used for trimmings on high fashion coats and wraps.

Philetus headed east through the cutover landscape to an area that had proven successful before. After about thirty minutes of hiking, he sat down on a log to enjoy the scene and quiet. He didn’t often get a chance to be off by himself. At age 48 he was feeling the years of hard work as a farmer.

His thoughts drifted to the two years he had spent in California. A good number of Williston residents had also headed west, most to the San Francisco area. But it was not for him; he missed Vermont and was soon back in his home state.

Something caught his eye a bit to the right. He patiently waited until he had a view of a beautiful red fox with thick fur trotting down the game trail. With one smooth motion Philetus raised his gun and fired. The fox was hit, he was sure, but it took off in a flash and Philetus cursed his poor aim.

He walked over to the spot, found some blood and was soon on the trail of the wounded animal. Down into the gully and closer to the banks of the Winooski he went, brushing aside weeds and dried grasses. It was rough going with sharp chewed beaver stumps, slippery mud and wet leaves to deal with.

The trail of blood was clear enough and Philetus had the experience to know that he would be successful in the end. As he came around a large pine log, he found the dead fox, so he sat down to catch his breath.

Surveying his surroundings he noticed a strange shaped stump that seemed out of place. It was narrow and sharp at the end. Philetus was curious enough to investigate and as he approached it he could see it was not a tree stump at all.

This imagined account is based on a March 19, 1880 news article in the Burlington Free Press headlined “An Interesting Relic,” and on further historical research. What Teachout had found was a sword “2 ½ feet long, straight, two-edged,” stamped with the name “Peter Tesh.” The collector of the sword, A. B. Halbert of Essex, had donated it “to the college museum,” according to the Free Press article.

An e-mail exchange with the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont quickly revealed that, yes, the sword was still in their collection with very little information on its provenance. My wife and I had a chance to view the sword and take some photos, thanks to the cooperation of Nicola Astles, Collections Assistant.

I called upon some arms experts via e-mail to give us their opinion on the origin of the sword. “This is a very early sword dating to probably about 1600. It was most likely made by Peter Tesche, a Solingen, Germany sword maker who worked from about 1580-1660. The Tesche family of sword makers was prominent and long lived, spanning more than three centuries…The earliest Tesche swords were made about 1550, the latest about 1865…,” responded Christopher D. Fox, Curator of Collections at Fort Ticonderoga.

Donald J. La Rocca, Curator of Arms and Armor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York stated that, “In general I think it is safe to say that your blade probably dates from about the middle of the seventeenth century and has seen a very hard life… It is not impossible that the sword was brought here by an English (or other European) colonist as early as the mid to late 17th century, or that it might have been acquired by one of the local Native American tribes as a trade good.”

The boarded up brick Teachout farmhouse and red barn still stands above the Winooski River and Route 2A in Williston, and the sword remains in the museum collection. Perhaps one day it will be on display for more people to wonder about the story of how it ended up buried in the dirt in Williston.

Richard Allen is a local historian and author. He has written a series of historical articles for Williston’s 250th anniversary.

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