Again: the dying man’s note almost turned history upside down

A framed document, believed to have been a note written by a dying man in 1500s Vermont, sits atop a crate at the Highgate Historical Society. Photo by Mark Bushnell

If you were looking for one of the most important documents in Vermont history, this building is not the first place you would look. Drive north, just before the Canadian border, to the town of Highgate. You are looking for the brick building in the center of town, the Highgate Historical Society.

Upstairs, in front of an exhibit honoring the local lodge of the Order of Odd Fellows, which owned this former home for decades, you’ll find the document hanging alongside old photographs from the town’s history. This is a handwritten note mounted in an ornate frame. In archaic looping script, the writer’s words, now browned with age, read:

“It’s the only [solemn] daytime

I have to die now it’s

the 90e day since us

if the ship has all

walls and on the

Banks of this river

I’m dying so goodbye

may future posterity

know our end”

It is signed “Johne Graye”. But what is odd, and potentially hugely significant, is the date at the top: “Nov. 29 AD 1564.”

The note was reportedly found in nearby Swanton. If genuine, the date would suggest that Johne Graye was the first European, aged 45, to see Lake Champlain and Vermont, not French explorer Samuel de Champlain. And unlike Champlain, Graye was not a harbinger of devastation for the region’s Indigenous population.

In the years after 1853, when two workmen, Orlando Green and PR Ripley, showed people the astonishing document they said they found while digging sand along the Missisquoi River, experts debated the veracity of Note. Learned men examined the document, as well as the lead tube in which Green and Ripley said he was buried, and came to conflicting conclusions. The tube has since disappeared. With this, the same is perhaps the original document. The scroll hanging in Highgate may just be a duplicate.

A handwritten document, discovered in Swanton in 1853, claims to be a note written by a dying sailor in 1564, nearly half a century before the arrival of Samuel de Champlain. Photo by Mark Bushnell

As expected, news of the discovery spread quickly. On December 6, 1853, a few days after Green and Ripley announced their discovery, the New-York Tribune published an article detailing how the two workers had unearthed a 4-inch metal tube containing a rough piece of paper bearing the message of sailor’s farewell.

Our first glimpse of the city’s reaction comes from the Reverend John B. Perry, who wrote about the incident for the Vermont Historical Gazetteer in 1869. Although he was writing from a distance of 16, he apparently lived in Swanton in the time of discovery and knew the men involved.

Reading between the lines, there doesn’t seem to have been much fanfare surrounding the discovery – no mention of public debates or large gatherings to display the document. For a while it was apparently attached with a bit of wax to an office wall somewhere. It is as public a display as we have had since the time of discovery.

Still, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the talk of the town, and apparently the wider historical community. Among Perry’s friends and acquaintances, at least, it was clearly a major source of conversation. Throughout the text, he mentions arguments advanced by others, for and against the legitimacy of the document.

Perry was on the side of believers. He offered no definitive proof, just a healthy dose of circumstantial evidence. For him, that was enough.

The Frobisher Connection

Perry viewed the ships of sailor Martin Frobisher, who was seeking a faster route to China, as a possible source of the hapless sailors. Adjusting to changes in the calendar since the 16th century, Perry was able to place Frobisher in what would become northeastern Canada in the month the men separated from their shipmates.

The problem is the year. Frobisher’s trip took place 12 years after the date on the note.

Perry quickly overshot the gap. He said people make mistakes all the time when writing dates. “Even a letter in my possession, which was written about this very manuscript, is incorrectly dated…”, he noted.

“(N)are we to be surprised that such could have been the case with an account made by a simple sailor in the 16th century, when writing was much rarer than today (?)”

Others had suggested to Perry that an ordinary sailor was unlikely to have pen and ink to hand at the time of his impending demise. To that, Perry offered a more compelling answer. He quoted an account of Frobisher’s journey, which said the men were given ‘pen, yncke and paper’ to take notes on the location of gold or other valuable minerals they found while walking. on dry land, or to leave messages for men who became estranged from the main party.

Charles Nye, curator of the Highgate Historical Society, studies John Graye’s document at the society’s museum. Photo by Mark Bushnell

The scientific gaze

Someone, maybe Perry, asked Dr. Augustus Allen Hayes to look into the matter. Hayes was a Vermonter and a prominent scientist, then working as an assayer in the state of Massachusetts, performing chemical tests to ensure the metal content of coins.

Hayes studied the objects as a scientist would and declined to issue a verdict. He discovered that the tube contained lead carbonate, which suggested that it had been in the sand for a long time. The paper itself was made of hemp or flax. For Perry, physical analysis supported his theory.

In addition to using scientific and historical evidence to study the scroll, Perry also considered it on a personal level. If it was fake, who could have done it? “(P)few people in any of our country towns are capable of such forgery,” he said.

And only a handful of people managed to make every detail plausible, from the type of paper used, to the rambling, unpunctuated text, to the use of the redundant phrase “future posterity,” which one might expect from a simple sailor.

Moreover, he asked, if someone had gone to such lengths to forge the document, why wouldn’t they have matched it to a known voyage and sailor someone whose name appears in one of the ship’s logs?

A fresh look

Interest in the note seems to have been dormant for nearly a century. Then, in the 1950s, John Clement, former president of the Vermont Historical Society, sent the document to experts for analysis.

He had found it hanging in Highgate Library, which had received it from the estate of local physician Henry Baxter, who had framed the document in 1853. Clement suspected it was simply a copy of the original – it’s the same document displayed today at the city’s historical society – but sent it anyway. Clement apparently accepted that the original scroll and tube were lost.

Experts found that the paper came from the 19th century. If it was just a copy, it would make sense. More damning was the opinion of a document expert, who declared the script “impossible for the 16th century, and the spelling equally bogus”, reported Clement. “He called it a hoax.”

Dennis Nolan, president of the Highgate Historical Society, hangs up John Graye’s framed document after reviewing it. Photo by Mark Bushnell

Today, the question seems settled among Vermont historians. Samuel de Champlain does not risk being deposed as the first European to see Vermont.

To understand this bizarre document and how it came to be, it may help to remember that the mid-1800s was a time of hoaxes, when enterprising tricksters could dupe gullible audiences – not that it didn’t. is part of all eras, including ours.

But the Graye document emerged at a time when Phineas Taylor Barnum, commonly known as PT, had turned hoaxes into an art form. Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan used to draw nearly half a million visitors a year to see the supposed skeleton of a mermaid and other oddities.

Barnum concocted his counters for fun and profit. If the Graye document is a forgery, it was apparently created for fun; there is no evidence that anyone took advantage of it.

And just because it’s likely a fake doesn’t mean it’s worthless. At least that was the opinion of Alan Cooke of the Scott Polar Research Institute. Cooke, a Vermonter working in England, was invited in 1964 by Vermont Life editor Walter Hard Jr. to see what he and some British scholars thought of the note.

Reporting their findings, Cooke seemed sad that the document appeared to be fake. “Quite a disappointment I know,” he wrote, before adding, “Even though it was a fake, it has some interest of its own.”

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Marc Bushnell

About Mark

Mark Bushnell is a journalist and historian from Vermont. He is the author of Hidden History of Vermont and It happened in Vermont.

E-mail: [email protected]

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