Recent research has brought to light an enslaved woman’s story

A postcard showing the Catamount Tavern courtesy of Bennington Museum

June 1, 2022

Was there slavery in Bennington?

Yes, but we knew that already: Rev. David Avery, for example, brought with him an enslaved woman when he arrived in 1780, despite the prohibition of adult slavery in the 1777 Vermont constitution.

Now we know of Peg, another enslaved woman, bought and sold by Stephen Fay, proprietor of the renowned Catamount Tavern at the heart of Revolutionary-era Vermont. A ceremony to remember Peg will take place on Monument Avenue in Old Bennington on the 25th of this month.

The Catamount Tavern is well known to students of Vermont history. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys drank and plotted there (a bar tab with Allen’s name on it has survived), and the Vermont Committee of Safety met there during the Revolutionary War.

A stuffed catamount (a kind of cougar) mounted on the building warned land-claiming New Yorkers – and later, the British – to beware. The Tavern burned in 1871. A bronze catamount mounted on a granite pedestal replaced the original cat some years later.

We don’t know Peg’s last name, but we do know a number of things about her. Stephen Fay purchased her in 1772 from a family in Hadley, Mass., and sold her back to the same family in 1778. Jonas Fay, Stephen’s son and one of the drafters of Vermont’s constitution, witnessed the latter bill of sale. Despite Peg’s living and working at the nerve center of early Vermont, her story has been little known except to specialists in women’s history. That is about to change.

Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries

On June 25th at 10 a.m., a small brass plaque bearing Peg’s name and the dates of her enslavement mounted on a piece of Vermont granite will be placed flush with the sidewalk behind the catamount statue. It’s part of an initiative by the Bennington Museum to broaden the scope of the stories they tell.

Historical researchers alerted the Museum to records of Peg’s life in family archives in Massachusetts. At the same time, Vermont entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Growald was starting the Stopping Stones project, the aim of which is to “bring attention to the history of slavery in local communities in order to advance racial equity.”

Modeling its approach on the German Stolpensteine (“stumbling stones”), which commemorate the names of Holocaust victims in the places where they lived, Stopping Stones prepares the 4-inch-square inscribed brass tablets and hosts information on the enslaved person who is being remembered.

A copper Catamount marks the site of the former Catamount Tavern. Photo: Phil Holland

The Stopping Stones Project’s focus is not only on research and remembrance but on repair. What are the lessons of Peg’s enslavement for us today? Speakers at the June 25th event will try to provide answers. The public is invited. A reception at the Museum follows.

Visitors might also like to take in several other memorials related to Black history that are in walking distance of the ceremony. On a wooded traffic island near the Old First Church is a memorial to abolitionist William Garrison, who published his newspaper The Journal of the Times in Bennington in the late 1820s.

Outside the Museum itself, the centerpiece of the recently conserved Civil War monument is a remarkable bas-relief bronze of Bennington men marching off to save the Union by sculptor William Gordon Huff.

Col. Seth Warner in front of the Bennington Battle Monument. Photo: Phil Holland

At the top of the hill is the Bennington Monument, now open for the season, and before it stands a statue of Col. Seth Warner, who led his regiment of Green Mountain Boys at the Battle of Bennington. Recent research has revealed that one of Warner’s men killed at the Battle was a Black man named Sipp Ives.

The window of history is opening on new and wider views of Bennington’s past – and its present.

-Phil Holland writes a monthly post for Vermont Begins Here. He will be presenting “The Black Presence at the Battle of Bennington” at the Louis Miller Museum in Hoosick Falls on August 6.