Lake Champlain is imbued with a sundry of awesome folk tales that stretch the imagination. Mysterious lights, beaches that allegedly make dog noises when the sand is bagged and slapped together (one of my favorites), rum runners, underwater shipwrecks, and places that are said to be bottomless, such as an area near the Charlotte-Essex ferry crossing. Addison County lore even has it that while building the Champlain or sometimes called Crown Point Bridge, construction workers were entombed in concrete inside the pylons during construction. While that’s most likely untrue, it’s a thematic macabre legend that sticks like flypaper to many of the world’s great infrastructure projects, like the Hoover Dam.
The most dubiously notable anecdote is, of course, related to its centuries-old giant plesiosaur-like lake monster, Champ. It’s existence in regional culture can be traced back as long as there has been regional mythology, from the Native Americans who told their own stories of a strange creature that dwelled underneath the waters, to French Explorer Samuel De Champlain who gave his own name to the lake and inadvertently, it’s resident unidentified swimming object. But the reality is that despite countless ostensible sightings over the centuries, little proves of Champs’s existence. If there is a lake monster, I guess it acts like a typical lake monster, because most professed ones I know of rarely show themselves or gobble down a few fisherman for a meal. But I’m not much of a pundit on USOs, so I guess I really have no idea how lake monsters are supposed to act.
Regardless, declared sightings and enthusiasm still permeate today. The little village of Port Henry near the southern end of the lake at the foot of one of two bridge crossings which span the body of water, throws a party in its honor every August. The locals call the shindig Champ Day, which just pushes it’s cryptozoology legitimacy card further and is one of the cooler regional festivities to attend in my opinion.
Some of my particular favorite tales centering on Lake Champlain though are of its treasure varieties. I’ll open with this one in all its brevity.
It has been said that a group of British soldiers traveling down the lake were attacked by local Indians in 1773. Those who survived buried about $75,000 in gold coins on or near Cedar Beach in Charlotte, but intervening parties were unable to find it again.
A Vermont Pirate
Samuel De Champlain is an identity that is understandable mentioned recurringly in relation to the lake, but I’m more interested in another name which sadly isn’t really spoken about as frequently.
Frustratingly little is known about the infamous Captain Mallett, Vermont’s own resident pirate. The name may sound familiar to you. There are a slew of landmarks that bear his name, including what may be the most recognized bay on the lake in Colchester, which domino-effectively gave that moniker to that distinguished part of town, an elementary school, and an avenue that leads from the bay into Winooski – among plenty of other things. Decades ago, there was even a restaurant named after him where Bay Road meets East Lakeshore Drive, now the site of a duplex.
But, it seems that many present day Vermonters are unaware that the bay wears the name of a corsair. There are no historical markers, no mentions in history class, nothing.
According to legend, Captain Mallett was a bonafide, swashbuckling sea pirate who, for some reason, decided on retiring in Vermont. He settled on the large natural harbor in Colchester that now bears his name, which is regarded today as a go-to destination for boaters and a controversial perennial gathering of people who party on rafts called Raftapalooza.
Somewhere along what is now Malletts Bay, he built a cabin and a rough tavern. A written account from Ira Allen verified this, and states that he found him living on Malletts Head, and wrote; “His settlement had the appearance of great antiquity”.
Vermont historian Nadding Hill writes; “Captain Mallett was apparently a man of considerable independence of spirit; he feared no one and acknowledged alliance neither to the English King nor to the American Colonies.”, which seems like your archetypal personality or code of conduct that would be exhibited by a pirate. Local lore maintains that he would always welcome spies and smugglers at his tavern, though his motives, if any at all, remain unclear. Some surmise that he sympathized with the revolution. Or maybe he just liked paying customers.
Inevitably, being a pirate also comes with stories of buried treasure. Supposedly, the captain had one of his own, which he buried on Coates Island.
But your researcher soon found out that any information about the mysterious Captain Mallett is annoyingly brief. The truth is, not much is known about him at all. That even comes down to his very identity. We know he was a Frenchmen, but the confusion is that he is known by many names, such as Stephen Mallett, Pierre Mallett and occasionally Jean-Pierre Mallett. Or, perhaps more properly, his surname could actually be Maillet, Mallet or Malet. There seems to be just enough credibility to confirm that he was real, but little else.
Who was he? What actual acts of piracy did he commit to earn his title? Tantalizing incidents turned discoveries over the years have only puzzled things more.
William Coates, who lived on Coates Island, once found some brass buttons which be believed belonged to the Captain. More enticingly, trees with strange markings on them were discovered on the island a few decades ago which may have given clues to the treasure’s whereabouts, but the trees were unfortunately found after they had been blown over by a fierce windstorm. As a young boy, I had heard that the treasure was buried underneath two large Pine trees near the shore, that crossed over each other in the shape of a giant “X”, and were later lost in a storm. One more specific protestation says that the trees, which would have been very old at this point, were lost in a tornado that hit the Burlington area around 1987.
Nearby on Malletts Head, a hilly peninsula that divides Malletts Bay from the broad lake, a gentleman named Jed Sharrow and some of his friends discovered a wooden leg while digging for artifacts. The leg was scientifically dated to be from the 1700s. Though it’s tempting to assume these two artifacts may have been conclusive evidence of a pirate, especially considering the knowledge of Ira Allen’s record, the prosthesis and brass buttons were unable to be officially connected to the Captain.
Tiny Cave Island, also in Malletts Bay, has some strange allegations behind it of stashed loot and clandestine activities, but it’s more likely that it’s namesake topography seemed fitting to christen a tale to, as opposed to actuality. A boat or kayak ride out to its shores will make you understand why – it’s a cool little island.
Further research was done by former Winooski mayor Albert Gravel in 1939, who also was interested in the mysterious character. His research found that there was a Jean-Pierre Mallett that could be traced immigrating to Vermont. This Mallett absconded from France after expropriating the payroll from Napoleon’s army which was supposed to be delivered to French officials in exotic New Orleans, and would die in Winooski in 1818. Could this be the same Captain Mallett? If so, then I guess this would qualify as the act of piracy I was asking about in the above paragraphs.
Joseph Citro, the inveterate chronicler of all things weird Vermont, was able to excavate a great deal more to the mystery.
About half a century ago, an eyebrow raising 22,000 people in France who all claimed to be the descendants of Captain Mallett, got together and developed a quest to get their hands on his loot. Calling themselves the “World Union of Mallett Airs”, (but probably not calling themselves WUMA), they contend that Mallett came to America, fought in the American revolution, and was rewarded for his service with a huge farm in Vermont from the grateful Continental Congress.
The “World Union” also firmly asserted that the Captain came across his fortune honestly. First, he discovered oil on his land, a claim that is believable, as oil was discovered in Malletts Bay during Vermont’s short lived oil boom. Then, he would marry a Louisiana woman who inherited a bunch of gold mines not long after. Finally, the enterprising captain would purchase a string of slaughterhouses in Chicago. Or maybe it was only one of these claims – but as to which one, is up for debate. But, as the story goes, soon to be president Andrew Jackson expropriated everything, an illegal move which may have been due to hard feelings over Napoleon’s blockade of the United States during the war of 1812. Mallett’s vast property, which apparently stretched from Lake Champlain all the way to Chicago, was never claimed after his death because he had no children and no family over in America.
In 1965, the alleged Mallett’s descendants laid claim against the U.S. treasury for $512 million, a sum which would be worth substantially more in today’s money, arguing that because the fortune was seized illegally, the treasury owed them their rightful dues. But, in a move that shouldn’t surprise anyone, the U.S. treasure denied any acknowledgment of the Captain’s missing capital. And because of the aforementioned lack of records, no information could be used as evidence. Whose to say where the truth lies here. Was Jean-Pierre Mallet the Captain Mallett? Are the so-called World Union of Mallett Airs legitimate or fraudulent? What we do know, is that if there is an answer, it hasn’t been revealed yet.
Another extraordinarily strange story refers to tiny Stave Island, located in Lake Champlain northwest of Malletts Bay, off South Hero’s southwestern coast. I would have included this in my mysteries and legends of the Champlain Islands post if I’d have known this then. I’ll do my best to re-translate this patchwork legend.
A farm laborer on the island was enjoying his lunch one sunny day under the shade of a tree. He lazily glanced at a nearby arbor, and he spied something curious; some sort of marking was carved into the bark. It was the outline of a human hand, with a pointing index finger. He roused himself and decided to climb the tree to get a better vantage point of the area. What could the finger be pointing at? Why was it there?
As he gained elevation, he discerned a large flat rock in a nearby clearing he hadn’t ventured over to before. He surmised that the arrow seemed to be pointing right at it. Scrambling down the branches, he bushwhacked through the island forest until he came across the flat rock. Wondering what to do now, he attempted to lift it but immediately discovered that it was far too heavy.
Indifferently shrugging it off, he returned to his home on the mainland. But his thoughts kept returning to the flat-topped rock, which lead him to come to an interesting query. Could the hand and the rock be some sort of clue to finding a buried treasure that he had heard were all around the lake? At the time, I guess there were plenty of such tales, but they have more or less all since vanished into the ether today.
Time whetted his curiosity, and a few days later, he enlisted the aid of a friend who not surprisingly was more than happy to help, and the two eager gentlemen rowed out to Stave Island under the cover of darkness.
Equipped with picks, crowbars, and shovels, the pair quietly beached their boat on the shore and fumbled their way toward the clearing. Suddenly, from behind a tree stepped the caretaker. Judging from their arsenal of items they were packing, he surmised that they were seeking treasure, which also illuminated the idea that there was a treasure on Stave Island. He told the startled men that he wasn’t going to allow them to dig, and if they did find anything, anything of value was rightfully the property of the island’s owner. The discouraged laborer and accomplish saw no other choice but to leave in their boat.
A few weeks later the laborer heard a knock on his door, and discovered that the island caretaker had paid him a visit to announce he had a change of heart – sort of. He would give them permission to dig on the island, only, he wanted half of whatever they managed to dig up. The laborer eagerly agreed, because he figured it was better than coming up with no treasure at all.
But it wasn’t for a few weeks until the group met up again, and by then, fate intervened in the form of a freak forest fire which ravaged the island. Every tree became a charred ghost, erasing all evidence of the pointing finger. As the newly cleared island revealed, there were plenty of flat rocks protruding through its surface, and the rock they wanted was no longer identifiable. Not knowing where the correct rock was, the searches were abandoned. If the treasure was ever found, well, I haven’t picked up on that yet.
Today, Stave Island is an envious chunk of gorgeous private property that will never be in my price range, and is more known for its yearly summer gathering of invitation only boaters who converge on and off the island for a few days. There is also a lookout tower, which I’m told that if you climb it, the views are far stretched and resplendent.
To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations throughout the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.
As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!
If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!
As I had stated above, information about Captain Mallett is annoyingly brief, so I sought out as many sources as I could, and tried my best to compile my findings into a single blog post. The Colchester Historical Society was a help to me, word of mouth, and these books:
Images of America: Colchester; Inge Schaefer
Green Mountains, Dark Tales; Joseph A. Citro
Haunted Vermont; Charles A Stansfield,