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Monday, June 23, 2014

Wanted: Epic Adventure

First chapter of my travel memoir, Mystic Seafarer's Trail:

1        Wanted: Epic Adventure
Shortly after stepping out of my new home with my hound for our first stroll through the historic seacoast village of Mystic, Connecticut, a woman pulled over in her van and yelled, "Excuse me."
Assuming she was a tourist wanting directions to Mystic Pizza or some other attraction, I wasn't prepared for what she really wanted to know: "Do you realize the back of your skirt is tucked into your underwear?"
What a debut in my new hometown—I don’t think this is what National Geographic meant when they named Mystic one of the top 100 adventure towns in the United States.
Once recovered from my wardrobe “malfunction,” I continued toward downtown Mystic with Bailey, a beagle/basset hound mix, to embark on a new life and shake off my old, sedentary landlubbing ways.
No longer did I want to be known as the lady who always talks about losing weight but never does it. No longer would I sit around daydreaming about becoming thin and famous so I could hire someone else to clean my house. I had a real shot at it now that I lived in a place where I couldn’t help but fall into a swash-buckling adventure—the kind that might inspire me to write a bestseller.
Straddling both sides of the Mystic River in the towns of Groton and Stonington, the village of Mystic takes its name from an Indian word, “river running to the sea.” Others call the Mystic River an arm of the sea for it’s not technically a river, but a long, narrow bay. With its scenic views of tall ships, islands, lighthouses and secluded coves, it has attracted such legendary honeymooners as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It is a place where those who cross the oceans gather to swap stories and repair their boats. It is where famous explorers are born, visit, get married, or embark from on their way to becoming lost at sea.
To launch my new career as an adventuress, I decided to walk Bailey to the haunts and homes of such celebrated voyagers as Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, and Dr. Robert Ballard, the discoverer of Titanic’s watery grave.

Now was the time for me to join their ranks, to start living life on the edge. Maybe I could even become thin and famous like Amelia Earhart. Like her, I am fairly tall, my middle initial is M, I have a gap between my two front teeth, and until I looked it up, I couldn’t spell medieval either (more on that and her nearby secret wedding later). Unlike Amelia, I wasn’t thin, but that was about to change. I would stop lying around reading about adventurers and do what it took to become one. 
My husband, Jim, and I were transferred to the Mystic area from New York by his company, which meant I had to quit my job as a full-time writer for a college in campus communications. Searching for a new job in a community revolving around life at sea was not easy for a confirmed desk sitter like me. Finding the area already teeming with underemployed writers and publicists, I was glad when my former employer hired me back as a consulting writer. Although freelancing allowed me to work from home in my pajamas, it offered no retirement benefits. Being famous would help pay the bills.
Perhaps I could follow the path of prominent authors such as Herman Melville who went to sea on a whaler (a ship designed to catch whales and process their oil) when he couldn't find a job. Although he deserted and had to live among cannibals for a time, he found the inspiration to write his first novel. Further sea adventures, which included mutiny and learning about a whale that rammed and sank the Essex, led to the creation of his magnum opus: Moby Dick. I, myself, could barely get through this “Great American Novel,” but someone must like it. Now that I lived within walking distance of the last wooden whaleship in the world, the Charles W. Morgan, I wondered if that was a sign. Perhaps I could enlist as a deck swabber on its next epic voyage. The house we purchased was adorned with a brass, whale-shaped door knocker. Now that had to be a sign.
If following in the footsteps of a whaling writer didn’t work, there was always the chance I could get famous by finding a dead body—just like Bailey and our older daughter had. Although it didn’t make her into an international celebrity, I use it as a party stopper whenever I want to be the center of attention. Of course, I should really find my own body, preferably of a well-known person. Celebrities were always coming to Mystic to vacation or film movies.
Since I couldn’t count on finding a dead body, famous or otherwise, and wasn’t sure yet how to embark on an epic voyage, I decided to start small by becoming known in my new community. To begin, I would write a story and title it, “The 7 Wonders of Mystic.” I finally became known as a freelance writer in my former community when I wrote the feature article, “The 7 Wonders of Rockland County,” for Rockland Magazine. It didn’t make me popular with the residents, however. Many were outraged when I didn’t write about their favorite site, so the magazine held a vote for the 8th Wonder—which, of course, created more excited readers. As they say (whoever “they” are), “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”
Another benefit to writing “The 7 Wonders of Mystic” would be the handy list of suggested sites to shout to visitors who held up traffic asking what they should see (besides my underwear).
I also decided to design a “Mystic Seafarer’s Trail.” When Jim and I visited Boston, we loved walking its “Freedom Trail” because it gave us a clear self-guided path to follow with tidbits of information along the way. Mystic, full of maritime wonders with fun facts, certainly deserved to have its own trail.
National Geographic suggests that Mystic visitors bike what it calls the 25-mile Vineyard Loop, which includes “some hairy climbs that stops at two of the best wineries.” Hairy climbs? Although I hoped to get thin, I didn’t want to have to hike or bike uphill to do it. No, I would design the Mystic Seafarer’s Trail to avoid hills where possible. It would include “The 7 Wonders” (once I figured out what they were), plus the stomping grounds of legendary explorers, heroes, traitors and shipwreck survivors—as well as those who went down with the ship.
With so many potential wonders to consider and adventures to try, I had a lot of ground—and water—to cover. So, every afternoon, I checked my skirt and off Bailey and I went to follow a scent of our own...
Click on the "LOOK INSIDE" feature of the Mystic Seafarer's Trail to read chapter two.
Enjoy the adventure!
Lisa Saunders

Monday, June 9, 2014

Traitor Benedict Arnold, Battle of Groton Heights, and Fort Griswold, Groton, Conn.

Excerpt from Mystic Seafarer's Trail 
by Lisa Saunders

The massacre at Fort Griswold, led by traitor Benedict Arnold in 1781, is no secret. But what continues to puzzle historians is the whereabouts of British Major William Montgomery’s headless body.

Thrust through with long pikes when leading a charge over the fort wall, Montgomery was quickly avenged by his regiment who swarmed over the wall after him. When Col. William Ledyard surrendered the fort to the British, the fight went from a battle to a massacre.

After the massacre, the living and dead were plundered of their possessions, including their clothes.  In the meantime, Benedict Arnold ordered New London burned.

Benedict Arnold, a native of nearby Norwich and former general in the Continental Army, used his knowledge of the American gun firing code to trick the colonists at Fort Griswold and New London into thinking the approaching vessels were American. More than half of the 160 vastly outnumbered colonists against the 800 British soldiers at Fort Griswold were killed, or some would say murdered, in the massacre. Of those taken prisoner, many were never heard from again. Those unable to walk were loaded into an artillery cart for transport to the Thames River. The cart was let loose and careened out of control toward the Thames River until it ran into an apple tree. One of the wounded, Stephen Hempstead, recounted his ride 45 years later in a letter to a newspaper: “The pain and anguish we all endured in this rapid descent, as the wagon jumped and jostled over rocks and holes, is inconceivable; and the jar in its arrest was like bursting the cords of life asunder, and caused us to shriek with almost supernatural force. Our cries were distinctly heard and noticed on the opposite side of the river, (which is a mile wide) amidst all the confusion which raged in burning and sacking the town.”

British soldiers took the badly wounded defenders to the Ebenezer Avery House and left them unattended and bleeding on the wooden floor boards. Hempstead recalled that first terrible night: “None of our own people came to us till near daylight the next morning, not knowing previous to that time, that the enemy had departed…Thirty-five of us were lying on the bare floor—stiff, mangled, and wounded in every manner, exhausted with pain, fatigue and loss of blood, without clothes or any thing to cover us, trembling with cold and spasms of extreme anguish, without fire or light, parched with excruciating thirst, not a wound dressed nor a soul to administer to one of our wants, nor an assisting hand to turn us during these long tedious hours of the night; nothing but groans and unavailing sighs were heard, and two of our number did not live to see the light of the morning, which brought with it some ministering angels to our relief.”

When Anna Warner, who wanted to enlist to fight the hated British herself, learned her uncle Edward Mills lay at the Avery House mortally wounded, she ran home for his infant son and placed him in his dying arms. Now she hated the British even more.

One Mystic girl recorded an account she read of the massacre in her diary: “There were more than forty women of the Congregational Church in Groton who that day were made widows, and no man was left at the next communion to pass the bread and wine.”[i]

Legend has it that Major Montgomery was buried sitting up inside the ravelin (a V-shaped mound of dirt), which protected the gate of Fort Griswold. Other British soldiers were buried in the ditch outside the ravelin. According to Jonathan Lincoln, Park Supervisor of Fort Trumbull State Park Management Unit, the British later exhumed their dead for proper burial. Yet when Major Montgomery’s niece came from England to claim her uncle’s body, all she retrieved from his grave was his skull.

In 1985, when ground penetrating radar was used to do an archeological survey, no bodies were found. Since digging is not allowed, I thought I’d try my handy dandy EMF detector despite my promise to myself not to use it again. Maybe his bones would emit some sort of electromagnet frequency. No luck—not even when I slipped through the tunnel-like passageway located under the mound where he was slain.

Although one can visit Fort Griswold to see the ravelin, the sword used to murder Col. Ledyard and the plaques marking where Montgomery and Ledyard met their ends, this once blood-soaked ground refuses to give up the rest of Major Montgomery’s body. Could the spirit of Anna continue to hate the British so much she is preventing the discovery of Montgomery’s headless bones?

Later marrying a veteran of that battle, Elijah Bailey, Anna Warner Bailey became famous in the War of 1812 for removing her red flannel petticoat in the middle of the street when soldiers needed wadding to load their muskets in anticipation of a British attack. Anna and her husband had no children and became inn keepers. She died in her 90s when a spark from the fireplace landed on her clothes while she slept.

Although the blood stains have long since faded on the floor boards of the Avery House, the home still speaks to visitors at Fort Griswold State Park. Inside is featured the very table where Lt. Ebenezer Avery had his last breakfast before getting killed that day on September 6, 1781. Although traitor Benedict Arnold is still burned in effigy in New London, the British and Americans have long since mended their wounds and moved forward as friends and allies. Perhaps the spirit of Major Montgomery has been invited to dine by the spirit of Lt. Avery at his table until Montgomery’s body is recovered and reunited with his head back in England. If the spirit of Anna Warner Bailey has been invited to dine there as well, who knows when that will be. (Acidic soil could have dissolved the bones, but that’s not as interesting to contemplate.)

Another possibility is that colonist Captain Shapley is hiding Major Montgomery’s bones until his name is featured on the plaque marking the site where Montgomery met his end. History states that Jordan Freeman killed Montgomery, yet in Stephen Hempstead’s account of the battle, he wrote that Major Montgomery was killed “having been thrust through the body whilst in the act of scaling the walls at the S.W. bastion, by Capt. Shapley." Did I just discover something that could change a few words in a history book? I asked Jonathan Lincoln, Park Supervisor, about the discrepancy.

Lincoln replied, “We did a little investigating. One of the other contemporary accounts of the Battle of Groton Heights by George Middleton states that Capt. Adam Shapley and Jordan Freeman killed Major Montgomery with long pikes. Rufus Avery’s account does not mention the manner of Major Montgomery’s death at all. Stephen Hempstead’s narrative is the only one that only mentions Capt. Shapley in the killing of Major Montgomery. I think it is safe to say that both participated in the death of Major Montgomery.”

I don’t blame Captain Shapely if he is annoyed his name didn’t make it on a plaque after doing something historically significant. If I ever do something for the history books, I’d want a plaque too!

The Daughters of the American Revolution named their Groton-based chapter after Anna Warner Bailey. As a member, I attend their meetings held at the Fort Griswold Museum. When I enter and leave the main meeting room, I often take a moment to gaze at Anna’s portrait in search of clues in her expression. Does she hold the secrets to this sacred ground?

[i]  (Clarke, 1997, p. 168)

6/21, 2:30pm: Famous Gungywamp Site Hike!

The “Tomb Chamber” revealed after a hurricane in the mid-1950s in Gungywamp.
Don't miss this rare chance to visit this famous, yet very hidden site! I saw its mysteries featured on national TV before moving here and was thrilled when I finally had a chance to see it.
I included some of my discoveries there in this excerpt of my book, Mystic Seafarer's Trail:

Now that I lived closer to the Atlantic Ocean than ever before, would I have more hurricanes to fear? 


Hurricanes produce an endless supply of stories and uncover secrets as they rearrange the  landscape. In the mid-1950s, a hidden underground chamber was revealed in Groton when a tree toppled over in a hurricane. The raised root system revealed the opening of what some believe was a tomb—a great addition to the collection of mysterious ruins hidden in the woods in an area called Gungywamp . 

Another intriguing ruin at that site is the calendar chamber. In pure Indiana Jones fashion, during the spring and fall equinox, a small vent in the calendar chamber allows the mid-afternoon sun to shine into it. The sunlight creeps along the wall until it reaches a smaller connected chamber, which it then illuminates.  

Theories about the original builders of these ruins, which were once homes and animal shelters among Stonehenge-like rock configurations, alternate from aliens and Celtic monks, to Native Americans and colonists. With artifacts ranging from arrowheads and stone tools, to a copper 1742 "ha'penny" and a century-old whisky bottle, it is obvious that several cultures throughout the ages called this site home.[ii]

Another hurricane could reveal more in Gungywamp, or better yet,  a shipwreck might become exposed—something I could discover while walking along the shore.


Summer Solstice at Gungywamp
June 21 @ 2:30 pm - 4:30 pm
457 North Gungywamp Rd, Groton, CT United States
+ Google Map

At Gungywamp the woodland warblers are singing. The pileated woodpeckers are calling and mysterious stone structures of Gungywamp are saying nothing. Let’s take an afternoon walk through the woods and see if we can “hear” what they can tell us. $5/member; $8/nonmember Call 860-536-1216 or click here to register online.
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