Local historian conjectures a life not found in the history book
By Sharon Lakey
“The ideal historian goes to the mouth of the tomb, cries: “Lazarus, come forth!” and sets him that was dead for ages, blinking and passionate, in the sun.”
AUSTIN O’MALLEY, Keystones of Thought
Lance Comfort’s Lazarus is Israel Randall of North Danville, and his attempt to raise him started with a deed he bought on Ebay.
The deed, a time-weathered document, begins with “Know all men by these presents that I Jesse Leavenworth of Danville in the County of Orange and State of Vermont for and in consideration of the sum of thirty pounds lawful money to men in hand paid before the delivery hereof by Israel Randal of Danville…” The deed is dated November 30, 1791.
With deed in hand, Lance began his own historical mystery tour with a series of questions that developed into a conjectured understanding of Israel Randall’s life in Danville. “History is written by the survivors, the winners, those who passed their history forward. If a family didn’t stick around, they do not appear in the history book,” said Lance, pointing to Village in the Hills a history of Danville, Vermont that lay on the table in front of us. A quick check of the index in the book shows no Israel Randall.
However, Randall’s name does appear once in the book—page 24 on the map that is captioned: “Final division of land under Danville’s second charter in 1802 following settlement with New York for ’30,000 rights.’” There, in the tiniest of print, is a plot without a number reading “200A Israel Randall.” The first town charter was granted under New York with the name of Hillsborough; the second charter was granted under Vermont with the name Danville. Village in the Hills describes this confusing process in detail in chapter two. It was a process that Lance believes affected Randall as well as and other earlier settlers. Could Randall have settled first under the Hillsborough charter, then later be made to comply with the second? Lance believes this is likely.
Lance laid a transparent map of the Danville land plots over an exact-sized map of the town. This locates the Randall plot in North Danville, very near the Bennett cemetery where he has located Israel’s grave. It also encompasses the land where the Old North Church stands.
“Look at these plots,” continued Lance, pointing to the immediate vicinity around Randall’s. “They are different from the others, different sizes, different names.” True. Many of the other plots on the map have the names of the two proprietors on them—Leavenworth of Cabot and Bayley of Newbury. “I think these people were here before the Danville charter,” said Lance. The book backs this possibility by the following (pg. 10), “Under the charter, the new town was divided into 78 equal shares ‘exclusive of the Posession of forty-nine settlers now residing on said Land who are to have each one hundred acres agreeable to a plan.’” Lance has compiled a list of names of 115 people who claim to have been born in Danville before 1790.
To get an understanding of when Randall may have settled here, Lance checked out Ancestry.com. From Ancestry records, he discovered Randall was born in Durham, NH, in 1743 and died in North Danville in 1829. He was married to Sarah Chesley, also of Durham, in 1768. The couple had nine living children. But when, during that lifetime, did the couple move to what we know as North Danville?
“I believe he was here between 1772 and 1776,” said Lance. Checking the Revolutionary War records, he found Israel did not serve in the military. “Why?” asked Lance. “If he had stayed in New Hampshire, he most likely would have served. But up here, the war was far away and there was no military presence. He most likely had his hands full if he was to simply survive. Think about the settlers who came here that early. It was a dangerous place. The French and Indian War had just occurred and these people were moving into uncharted territory.”
Adding more weight to the placement of Randall here at that date is a writing he has found online from Sias Randall, one of Israel’s grandchildren, who was born in 1822 and
lived in North Danville with his grandfather until the age of seven. Sias related that his grandfather lived in North Danville before the Revolution.
Then how did Randall gain ownership of his 200 acre parcel, and from whom? Lance points a finger at a shady land speculator, Samuel Stephens of Barnet. Before becoming a land speculator, Stephens was court-martialed for cowardly behavior in neglecting to set supplies desperately needed by Rogers’ Rangers as they retreated from their raid on the Abenaki at St. Francis. After his court martial, he moved to selling land for the New York grants, and Lance believes that is how Randall acquired his 200 acre parcel in North Danville. Later, Stephens sold land under the Vermont grants. It is possible that Randall had to pay twice for his property. Remember the price that Randall paid Leavenworth to receive the Vermont deed Lance purchased on Ebay. Thirty pounds was a high price to pay for what was called a “filing fee.”
With his metal detector, Lance searched the property, guessing where the original cabin structure would have been near the Bennett cemetery. “I found a lot of trash, a few old buttons and a 1786 colonial copper,” he said. “Just too many things had gone on there over time to reveal much in the way of artifacts.” By the time grandson Sias Randall was interviewed, there were no more Randalls from this large family living in North Danville. After Sias’ father, Thomas, died in 1830, the estate passed to his eldest brother, Thomas. Lance believes the land on which the Old North Church stands, erected in1832, was donated in his father and grandfather’s names.
If he couldn’t prove much with his metal detecting near the site, perhaps he could prove other settlers in Danville were here pre-Revolution. But finding an original cabin site is not easy. “There are no foundations,” explains Lance. “When a settler would move in, it would be in early spring and the first structure would likely be a cabin of some sort. There was no time that first year to build a foundation, let alone a home structure. Later, if the settler stayed, a new more permanent structure was built.” He turned back to the original Danville plots and looked for unusual shapes and sizes. He found one in a plot labeled Ab. Morrill, which has a corner that juts upward. Again, Lance asked himself, “Why?” And that led to his best find in Danville, a site he calls Nova Hill, located on Kate Beattie’s property.
“I thought that jutting point on the map might be where a house already stood when Danville was chartered for Vermont, thus requiring an unusual plotting,” said Lance, “and I went looking with my detector.” There he found a plethora of artifacts in what was an original cabin site. “There was no foundation, and it most likely was made of a combination of sod and logs. There were also bricks brought in, probably for the hearth.” Here he found coins, from both pre and post revolution—King George on one, lovely Liberty on the other. Old shoe buckles recovered also show a style progression from a smaller to larger buckle, all dating to the latter 18th century.
His case made—there were settlers here pre-Revolution—Lance knows that to really raise Israel from the past, he needs to put some meat on his bones by adding the human story. That is the stuff of historical fiction, and he is well on his way with half a book already written. I, for one, am anxious to get a glimpse of Israel Randall as he emerges from the tomb of history.
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The public is invited to a program where Lance Comfort will share his findings and artifacts at the Danville Vermont Historical Society on Sunday, March 25 at 1:30 pm, 121 Hill Street, Danville.