Three True Stories Begging to Be Fictionalized

History is full of great stories begging to be fictionalized. Here's three that I've come across that paint something of a portrait of the early Americas.

Going Native
In 1516, Spanish captain and Conquistador Juan Díaz de Solís, fresh from exploring Honduras, Belize and the Yucatán, was the first Westerner to lay eyes on the Rio de la Plata in modern day Uruguay, while searching for a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Landing on the shore, the sailors met a group of Guaraní Indians, who politely, when asked, showed the sailors some gold objects they had. The sailors immediately tried to seize the gold in the name of king of Spain, and were duly slaughtered. Only one Spaniard survived, a 14-year-old cabin boy named Francisco del Puerto, spared because the civilized Indians would not kill women, children or the eldarly.

In 1527, a Conquistador named Sabastián Gaboto returned to the Rio de la Plata. On the coast he saw "a huge native making signals and yelling." The native was Francisco, raised as an Indian warrior. He came aboard and for a while served as Gaboto's translator. However, at some point he decided that Gaboto was cheating him. With some Indian compatriots, Francisco del Puerto launched a surprise attack against the Spanish, driving them away with heavy casualties.

Francisco del Puerto was never seen by white men again.

The Angel of Hadley

In 1649, King Charles I of England was tried and executed for "high treason" by 59 judges at the culmination of two civil wars. The leader of the judges, General Oliver Cromwell, then took control of the nation as "Lord Protector."

In 1660, Cromwell died and Charles II, son of the executed monarch, took power. He had Cromwell's body dug up, given a posthumous execution, and displayed in public, and then his severed head was put on a pole. Any of the surviving 59 judges were to captured and sentenced to the particularly nasty execution of hanging, drawing and quartering. Most who could, fled the country.

One such judge was General William Goffe, who went to America where the puritans, who were never fond of English authority, were happy to hide him. First he went to Cambridge, MA, and then to New Haven, CT, where he hid in a cave with fellow judge General Edward Walley. (It is still known as "Judges' Cave.") No authenticated record of William Goffe exists after the stay in the cave; the man simply vanished.

In 1676, King Philip's War broke out between King "Philip" Metacom of the Wompanoag Indians and the colonists of Massachusetts. In the conflict, Matacom managed to divert the colonial forces and attack the nearly defenseless town of Hadley. However, according to legend an old man with a long, white beard and an antique sabre emerged from nowhere in Hadley's hour of need, and with brilliant military tactics led a rag-tag militia of town residents to victory over the natives.

Afterwards, royalist investigators appeared and began asking questions. Was the old man General Goffe after all this time? Different villagers said different things. There was no white-bearded man. It wasn't General Goffe. It was General Goffe, but we have no idea where he is now. What battle? There was no battle.

General Goffe was never found by the authorities.

The Battle for Otter Creek Falls

In 1761, New Hampshire governor Benning Wentworth sold land grants for what is now Addison County, VT. (These were among the so-called "New Hampshire Grants" that Wentworth was selling left and right. That this land, freshly taken from the French in the French-Indian War, was already claimed by the colony of New York is another story entirely.) Among the first pioneers to set up homes in this virgin territory were Daniel Foot and Gamaliel Painter, on either side of Otter Creek Falls. Foot's side was chartered as the town of Cornwall, while Painter's was called Middlebury. In 1775, the American Revolution broke out, and the British, after beating Benedict Arnold in the Battle of Lake Champlain, moved their troops down through Vermont. Cornwall and Middlebury, along with most of Wentworth's charters, were abandoned, all except for stubborn, hard-bitten frontiersman Daniel Foot, who sent his family away but refused to leave his own farm. The British stormed through, grabbed Foot, drove off all his oxen, burned down his house (along with all the other houses they came across) and then let him go. Meanwhile, canny Gamaliel Painter infiltrated the British camp pretending to be a "half-idiot" (ie. mentally handicapped), and reconnoitered British troop numbers and positions for the American forces.

After the revolution, the people of Cornwall and Middlebury returned to their lands. Because of the dispute over the property between New York and New Hampshire, the people, under the leadership of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, had simply declared themselves the free and independent Republic of Vermont, and continued to operate completely separate from the newly formed United States of America. Foot set up a sawmill and a gristmill on his side of the falls. Painter set up a sawmill and a gristmill on his side of the falls. And so began a rivalry between two men who both wanted to see their own property become a major town center. The rivalry ended in 1787 when Foot built a bridge across Otter Creek. The people of Cornwall promptly began crossing the bridge to go to Painter's mills, and Painter commemorated the event by hiring away Foot's own mill foreman. Painter had been named sheriff in 1786 and it was his job to put the stocks and whipping post in the center of town. He put them right next to his own property. By 1796 the Cornwall side was officially annexed by the town people were already simply referring to as "Painter's Mills." In 1801 Foot, at the age of 77, gave up; he divided his land among his children and moved to Canton, New York, where he died a year later.

In 1800 Painter was one of the principle founders of Middlebury College, where graduates still receive "Painter's Cane." Foot's wooden bridge stood until it burned down in 1891. Its replacement, a stone bridge built by wealthy Middlebury resident Col. Joseph Battell (who practically rebuilt the town in his own image), crosses above the falls today. Houses once belonging to Gamaliel Painter and Daniel Foot still stand in Middlebury and Cornwall, and their decedents still live in the area.

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