Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

The History of Salt in Vermont

Illustration: view of a salt works on the Merrimack River, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, with large meadow in the foreground. Robert Aitken 1735–1802. Library of Congress.
Illustration: view of a salt works on the Merrimack River, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, Robert Aitken 1735–1802. Library of Congress.

Written By

Pat McGovern

Written on

March 01 , 2009

When the Upper Valley Localvores took their first 100–mile diet challenge in August 2005, we came upon a serious stumbling block. No local salt! Tomatoes and corn–on–the–cob were abundant, but oh, we needed salt. Fortunately, one of our members had vacationed in Maine and brought back a precious supply of sea salt. (Thereafter, Localvore Challenges allowed for the use of a few non–local staple items such as salt and spices.) It made us wonder what our Upper Valley ancestors had done for salt.

One would never guess from the bad press salt gets today that it’s an essential nutrient. All mammals need it. Early humans obtained salt from the wild animals they ate; wild animals found natural salt licks to meet their needs. But with the domestication of animals for meat and the addition of more vegetables to their diet, humans needed to find new sources of salt for their animals and for themselves.

Prior to modern refrigeration, salt was also needed to store pork, beef, fish, and venison and other game. Think of traditional New England dishes: New England boiled dinner, made with corned beef (which was salted beef, “corns” being any small bits such as salt crystals); codfish cakes (made with salt cod); and Boston baked beans with salt pork (made from the flank or belly of the pig). Also think of the brine–filled pickle barrels of old–time country stores. Where did our Vermont ancestors get their salt?

Many of Vermont’s early settlers in the southeastern part of the state traded their small surpluses (cattle, potash, and other farm produce) in Portsmouth or Boston in return for staples such as salt. There was also trade with ports along the Connecticut River. In the Champlain Valley, rafts and other boats headed north on Lake Champlain to trade their wares for salt and other imported goods in Montreal. Trade also took place across the lake with Troy and Albany. As village stores were established, farmers were able to stay closer to home and exchange surplus farm produce for salt and other staples.

Prior to the American Revolution, most salt was imported from England, Spain, Portugal, and British colonies in the Caribbean. Salt was critical to the fishing industry of coastal New England, since most of the catch was preserved as dried salt fish. There were a few domestic salt works located along the New England coast—such as those in Salem, Salisbury, and Glouster in Massachusetts—but wet weather made the evaporation process difficult.

Then in 1775, in response to rebellion in the colonies, the British imposed a naval blockade, causing a serious shortage of salt and other imports. Colonists on the coast responded by boiling sea water, using an enormous quantity of wood to produce a small amount of salt. (Four hundred gallons of seawater were needed to make one bushel, or 50 pounds, of salt.) When a congressional committee proposed financial incentives for domestic production of salt, one of the many salt operations to start up was in Dennis, on Cape Cod. Windmills pumped seawater through pine log pipes to evaporation pans, but this could only work in summer when solar evaporation was viable.

Trade resumed with England after the Revolution, but in 1808, in response to a naval incident that killed three Americans during hostilities between the British and the French, President Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo on trade with England and its colonies, including Canada. According to The Vermont Encyclopedia, “The embargo created economic hardships for northern Vermont and New York, which had no access to other markets. Commerce continued by smuggling. Vermonters traded livestock and lumber for staples such as salt, coffee and cloth, often in sight of the British Army stationed near the border.” The smuggling was frequently via Lake Champlain or overland through the area now known, fittingly, as Smugglers Notch. (Goods were often cached in the mountain caves and caverns while in transit.)

Even after the embargo was lifted, Vermonters resisted the duty tax on goods imported from Canada. History records the sad and poignant story of Harrington Brooks of St. Albans, a 24-year–old father of two children, who was shot and killed while attempting to escape from customs officials with a skiff–load of salt. He was returning from St. Johns in Canada, on November 3, 1811. When ordered to stop, he told the customs officials that his seven bushels of salt were destined for five different families who needed to cure their pork but had no salt in St. Albans. He offered to pay the duties if allowed to proceed. The customs officials insisted on seizing the skiff and a chase and exchange of shots ensued, with Brooks eventually being killed. According to one source, “He pulled open his shirt and exclaimed, ‘See what they have done,’ and fell forward dead upon the loading of the boat, covering the salt–bags with his blood.”

Today, the hazards of salt are not in its deficiency nor in dangers involved in its trade. Instead, salt is abundant and inexpensive and we tend to use too much. The Great Salt Lake produces much of America’s salt, as does a large salt mine below the city of Detroit. In Vermont, localvores look to Maine, where salt–making happens much as it did in the past.

At the Maine Sea Salt Company in Marshfield, ME, fresh seawater from the Gulf of Maine is evaporated in greenhouses, known as “salt houses.” Wind and the heat of the sun evaporate the water. When evaporation is complete, the coarse, unrefined salt is ready for packaging. (It is different from refined table salt and is not iodized.) The Maine Sea Salt Company offers salts seasoned with seaweed, herbs, garlic, and pepper, and there is a smoked sea salt as well.

Illustration: view of a salt works on the Merrimack River, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, with large meadow in the foreground. Robert Aitken 1735–1802. Library of Congress.

About the Author

Pat McGovern

Pat McGovern

Pat McGovern is a retired teacher, an advocate for local foods, and one of the founders of Upper Valley Localvores. (Check out her blog at uvlocalvores.wordpress.com) She is also a volunteer manager of the Canillas Community Garden in Lebanon, NH.

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