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Historic spotlight falls on steamboat pioneer

When you look at a painted portrait, say for example the Mona Lisa, what comes across your mind? Do you admire the painting for it’s artistic mastery? Or do you find yourself staring at her face, wondering who was this woman and what was life like at that time?
Coming up on Sunday, Nov. 11, the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum will host a free event, from 3-5 p.m., at the Vergennes Opera House to unveil two recently rediscovered portraits. The paintingsare of Vergennes steamboat pioneer Captain Jahaziel Sherman (1770-1844) and his wife Harriett Daggett Sherman (1792-1873). This is the only known image of Captain Sherman, who was responsible for the construction of six Lake Champlain steamboats from 1814-1820, four of which survive as shipwrecks (two as part of the Underwater Historic Preserves).
At Sunday’s unveiling event, we can have our cake and eat it too. These paintings are not only beautiful works of 19th century art, but we’ll also get to learn the history. Kevin Crisman, a professor in the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University, will share stories of Sherman’s adventurous life and recent archaeological discoveries of his early steamboats on Lake Champlain in a talk at 4 p.m.
“Sherman’s importance in local, regional, national and technological history is indisputable,” said Crisman, who has been studying Sherman for nearly 40 years. “He was at the forefront of the world’s steamboat revolution.”
Crisman grew up in Vermont (Peacham and Montpelier) and attended the University of Vermont, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1981. He said that he’s always been interested in history and archaeology, and got active in the latter while in college.
“The first real nautical archaeology project that I was on, in 1980 while I was a UVM senior, involved diving on, recording and drawing up wreck plans of the recently discovered Phoenix I — Jahaziel Sherman’s first steamboat on the lake,” Crisman said.
Water Witch, built at Fort Cassin in 1832, was Captain Jahaziel Sherman’s last steamboat. He ran her as a private enterprise until 1835, when she was sold to the Champlain Transportation Company and converted into a schooner.
That 1980 project was the first one that Arthur Cohn (co-founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum) and Crisman worked on together. That was “the beginning of an incredibly enjoyable and I think very productive multi-decade partnership of studying shipwrecks in Lake Champlain and elsewhere,” Crisman added.
Since then, Cohn and Crisman, and many other Lake Champlain divers, as well as college students, have studied three other Sherman wrecks:
1) Ticonderoga (built at Vergennes in 1814) was intended by Sherman to be the first steamboat of the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company, but while it was under construction the U.S. Navy purchased the hull and made it into a sailing warship (the wreck is down in Whitehall, N.Y.).
2) Water Witch (built 1832) was the last steamer built by Sherman, at Fort Cassin on the mouth of the Otter Creek in Ferrisburgh, and ran for three years as a steamer then converted into a schooner and sunk in 1866 off Diamond Island.
3) Phoenix II (built 1820) was the last steamboat built in Vergennes and ran on the lake until around 1836 when it was retired and scuttled at Shelburne Point.
“I was co-directing field schools with Carolyn Kennedy (a Ph.D. student at TAMU) from 2014-2016 to study four steamer wrecks at Shelburne and we kind of slowly realized that one of them was Sherman’s Phoenix II. What a terrific find!” Crisman remembered. “We had thought it was another, later wreck at first, but the dimensions did not match, and we were starting to think it was maybe Phoenix II when one of the divers found a chisel with ‘SB PHOENIX’ stamped on the shank. It is rare to find that kind of identifying mark on artifacts from wrecks.”
In 2016 Crisman, Kennedy and George Schwarz (another TAMU grad student, who now is with the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Archaeology unit), decided it was time to write a biography of Sherman.
“He had such an interesting life, marked with incredible achievements and also with many personal tragedies,” Crisman said. “He was overdue for some kind of recognition for his achievements on Lake Champlain and elsewhere.”
The trio spent 2017 writing an article for Vermont History, but they were disappointed not to be able to find any portrait or likeness of Sherman in their research.
“Vergennes historian Susan Ferland told me about newspaper references to portraits of Sherman and his wife existing in 1866, but we were not able to figure out where they had ended up after all this time,” Crisman lamented.
Then, in “one of the strangest coincidences of cosmic timing” Crisman’s ever experienced, the portraits of Captain Sherman and his wife surfaced this July — just in time for the article’s publication.
“We’d had no idea where the paintings went after his widow died in 1873,” Crisman said. “And here, out of the blue, the present-day owner shows up with them.
THE CHISEL THAT was found during the PHOENIX II excavation.
Danny Cahill III of Mill Valley, Calif., (the current owner of the portraits), got in touch with the LCMM and asked Curator of Collections Eloise Beil if the museum wanted to borrow them. Of course, the answer was, yes!
“The unveiling of the portraits is a big deal for Vergennes history, Addison County history, Vermont and Lake Champlain history, and truly, American history,” Crisman said. “Sherman was a true pioneer of early steam navigation, on the Hudson River and especially on Lake Champlain, and he left an incredible legacy for us that we are still discovering in old shipwrecks and in libraries and archives.
“The Vergennes Opera House is the perfect place to show them to the Vermont public after their absence from town for about 145 years,” Crisman continued. “Jahaziel Sherman is interred in the Vergennes Burial Ground (you could practically toss a biscuit from the opera house’s front door and hit his tombstone, if you were so inclined).”
Believe it, or not, this isn’t the first time these portraits have been on exhibit in Vergennes. “Harriett Daggett Sherman loaned the portraits to a public exhibition during the Vergennes Centennial celebration of 1866,” Crisman said. “In the ideal world, LCMM will be able to acquire the portraits.”
For now, the paintings will be welcomed home to Vergennes with Sunday’s event, and then will be displayed in a special exhibit at LCMM in the spring of 2019.
“Guests will be dazzled by Harriet’s beauty and stand in awe of Jahaziel’s stern demeanor, so befitting a seasoned maritime captain and captain of industry,” lender Cahill told the LCMM. “After an epic journey of 200 years, at long last, Harriet and Jahaziel Sherman have come home to their final resting place in Vergennes — please come welcome them home.”

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