Forgotten Tales Of Yankee Peddlers

Originally published in The Smithfield Times magazine, August 2023

Forgotten Tales of Yankee Peddlers

By Jim Ignasher

      There’s a story I found in an 1843 newspaper that tells of a Yankee peddler in a tavern who was insulted by a military major who declared the peddler to be a liar, and when the peddler stood up for himself he was challenged to a duel at sunrise. The major was known for having instigated and won several duels in the past, and the outcome of this one seemed a forgone conclusion.

     At the appointed time the peddler arrived with a rife while the major held a box with two loaded pistols. Pointing the rifle, the peddler demanded the man hand over the pistols in exchange for the rifle. The major did so, and promptly attempted to shoot the peddler with his own rife, but the charged failed to go off, for it wasn’t loaded. Taking the loaded pistols and pointing them at the major, the peddler retrieved his rifle and made for greener pastures. Whether the story is true or not is open to speculation, but its fun to consider non-the-less.

     The term “Yankee peddler” was born in New England, and dates to the early days of the Massachusetts Colony. Boston is credited with producing the first Yankee peddlers who set out from the fledgling seaport to carry goods of all kinds to rural towns and hamlets across the north east.

     Cooking spices were common items carried, and it’s been said that Connecticut came to be called “The Nutmeg State” due to the introduction of Nutmeg by peddlers. Legend also has it that dishonest peddlers would pass off “wooden nutmegs” to unsuspecting farm wives; thus the warning, “beware of wooden nutmegs”, which goes along with the old adage, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

     The more successful Yankee peddlers made their way by horse-drawn wagons while others walked carrying sacks on their backs. Each traveled routes of their own choosing, usually competing with other peddlers for the same profits.

     Being a peddler was dangerous work, for not only did highwaymen roam the back roads looking for travelers to rob, there are numerous ghostly legends of peddlers who met their demise after staying at some wayside tavern. One such tale comes from Mattawamkeag, Maine, where a peddler known as “Peddler Pete” disappeared from a tavern in 1856. Pete sold inexpensive jewelry, and wore a unique shell bracelet on his right wrist. From time to time his ghost would appear, sometimes pointing at the floor in front of the tavern’s massive fire place, but it wasn’t until 1906, when the building was being dismantled for its lumber, that Pete’s remains were discovered still wearing his unique bracelet.

     Closer to home, a peddler reportedly murdered in an apple orchard in Douglas, Massachusetts, was said to haunt the site for years afterwards, and the apple tree under which he died was said to produce apples containing a drop of blood in the center. A similar legend is told in the town of Franklin, Connecticut.

     And Smithfield has such a legend of its own involving an unnamed peddler who disappeared one night while sleeping in the basement of the former Waterman Tavern. It was thought he’d fallen down a well, but one would think someone would have checked before taking another drink. In any event, he was never seen again.

     Yet not all legends involve murder, as with the tale of an unfortunate peddler who was swallowed up along with his wagon when he drove into quicksand while navigating Muck Swamp Road in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1830. (This road does not appear on contemporary maps.)

     And take the case of two peddlers who reportedly entered a strange partnership. The first, according to a newspaper account, “…a tin peddler wishing to coin money more rapidly than by disposing of his wares…” made his rounds while deliberately passing on some type of ailment causing his customers to itch. (Possibly lice.) A week or so later his partner appeared selling an “infallible (itch) remedy” to the same customers!

     Yet another legend tells of an enterprising Yankee who during the American Revolution traveled to New York City hoping to sell wooden bowels and plates, but wasn’t having much luck. Somehow he procured a British uniform and approached a merchant telling him the Commodore of the fleet was looking to purchase a large quantity of wooden ware. The merchant said that he knew where some could be had, and that if he came back later he would have the merchandise. The merchant sent an employee to buy up all the peddler had to sell.

      By the later 1800s many household items were no longer hard to obtain even for those living in rural areas, and the traveling peddler disappeared from the American landscape and became a thing of the past, yet their legends linger.


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