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THE GREAT CONNECTICUT TO VALLEY FORGE CATTLE DRIVE
OF 1778

     by Max H. Peters


General Epaphroditus Champion House, East Haddam. Photo by Skip Broom

    As far as I know, there is no cactus growing wild around Farmington and no sagebrush fields in the country just west of Wolcott. Those of us who grew up watching TV Westerns punctuated with commercials for Mister Clean, Charmin Bathroom Tissue and Brillcreme were subject to a highly fictionalized account of cattle drives.  In the real world,one of the great cattle drives was from Connecticut to Valley Forge in February of 1778.
   For Clint Eastwood, substitute Epaphroditus Champion, son of Connecticut state commissary Colonel Henry Champion. General George Washington had directed Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull to round up cattle and herd them to Valley Forge.  Trumbull turned the job over to Henry Champion, from Colchester, who enlisted his twenty-two year old son and official assistantEpaphroditus as trailboss. With the help of patriot volunteers father and son put a wagon train together, rounded up 300 head of cattle and headed out in wintry weather.  There is no record of what happened on the drive beside the route:  west to King’s Ferry and across the Hudson, then across a dangerous part of New York infested with mounted bands of “cow-boys,”  pro-British vigilantes who preyed on pro-Revolution families. Then across New Jersey where they managed to avoid British Army patrols, then across the Delaware, through country inhabited by pro-British Indians who would have loved getting the  cattle, along with the bounties for the Yankee’s scalps.  Finally, west of the Schuykill, they reached Washington’s starving troops. Likely they received a thunderous ovation at Valley Forge and received thanks from Washington himself.
 

   Epaphroditus did report that the 12,000 troops at Valley Forge consumed the 300 head of cattle in five days.  “You could have used any of the bones for a knife,” he wrote.
As a result of the leadership skills Epaphroditus demonstrated on this drive, Washington started promoting him, eventually making him Commissary General of the Continental Army.
    General  Epaphroditus Champion settled in East Haddam in 1782. He became  a successful ship owner and import-export merchant, conducting trade mainly with the West Indies.  He was a member of the Connecticut state assembly from 1791 to 1806 and a member of Congress from 1807 to 1817. Of the Champion  family, it should be noted that Epaphroditis’s brother Henry also became a General  during the Revolution. On the female side, their sister, Deborah Champion, delivered dispatches New London via horseback to General Washington when he was in Boston.  Because she was a woman, she was able to pass through British lines safely.
   In 1794 General Epaphroditus  Champion , with the help of architect William Spratt, built a house for himself at East Haddam, on the shore of the Connecticut River. Privately owned, the house stands in fine shape today, part of the East Haddam Historical District which includes the Goodspeed Opera House.
   The General Epaphroditus Champion House is considered one of the finest surviving examples of Georgian American architecture, appearing on the cover of the Dover book The Great Georgian Houses of America, Volume 1.You can look at the house and imagine the elderly Epaphroditus standing beside the place, facing the river, staring off into the west, remembering the cold days and the campfires at night, the nerve-wracking false alarms, still savoring the triumph of the most significant cattle drive this country ever had.

 

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