Vermont Black History Month

Vergennes’ black sheriff, police chief

Republished from Vermont Historical Society Black History Database

Stephen Bates is Vermont’s earliest known Black Sheriff and Chief of Police. Mr. Bates was first elected to the office of Sheriff in Vergennes, Vermont, in 1879, fourteen years after the end of the Civil War. City records spanning 29 years, between 1879 and 1907, show that Mr. Bates was elected to the office of Sheriff in all but six of those 29 years. In addition to those elections, Mr. Bates was also often appointed Chief of Police during this period. Altogether, Mr. Bates served the city of Vergennes almost consecutively for 25 years.

According to obituaries and historical records, Mr. Bates was born in Shirley, Charles City County, Virginia in 1842, although his grave marker in Prospect Cemetery in Vergennes claims his birth year as 1843. His obituary says that he was born of “free parents,” but historical records from the Shirley Plantation indicate that he and family members, parents and siblings, were enslaved there. His obituary states that he lived with the Hill Carter family, who were (and still are) owners of the Shirley Plantation, and that Mr. Bates was trained as a waiter and his father as a carpenter. Mr. Bates ran away from the Shirley Plantation in August of 1862 when McClellan’s army retreated from the Berkley Plantation at Harrison’s Landing, which was nearby. His obituary states that he was in the service of officers at Harrison’s Landing and afterwards went to Washington.

In Washington, sometime during or just after the Civil War, Mr. Bates became employed by Frederick E. Woodbridge, a U.S. Congressman from Vermont, whose family residence was in Vergennes, Vermont. Newspaper articles from the time indicate that Mr. Bates was employed as Woodbridge’s coachman. Woodbridge served in the United States House of Representatives from 1863 to 1869 and afterwards returned to his home in Vergennes where he lived until his death in 1888. Mr. Bates returned to Vergennes with Woodbridge and remained loyal to him throughout the remainder of his life. The census of 1870 indicates that Mr. Bates boarded in a home next door to the Woodbridge family home, currently the Rectory of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, of which Mr. Bates was a long-time member. His occupation is listed as coachman. He was married to Frances Mason of Elizabethtown, NY in 1871 and had two children, Rose and Fredrick Bates. The family lived in their home on North Street in Vergennes, which was greatly damaged by fire in 1880, possibly due to arson.

Much has been written about Sheriff Bates in newspaper accounts of the time regarding his work as Sheriff and Chief of Police. His obituary stated that “While Chief of Police he had the satisfaction of arresting ‘Brooklyn Slim’ and ‘Ottawa Red,’ two members of a gang of post office burglars, who are now serving sentences in the state prison, and at one time had in his custody as a tramp, Perry the New York train robber, but released him before he was informed that the Pinkertons wanted him.” Other newspaper articles describe him as the arresting officer in cases involving murder, grand larceny, check forgery, vagrancy, and other offenses in Vergennes and the surrounding areas, including Panton and Ferrisburg. A respected city official, his commanding figure and distinctive hat were a familiar and welcome sight in the community.

Sheriff Bates’ obituary stated that he “was almost entirely a self-taught man, and in the discharge of the duties of his office was cool and self restrained, rarely if ever acting hastily. He died from cardiac arrest while milking a cow on June 10th, 1907, the last year he was elected Sheriff. His obituary states that his funeral at St. Paul’s was well attended. In 1939, many years after his death, a reporter from the Enterprise and Vermonter wrote an article on the occasion of Vergennes’ 150th anniversary. Many notable citizens were remembered, including Frederick Woodbridge and Sheriff Bates. The reporter said of Sheriff Bates that “…he gave the best of satisfaction to all concerned.” Even then the reporter posed a question: Had there ever been another Black Sheriff in Vermont? One hundred and forty-one years would pass before another Black officer would be elected as Chief of Police in Montpelier in 2020.