Was Thetford’s Sawnee Bean Road Named For The Legendary Scottish Cannibal?

Sep 6, 2019

Did you know Brave Little State has a hotline where you can call and leave a message? That’s where we heard from West Windsor resident Nan Carman, who's had a burning curiosity about Sawnee Bean Road in Thetford for the past 40 years.

Editor’s note: Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered podcast, is made for the ear. As always, we recommend listening if you can! You can hear the “Sawnee Bean Road” segment beginning at 29:57.

“Where did this name come from?” Nan asks. “Last I heard, Sawney Bean and his family were shipwreckers who lived in caves on the coast of Scotland, and ate the people. How did this get to Thetford Center?”

Wait. Shipwreckers? Cannibals??

Nan's question is one of a bunch that Brave Little State received after an episode last summer, when we tried to decipher the origins of perplexing road names. In an attempt to establish a new tradition, we’re taking another road trip of inquiry to bring you more answers.

You can explore along with us on our various journeys – from Mad Tom Road in Dorset, to Star Pudding Farm Road in Marshfield, to Hi-Lo Biddy Road in Putney – or you can learn from Paul Gillies, our favorite road history expert and the author of Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History.

Have a question for us? Submit it here. | Fan of our show? Support VPR!

Brave Little State host Angela Evancie takes on Nan's inquiries about cannibals, shipwreckers and Sawnee Bean Road in Thetford.

Paul Gillies points out that Vermont writer Noel Perrin, who lived in Thetford Center, made passing mention of Sawnee Bean Road in his 1972 book Amateur Sugarmaker. The road, Perrin wrote, was “apparently named for a medieval Scottish cannibal. No one knows why.”

So Nan Carman isn’t coming out of left field here. Sawney Bean (slightly different spelling) is indeed the name of someone from Scottish legend. The story originated in the 16th century. 

“The story goes that Sawney Bean was born in East Lothian, Scotland,” says Blaine Pardoe, author of the 2015 book Sawney Bean: Dissecting the Legend of the Scottish Cannibal.

"Sawney and his wife, they lived in a cave on the Scottish coast that could only be accessed during the low tide," Pardoe explains. "And for years, they survived by not only robbing their victims, but allegedly eating their victims."

Whoa.

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“This was a story that the English told about the Scots, especially during the era of the Scottish rebellions in the 1700s,” Pardoe says. “They tried to make the Scots much more frightening.”

"Then it turned a little bit, and Sawney became recognized as a word that the English would use to make fun of the Scots," says Paul Gillies.

“To refer to Scottish people in a derogatory way,” according to Pardoe.

Fascinating, and disturbing. But why did Thetford take up the name Sawnee Bean?

“If you think about this, we’re talking about, the Bean family was allegedly involved with the murder of a thousand people, and eating them,” Pardoe says. “This would the equivalent of naming a road after Charles Manson. Or Ted Bundy.”

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Pardoe is happy to speculate.

“If it’s a frightening road, if it’s windy, if it’s curvy, heavily wooded, if it’s something that’s got a creepiness to it, I could see somebody attaching this,” he says. “I will say this: I wouldn’t be traveling that road at night, or during the autumn season.”

I drive the road on a perfectly gorgeous summer day. It is not very creepy at this time — though it is curvy, and heavily wooded toward the bottom.

I find Peter Fishell, who is out for a walk. He says he’s lived on the road for about 30 years, and that he has no idea how the road got its name — but he loves to jog it.

“It gets more difficult every year, but it’s one of my great pleasures of life,” Peter tells me.

Up the road, Terry Garrison is working on a home renovation for Alex Cherington. Terry's theory? That a "single old Sawney Bean" lived on the road.

But Alex, who lives here, knows some of the history.

“What I’ve heard that it was a derogatory name for a Scot,” Alex says, adding that he knows the legend, as well.

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“So anyway, when this area was first developed, apparently there were either people that lived up here that people didn’t like, but had to give them a name that went along with their opinion of them, and so Sawnee Bean it was,” he says.

Full disclosure: I did not find definitive proof of why Thetford chose this name. I heard a bunch of different theories, many along the lines of what Alex is suggesting: that the name Sawnee Bean might have actually referenced someone who lived on the road. Not a cannibal.

Nate Pero grew up in Thetford. He lives in West Fairlee now. He says the road used to be Swaney Bean — and this is true, that spelling shows up on a map from 1877. (In fact, the spelling has changed many times, even in more recent records. Swaney, Sawney with an E-Y, Sawnee with an E-E. That’s what it is right now.)

An 1877 map at the Thetford Historical Society shows the spelling Swaney Bean rather than Sawnee Bean.Credit Thetford Historical Society, CourtesyEdit | Remove

“Flatlanders changed it,” Nate says. “People from out of state that didn’t know what they were talking about, and they changed it to the way they want it. It was named after two Native American families that lived in the upper part of the valley.”

Swaney and Bean were two local families, according to Nate, who is Native American himself.

“I can just go by what my grandfather and my father told me, that was what it was named for,” he says. “And my father was chief of the tribe, so I have to go along with what he had to say.”

This was the Koasek tribe of the Abenaki Native Americans. Now, a cursory search at the Thetford Historical Society didn’t turn up any records of these names. But Bean was a family in Strafford, the next town over (and Sawnee Bean Road crosses the town line). So was Shawney. It’s complicated.

House Representative Jim Masland lives in this area. He left me a kind of fuzzy voicemail with his explanation.

“To best of my knowledge, which may be imperfect, there was a fellow named Bean who lived somewhere near the junction of Sawnee Bean Road and Miller Pond Road,” Masland says. “Last name was Bean, and who was a lazy so-and-so. This is back in colonial time or whatever, and he was a Sonny or a ‘Sawney,’ meaning a lazy person. And it is said that Sawnee Bean Road came from Sawney or Sonny Bean, who was a lazy so-and-so."

Back in 1979, a local historian named Jessie Baldwin tried to determine the origin of Sawney Bean Road. By her account, James Bean of Strafford was a Tory. But her research is inconclusive.

Read "Sawney Bean" by Jessie Baldwin, courtesy of the Thetford Historical Society

“She doesn’t really — she never finds any Sawnees among the Beans in that area,” Paul Gillies points out.

So best-case scenario, there are three possible explanations for this road name. Maybe it was just straight-up named for the legend of a Scottish cannibal. Maybe it was some combination, where the derogatory word “Sawney” was applied to a local resident — possibly Native American, possibly a British sympathizer, possibly a “lazy so-and-so.” Or maybe there were simply two families around here, named Sawney, or Sawnee, or Swaney, or Shawney...and Bean.

A cursory search at the Thetford Historical Society didn't turn up any records of the names Sawnee or Bean. But Bean was a family in neighboring Strafford, and so was Shawney.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

It’s difficult to say. In 1980, Gwenda Smith, of the Strafford Historical Society, saw Jessie Baldwin’s research and wrote her a letter.

“Part of the charm of these old and puzzling names, I feel, is the mystery that surrounds them,” Smith wrote. “You seem to have done a nice job of leaving enough of the mystery there to tease the mind, while telling us a lot of fascinating facts connected with the name and the area. Congratulations, and thank you.”

Brave Little State's question hotline is 802-552-4880. Support for the show comes from the VPR Innovation Fund. Additional credits for this story here.