Many Vt. Towns Mark Sestercentennials
Montpelier — Story-telling sessions, nature walks, birthday cakes and special postmarks are among the ways dozens of Vermont communities will celebrate the upcoming 250th anniversaries of their founding.
In Burlington next weekend, the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum will unveil a new exhibit called “Rebels, Rioters and Paper Towns,” and Ethan Allen biographer Willard Stern Randall will give a presentation. Colchester will host a boat parade, while Waterbury will feature walking tours and a local trivia contest.
They will all be celebrating the stories of the Green Mountain Boys and the details of how Vermont was carved out of hospitable wilderness by European settlers in the years before the American Revolution.
Daniel O’Neil, the executive director of the Ethan Allen Homestead, said most native Vermonters are at least passingly familiar with the stories of the Green Mountain Boys and the decades-long dispute over whether New Hampshire or New York had legal claim to the land west of the Connecticut River.
It was out of that history that Vermont was created.
“If you went to elementary school in Vermont, you usually learned this,” O’Neil said. “But newcomers to the state don’t know this at all. And, in fact, the people who are the most surprised are the people from the rest of the country because they are really surprised at how much actually happened in this state.”
The first town chartered in Vermont was Bennington in 1749, followed by Halifax in 1750 and Marlboro in 1751. A handful of charters were issued for southern Vermont towns through the rest of the 1750s, but the number of charters being issued didn’t take off until after the end of the French and Indian Wars in 1759, when the English expelled the French from North America.
Before that, soldiers from England and France and their Indian allies crisscrossed the area, making thoughts of settling difficult, if not impossible.
“When the conclusion of the war happened, all of a sudden, it was really a land rush,” said Paul Searls, Lyndon State College historian.
Once the war was over, though, Vermont beckoned.
Said O’Neil, “’63 was a good year to found towns.”
Almost all the charters for the towns in Chittenden and Washington counties were signed June 7-8, 1763, by New Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth.
But in a conflict at the root of Vermont history, New York claimed much of the area as well.
New York grants were issued to wealthy landowners who rented to tenant farmers, while the New Hampshire grants were set up as townships where, in most cases, farmers owned the land. It was that conflict that gave rise to the enduring Vermont symbol of the Green Mountain Boys, residents who fought to maintain their rights under their New Hampshire charters.
“Oftentimes New York settlers would arrive to find New Hampshire settlers already on their land. They would be forced away at gunpoint in some cases,” O’Neil said.
In 1764, New York appealed to the Privy Council in England, which ruled in New York’s favor, meaning that New Hampshire settlers had to buy their lands from New York, often at inflated prices.
Even though the towns’ legal charters were granted about 250 years ago, it was some time before there was any significant European settlement in Vermont because the state was just too remote.
In 1762, fewer than 50 families lived in Bennington. By 1770, the population of the entire state was estimated at 7,000 to 10,000 residents, Searls said. Now, about 37,000 people live in Bennington County with about 626,000 in the state.
The conflict between New York and New Hampshire continued in some form until Vermont declared itself an independent country in 1777. In 1791, Vermont became the 14th state.
Organizers and historians hope the anniversary events will give residents a glimpse into Vermont’s interesting past.
“It fundamentally tells you who you are and with whom you belong, where you are located in time,” Searls said. “History is always stories that people tell about themselves. People love it because it allows them to broaden the story they tell about who they are.”