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Why did settlers come to New Hampshire and Vermont, and where did they come from?

Vermont and New Hampshire were colonized by settlers who migrated from other colonies in New England. The first Europeans in New Hampshire came from England beginning in 1623 and settled in the seacoast region around Portsmouth. They gradually spread out from that area through the 17th and 18th centuries, but didn’t reach the Connecticut River Valley until about 1740.

It may sound odd to refer to Euro-American settlement of Vermont and New Hampshire as “colonization,” but that is an accurate description of the process. A colony, after all, is “a body of people living in a new territory but retaining ties with the parent state.” Migrants to New England maintained close ties with Old England, and migrants to the Connecticut River Valley in New Hampshire and what would eventually become Vermont kept close ties with their relatives, friends, and neighbors in the places they came from. Place names provide one clue to these links, and it is easy to trace the movement of place names from England, to Connecticut and Massachusetts, to New Hampshire and Vermont. This was also a process of colonization because Euro-American settlers were advancing into territories that were inhabited by Native Americans, with the intention of possessing those lands on their own terms, resulting in the disempowerment and displacement of the indigenous people.

People migrated from England to America, and from southern New England to New Hampshire and Vermont, for the same reasons. In both cases, they were seeking greater opportunities and freedoms for themselves and their families. England’s population was growing, the countryside was becoming deforested, and there was little economic, social, or religious mobility. America promised enormous natural resources, unimpeded economic and social mobility, and freedom from persecution. But as the population of southern New England began to grow and social and religious institutions became well established, the same kinds of pressures on land, resources, religious tolerance, and mobility developed there. Americans were continually seeking fresh opportunities beyond the boundaries of the places they were born and raised.

These forces led people, primarily from Connecticut and Massachusetts, to migrate to the Connecticut River Valley in the middle of the 18th century. As historian Jere Daniell notes, “Between 1710 and 1760 the combined population of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut leaped from about 100,000 to over 400,000. Land, good farming land especially, became increasingly scarce and expensive. Young adults eager to establish their own homesteads found it difficult to buy sufficient acreage for a good farm in their native provinces and began looking elsewhere. New Hampshire had much to offer. It contained a seemingly limitless supply of good timber and an adequate amount of fertile soil, the provincial government both encouraged settlement and promoted the formation of town governments with which they were familiar, and land could be leased or purchased at a reasonable price” (Daniell, Colonial New Hampshire [1980], pp. 141- 42).

However, because the native Abenakis resisted the colonization of their lands, it only became safe for settlers to migrate up the Connecticut River Valley beyond the Brattleboro area after the British victory in the French and Indian (Seven Years) War in 1760. Fort Dummer (1724) and Fort Number 4 in Charlestown (1744) provided some protection and served as trading posts where Europeans and Native Americans exchanged goods and interacted cooperatively. But the Abenaki effectively kept the Euro-Americans out until their French allies were defeated. New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth issued a charter for the town of Bennington in 1749—the first in the New Hampshire Grants that would eventually become Vermont—but expansion up the Connecticut River didn’t begin until the end of the imperial wars. Between 1760 and 1764, Wentworth chartered more than 60 towns in the region and many others farther to the west. By 1765, towns had been laid out in nearly the entire valley. Small numbers of settlers began to arrive rapidly, and the trickle soon swelled into a torrent. The first federal census of 1790-91 counted 36,000 people living along the length of the river in Vermont and New Hampshire, with 13 towns having a population of more than 1,000. Daniell thinks it likely that the actual population was probably larger (Daniell, “English Settlement in the Connecticut River Valley, 1691-1791,”http://www.flowofhistory.org/es_toolkit/essays/english.html).

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