The Flow of History
 
 

The American Republic: 1760-1870

Early Political Life in the Connecticut River Valley

by Richard J. Ewald

from Proud to Live Here

The first generations of European descendants to settle the northern valley established homes, businesses, churches, schools, courts, and local governments, and joined in achieving statehood and establishing a nation. The civic stability and social cohesiveness we inherit is woven into the fabric of the agreements they created and which we ratify by our participation. Our democratic traditions support individual expressions found in religious practice, artistic creation, and scientific invention. The two poles of The one and The Many in the northern valley are represented by rugged individualism, our popular self-image, and Town Meeting, our most famous political institution.

The Basic Story

Connecticut River Valley residents today say that regional issues sometimes don't get enough attention in state capitols located far outside the Connecticut's watershed. Our predecessors in the northern valley generally shared this point of view for more than two centuries, whether the decisions were made by Colonial-era British governors in Albany, Portsmouth, or Boston, or by the powers that be in Montpelier and Concord. Valley towns frequently have perceived they have more in common with communities just across the river than with the rest of their own state.

This perception reinforced the evolution of regional culture in the Connecticut River Valley. The men and women who came here in the second half of the 18th century brought with them the society-building habits of coastal New England. Building on these traditions, but in the absence of today's culturally homogenizing influences, they put their own stamp on a new landscape somewhat isolated by distance and topography from their previous homes. With extraordinary leadership and tenacity, they established local governments, public meeting places, schools, and churches English and French settlers later were joined by immigrants from the rest of Europe and around the world. The river valley's landscape attracted entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, and writers who responded to their new experiences in a distinctive way and gave voice and image to a regional identity.

The Connecticut River now defines the entire length of the political boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont. But during the formative years of the United States, settlers in the watershed on both sides of the river believed they shared a social unity that deserved recognition as a separate political entity. Their vision was not endorsed by others who had the power to draw political boundaries.

The right ot grant town charters in our region was claimed variously by Colonial governors in New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. In 1735, the Colonial governor of Massachusetts chartered four towns along the river in present-day southern Vermont and New Hampshire. These towns were numbered One through Four. Present Charlestown, New Hampshire, was known as Number Four, a name passed on to its frontier for and the fort's 20th-century museum reconstruction, the Fort at No. 4. In 1740, King George II settled a boundary dispute between New Hampshire and Massachusetts by setting the northern boundary of Massachusetts slightly further to the south, at its present location.

The King also named new governors for his colonies of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. However, the description of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire boundary-as proceeding west "til it meets with his Majesty's other Governments"- exacerbated rather than resolved questions about New Hampshire's western boundary with New York.

Beginning in 1749, New Hampshire's provincial governor Benning Wentworth granted charters to towns west of the Connecticut as well as east. Present-day Vermont became known as the "New Hampshire grants." A modern map showing town boundaries reflects Wentworth's intent to straddle the river. It appears that when it came time to establish northern and southern boundaries for 14 new towns on both sides of the Connecticut, a straight edge was laid directly across the river, creating seven matched pairs of towns, from Weathersfield, Vermont, and Claremont, New Hampshire, in the south to Fairlee, Vermont and Orford, New Hampshire, in the north. This displeased Governor George Clinton of New York, who complained to the Crown. NY refused to honor the New Hampshire grants, particularly after King George attempted to settle the matter in 1764 by declaring the western bank of the Connecticut RIver as the eastern boundary of NY.

This sat well with neither Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys in western present-day Vermont nor among settlers of the Connecticut River Valley, who had closer ties to communities down river, and didn't want to be governed either from Albany or coastal New Hampshire. WIth leadership coming from Hanover, where Dartmouth was founded in 1769, an association of Connecticut River towns spoke up for an independent status.

After Vermont declared itself and independent Republic in 1777, sixteen river towns on the New Hampshire side of the river opted to join Vermont, claiming that independence from Britain freed them from obligations to New Hampshire which had been granted by the King. Vermont towns bordering the river petitioned to withdraw from Vermont unless the eastern towns were accepted. A convention of river valley towns in Cornish in December, 1778, considered forming a new and separate state, called New Connecticut, encompassing the valley towns on both sides of the river and having as its capital Dresden, that part of Hanover where the college is located. In 1779, New Hampshire responded claiming all of Vermont's territory.

In 1781, delegates from towns on both sides of the river met at a widely attended convention in Charlestown, and agreed that they wanted to remain united, condemning the idea of making the Connecticut River a state boundary. Governor Chittenden of Vermont wrote to George Washington, seeking Vermont's admission to the Union with territories extending into both present-day New York and New Hampshire. Meeting in Philadelphia later that year, Congress voted to accept Vermont into the union, but tale out the lands claimed by New Hampshire on the east and NY on the west. The Vermont Assembly did not acquiesce, but offered to appoint commissioners to review the situation in conjunction with Congress.

In January of 1782, New Hampshire sent 1,000 soldiers to enforce its jurisdiction. Trying to avoid turf battles while wagin a war against England, General Washington advised that Vermont accept Congress's proposal that Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River be its west and east borders. The Vermont Assembly agreed, and the river towns on the eastern shore were drawn back, unhappily into the New Hampshire fold.

It wasn't until 1934 that the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the official boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont as the ordinary low-water mark on the western bank, which was identified with markers adn is now, in some places, inundated by dams later constructed. Since their settlement, the towns on both sides of the river have had more in common with each other than they did with their distant state capitols, a situation that continues today.

New Hampshire ("Live Free or Die"), one of the thirteen original colonies, achieved statheood on June 21, 1788, the ninth stat in the Union. Vermont ("Freedom and Unity") was granted statheood on March 4, 1791, as the fourteenth state.

The terms of the 1783 settlement that ended the Revolutionary War set off another boundary dispute, this time in the north involving the U.S.- Canadian border, and centered on varying interpretations of which streams were actually the headwaters of the Connecticut River. In the region of present-day Pittsburg, New Hampshire, residents finally took things into their own hands in 1832 by declaring themselves the United inhabitants Hampshireabitants of Indian Stream Republic. They drafted a constitution and created a militia - of 41 men. But they couldn't agree among themselves about whether to form an alliance with Canada and Great Britain or the United States, and civil war seemed likely. When the New Hampshire Assembly proposed that the Republic become part of New Hampshire, it agreed. In 1840 the former Republic was incorporated as the town of Pittsburg.

Our political stability was-and still is-reinforced by a variety of political, social, and religious organizations and traditions. Annual Town Meeting is foremost among these traditions, at the top of a pyramid of similar institutions within which we carry out the common purposes of government. These include: town select boards and village trustees; regional and local planning, zoning, and conservation boards and commissions; school boards, teachers' and parents' associations; churches, libraries, historical societies, granges, and service clubs; museums, art guilds, performing arts, and poetry groups. We celebrate our communities in gatherings large and small, such as concerts and readings, church and game suppers, festivals founded on local traditions (moose, pumpkins, zucchini), historical re-enactiments, and a host of activities gathered into Old Home Days.

Over time, our cultural institutions-our museums, libraries, theaters, galleries, historical societies and historic sites - have become the repositories of our regional heritage and stages upon which the region's individual and collective accomplishments and memories are kept alive. They are sometimes the forums withing which new ideas and paradigms are introduced and evolve.

Through all of these institutions and organizations, we enact our roles as stewards of our precious natural and architectural inheritance. On any given night in the northern valley, we are gathered in kitchens and meeting halls to make important decisions about the care and stewardship of this inheritance. Sometimes we're called on to express new visions, make extraordinary efforts, and strengthen our organizations, in order to preserve and protect our communities.

The above chapter is quoted from Ewald, Richard J. with Adair D. Mulligan, Proud to Live Here, © 2003 by the Connecticut River Joint Commissions.

Printer Friendly Page

© 2013 Flow of History. All rights reserved.