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What Did The Early Settlers Do To Organize Their Towns?

By Sarah Rooker on December 18, 2013 in Flow of History
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The settlers who began during the second half of the 18th century to migrate into the Connecticut River Valley north of the Massachusetts border and to the region that would become Vermont were not simply looking for new land to farm. They were also intending to establish a certain kind of community. Most of them came from the colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, where society was organized around the principles of Christianity as understood by the Puritans who settled New England in the 17th century, and their descendants. In their worldview, religion was the foundation of the community. Their quest for land was in large part driven by their belief that economic independence was crucial to the best practice of one’s faith and honoring God. In the “covenanted communities” of New England, the lines between civil and religious authority were not always distinct. But by the mid-18th century the tradition of town meeting democracy, which entitled most adult men to deliberate about and participate in civil affairs, was ingrained and strong. Settlers migrating to the Connecticut River Valley and Vermont brought these assumptions and practices with them. (Not everyone belonged to the same denomination of Christianity—the established church was divided by new evangelical currents spurred by the Great Awakening, and Methodists and Baptists were growing in number—but most people held similar beliefs about the centrality of religion and its relationship to civic life.)

Once proprietors started selling land in a town and settlers began to arrive, community life began to take shape. Early town meeting records are a gold mine of information. They vividly illuminate the early settlers’ beliefs, priorities, and challenges. And they explain much about how these early Americans from New England understood the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Studying these records provides a nearly step-by-step view into the process of town formation and the evolution of local democracy.

Town meetings typically began with the election of officers to govern the town. Ranging from moderator, selectmen and constable to unfamiliar titles like tythingman, hayward, and deer reeve, these positions indicate the kinds of jobs that had to be undertaken by residents to build their community. In addition to learning what these jobs entailed, it is instructive to compare the names of the men chosen to do them with available lists of households, to see the extent to which families had public responsibilities and participated in civic life. Reading town meeting records over a period of a few years shows the ebb and flow of topics discussed and actions taken by the townspeople, and suggests how the early settlers ordered their priorities. Important tasks and goals might include: building roads, deciding the location of the town center, setting out a burying ground, erecting a meetinghouse, hiring a minister, establishing a school, controlling animals, dividing up unallocated land, and of great importance, deciding how the townspeople would pay for these activities.

Finally, in the era of the American Revolution town meeting records often reveal glimpses of the community’s position on dramatic events. In many New Hampshire towns they record the Association Test, listing the names of men who signed an oath of allegiance to the rebellion, and those who did not. In both New Hampshire and Vermont, references to the stockpiling of guns and powder, and raising a local militia, are not uncommon. As a window for teachers and students into the early stages of town formation and the development of community life, town meeting records are priceless.