Euro-American settlement and town formation in the Connecticut River Valley and throughout what would become Vermont was a relatively orderly process. The people who migrated here, primarily from southern New England, came from established communities that felt to many people like they were bursting at the seams. By the middle of the 18th century population growth made it increasingly difficult and expensive for families to provide adequate land to enable their children and grandchildren to support themselves in their home communities. People in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and eastern New Hampshire desired to purchase “uninhabited” lands on the frontier beyond already settled towns, to provide for the continuing prosperity of their families.
The first step in the process was to petition the crown, through the governor of the colony, for the right to establish a new town. Groups of people called proprietors (nearly all men) formed to make such a request, they paid a fee, the area was surveyed and boundaries laid out, and then the governor issued a town charter to the proprietors, each of whom was granted an equal share in the town. Once a charter was granted, the proprietors met—usually in their home communities—to begin creating the town. The first orders of business included electing officers to govern these earliest stages of town formation, laying out the lots of land to be distributed among the proprietors, and deciding how to pay for the allotment. The records of proprietors’ meetings also show that they provided incentives for people to settle in their new towns. For example, they might offer a right to build a mill to the first five families, or promise to give a cow to the first five women in town.
In practice, most proprietors viewed town formation as a speculative business venture. Most of them never intended to settle in the new towns themselves, and most of them never did. Instead, they wanted to create a brisk market for lots in the towns and sell them to land-hungry families who were looking to settle in these frontier communities. Comparing the names on the charter of a Connecticut River Valley town with the names of the early settlers found in the town history usually shows little overlap.
The early settlers in this region were a hardy bunch who did in fact carve homesteads and communities out of a mostly forested wilderness. The story of the Mann family, the first settlers in Orford, N.H., is typical (see FQ3, lessons 2 and 3). Most families cleared and farmed the land and provided for much of their own subsistence. Some undoubtedly took advantage of sites previously used by Abenakis, and some adopted Abenaki agricultural practices like making maple sugar and planting squash and beans with corn. But commercial enterprises like mills and a general store were also present from the very beginning in most towns. And before long, people were setting up businesses to exploit abundant natural resources like timber and minerals. There is truth to the image of communities made up of self-sufficient family farms, however, it is important to recognize that specialization, barter, and trade with other regions are also part of the picture. A store in Plainfield, N.H., for example, was selling chocolate, ginger, mohair, and shoe buckles as early as 1768; another store in Norwich, Vt., advertised similar goods including coffee, French brandy, molasses, knives and forks, screws, and iron tools in the 1790s. These new frontier communities were thoroughly embedded in larger commercial networks.