Anchor yourself in 1691. Imagine yourself an English man or woman living in the most northern valley community created by Europeans — Northfield, Massachusetts. And you’re thinking of settling still further up the river. Most likely, you forget the idea. Too risky. War between the French and English has just begun. Native People will likely join the Catholic French — both in your Protestant eyes, allies of the Devil — to destroy whatever buildings you erect and crops you plant. They will kill or capture you if possible. Even if they don’t, you can’t get clear title to whatever land you improve. The existing system of land distribution starts with the British colonial government which grants property in the form of a town to a group known as town proprietors, who then divide the property among themselves. In 1691, no towns above Northfield have been granted. Indeed, it isn’t even clear which colonial government has the authority to do the granting. Massachusetts claims ownership up to present-day Charlestown, but a few years back the English government created a colony called New Hampshire which might also claim jurisdiction. So, wisely, you decide to stick close to home.
In the mid 1730s one of your grandchildren tells you he’s thinking about making the move you didn’t make. Circumstances have changed. To begin with, France and England have been at peace for twenty years. In part because of that, wealthy investors have begun to show interest: two of them, William Brattle and William Dummer, have purchased whole townships expecting to profit by selling their land to individuals. Massachusetts has already granted five townships along the river’s east bank (Hinsdale, Chesterfield, Westmoreland, Walpole, and Charlestown) and is rumored to be repeating the process across the river. To be sure, some risks remain. The boundary issue hasn’t been resolved and it might turn out that the grants made by the Bay Colony have no legal standing. And relationships between England and France might turn sour again, triggering renewed fighting along the northern frontier. But these risks seem small when weighed against an increasingly clear new factor: good land is no longer available locally. You have had seven children and now have over twenty grandchildren with more on the way. Your neighbors have been equally productive. Everyone farms. You urge your grandson to make the move. You’ll even give him the money to purchase a “right” (roughly 300 acres) in one of the new towns. He says he’ll do it.
Many others made the same decision. Settlement along the Connecticut River north of the current Massachusetts border began in the mid-1730s.
Unstable Beginnings: 1730-1760
They came as individuals and as families, cleared land, planted crops, and met as proprietors and town inhabitants to plan their collective future. But events conspired against them. France and England went to war again in 1740; raids began soon thereafter. About the same time, the home government drew a new Province Line (the same line that exists today) which invalidated all the town grants made by Massachusetts north of the line. No one could be sure what the decision meant for individual property ownership. Not surprisingly, many recent migrants returned to the towns they had left.
A second pulsing of settlement took place at mid-century. Hostilities stopped in 1748 and by then a strong fortification had been constructed in the old Massachusetts township #4 (Charlestown, NH). Fort #4, in combination with Fort Dummer on the west bank, promised improved protection. Even more important, New Hampshire made clear its intention to encourage new settlement. Its governor, Bennning Wentworth, assumed the colony extended west of the Connecticut and in 1752/53 granted corporate charters to Hinsdale (which included today’s Vernon), Brattleboro, Chesterfield, Dummerston, Westmoreland, Putney, Walpole, Westminster, Rockingham, and Charlestown. The new town proprietors included most of the individuals who had improved property under the old Massachusetts grants, and, in general, made clear New Hampshire’s intention to make land available to anyone who wanted to develop the river valley. Even the last of the frontier wars, which began in 1754, did little to undermine New Hampshire’s campaign. Most of the fighting took place elsewhere. All future military dangers ended when the English, in 1759, captured Quebec and the following year France surrendered all Canada.
It’s impossible to know how extensive settlement was along the river when Quebec fell. The first time anyone counted heads wasn’t until 1767. That census had about 2500 inhabitants in the towns just on the east bank. My guess is that had a census been taken the summer of 1760, the figure for both sides of the river would have been under 1000.
An Explosion of Settlement, 1760-1791
Nothing could hold them back. When the first federal census was published in 1791 (the same year Vermont became the nation’s 14th state) 52 of the 53 towns presently bordering the river had both corporate charters and inhabitants. New Hampshire had granted the bulk of the towns, most of them in the early 1760s. The census showed a total population of over 36,000 and the real number was probably much higher. Westmoreland, at 2018, had the most people; thirteen different towns had over 1000.
Several factors accounted for the explosion. Of basic importance was continued population pressure. New England families still had the largest number of surviving children in North America, and probably the world. Most of the first stage settlers had come from nearby towns in Massachusetts. After 1760, Connecticut and southeastern New Hampshire added to the flow. A second factor was certainty of land titles. In the valley, unlike, for example, New York and northern Pennsylvania, one could reasonably be sure purchases would remain valid. All towns on the east side had unchallenged New Hampshire charters. Even though the home government in 1764 decided what is now Vermont belonged to New York, that colony offered, at a price, to confirm charters made by New Hampshire. Nine of the riverine towns accepted the offer. The others won out when the American Revolution resulted in Vermont’s self-creation: Vermont officials supported the original New Hampshire grants. Few individuals who purchased land in newly settled valley towns, especially after 1777, had to defend their purchase in court.
A third factor was the land itself. Much of the immediate valley had once been a huge glacial lake which, when it receded, left rich soils suitable for farming. In addition, the river made transportation up and down the valley easy. People, in fact, kept moving north long after our closing date of 1791.
The final factor facilitating migration was the appropriateness of the town form of government to community formation. The overwhelming majority of migrants were from New England where towns had been the norm since the 1630s. All they had to do was copy the familiar. They divided common lands, built roads, hired ministers, erected meeting houses, and prided themselves in their accomplishments. Rich land, good transportation, familiar governmental institutions and common purpose all help to explain why the Connecticut River Valley towns developed so quickly once barriers to settlement were removed.
By Jere Daniell
Jere Daniell is a professor emeritus of Dartmouth College, Department of History. He presents an overview of the topic. For further details, investigate the specific stories of your own town’s settlement. How does your town’s development parallel the general story? How does it differ?