Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
Southeastern Vermont was in turmoil. The region was on the verge of war. Many settlers there owed their land grants, and therefore their allegiance, to the former colony of New York. As such, these “Yorkers” bristled at efforts by the government of Vermont to exert power over them.
Into this mess, one day in August 1782, walked Sheriff Barzilla Rice. He had been ordered by the territorial government of Vermont to travel to the town of Guilford, near Brattleboro, to seize a cow that belonged to a Yorker who had refused to be drafted into the Vermont militia. The cow was to be confiscated because it was worth the equivalent of the fine Vermont levied against draft dodgers.
A crowd of Yorkers gathered and scared Rice away. This act of defiance was just the latest incident in what became known in Vermont history as the “Cow Wars.”
The conflict actually began three years earlier over the sovereignty question when the so-called Arlington Junta, a small, tight-knit group of friends and relatives that controlled the government of Vermont during its early years, ordered Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen into the area to bring the populace to heel.
The order came from Thomas Chittenden, who would go on to become the state of Vermont’s first governor. “You are hereby commanded, in the name of the freemen of Vermont, to engage one hundred able bodied effective men…” and march them into southeastern Vermont. “Hereof you may not fail,” wrote Chittenden.
Allen quickly rounded up 100 volunteers and started a 30-mile journey across the southern end of the state toward Guilford. Soon others, armed with old rifles and swords, joined them. As they neared Brattleboro, Allen’s force totaled nearly 250. It was, one historian wrote, something of a reunion of the Green Mountain Boys, who together had seized Fort Ticonderoga four years earlier. News of the column’s approach frightened the Yorkers, who sent an urgent message to New York Gov. George Clinton, beseeching him for aid: “otherwise our Persons and Property must be at the disposal of Ethan Allin (sic) which is more to be dreaded than Death with all its Terrors.” Clinton refused to help.
Despite Yorkers’ fears, no one was killed or seriously injured when Allen and his men swept through the area. They arrested 30 leaders of the revolt and delivered them to the town of Westminster for trial. To Allen’s consternation, the judge merely assessed the Yorkers small fines and rebuked them for disobeying the government. And then Chittenden pardoned everyone who had revolted. Showing that he could have the men arrested and hauled into a Vermont court would be enough to settle the issue of sovereignty, Chittenden apparently believed.
But dissent in the region continued. And it was particularly obvious in Guilford, which was so divided that for a time it had two town governments and two town meetings, one loyal to Vermont, the other to New York.
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Soon the unfortunate Sheriff Rice was dispatched on his ill-fated mission. When he was chased off by the mob, Chittenden called out the militia a second time. To prevent any repeat of such mob action, the Vermont Assembly banned all future gatherings of more than five people intending to hinder the execution of the law. Yorkers could still protest the confiscation of cows, but not en masse. As some historians have noted, Vermont’s early leaders were willing to deny individual liberties while fighting for the state’s independence.
On Sept. 10, Allen arrived with about 250 men. The town seemed peaceful at first, but Allen’s force was suddenly ambushed by about 50 Yorkers, who fired shots at the militia. Upon hearing the first shots, the militiamen broke for the rear. None of them had been killed or even wounded. The gunfire had apparently been warning shots.
Allen rallied his troops and led his column back to the ambush site. There, according to one Yorker witness, Allen shouted out a threat: “I, Ethan Allen, do declare that I will give no quarter to the man, woman or child who shall oppose me and unless the inhabitants of Guilford peacefully submit to the authority of Vermont, I swear that I will lay it as desolate as Sodom and Gomorrah, by God.”
That did the trick. The Yorkers scattered. Allen and his troops marched on unmolested and arrested 20 leaders of the revolt.
The leaders were again packed off to Westminster for trial. Allen tried to win them over to Vermont’s side, arguing that it was in their financial self-interest. If Vermonters “would be united,” he told them, “they might make independent fortunes, while the 13 united states were quarreling among themselves and becoming bankrupts.”
Most of the Yorkers came around to accepting Vermont’s sovereignty. The court fined and released them. Four, however, refused to acknowledge Vermont’s authority, or admit to any wrongdoing. For this, the court banished them and ordered their property seized.
Tensions continued. Yorkers, at the urging of Gov. Clinton, kidnapped former Vermont Lt. Gov. Benjamin Carpenter. Vermont retaliated by arresting a few more Yorkers. Carpenter was released after promising to ask the Vermont Assembly to release its Yorker prisoners. Unwilling to de-escalate the situation, the Vermont Assembly refused to do so.
Regional tensions continued to flare and a fight broke out between Vermonters and Yorkers at a Brattleboro inn. The Vermont militia, this time under the command of Gen. Samuel Fletcher, was again dispatched to quell the rebels. With Vermont militiamen approaching, 100 Yorkers gathered and vowed to fight to the death. They fired on the advancing troops, mortally wounding one, and then fled south with the militia in pursuit. The Yorkers scattered, some fleeing across the Massachusetts line.
Ethan Allen arrived two days later with reinforcements and declared martial law in Brattleboro. He stationed a regiment in Guilford and ordered any straggling Yorkers arrested. Vermont was tired of dissenters. When Yorkers petitioned the Vermont Assembly for pardons, the Assembly had the messenger arrested.
Voters at Guilford’s town meeting – the one loyal to Vermont, that is – offered to forgive anyone who swore allegiance to Vermont. Many Yorkers took the oath. The back of the rebel uprising was finally broken. New York’s governor would continue to oppose Vermont’s legitimacy for another half dozen years, but he would have to do so without any organized support from within Vermont.