People & Places

Then Again: Youthful exodus from Vermont actually began in the early 1800s

Advertisements like this one for clipper ships to California helped lure more than 11,000 Vermonters to join the gold rush starting in the late 1840s. Vermont’s population at the time was less than half what it is today. Wikimedia Commons

A neighbor recently told me she was afraid her son would have to leave Vermont after college, because the state has few jobs in his desired field. Her comment echoed the refrain we hear from politicians and others that Vermont’s greatest export is its children. 

I commiserated with my neighbor and mentioned that young people leaving the state has been a recurring theme in Vermont history, in case that was any consolation, which I’m sure it wasn’t.

“Even before Vermont itself was half settled,” one historian noted in the 1940s, “migration from Vermont began.” After joining the United States in 1791, Vermont had a strong influx of people, but by 1810 that had dropped to a trickle, and large-scale emigration from the state had begun. Vermont had an exceedingly young population at the time — 50 percent of residents were younger than 16. 

Initially, emigration occurred mostly from southern parts of the state, where the best farmland was already claimed. With little good, affordable land to be had elsewhere, young adults in Vermont looked to the west, which at the time often meant as nearby as upstate New York. 

Mounting pressures 

In the early 1800s, several more factors emerged that made leaving the state appealing to young people, according to Middlebury College professors Christopher McGrory Klyza and Stephen Trombulak in their book “The Story of Vermont: A Natural and Cultural History.” 

One was the intensifying conflict with Great Britain. President Thomas Jefferson imposed an embargo on trade with British-controlled Canada. The embargo severely damaged the Vermont economy, particularly in the northwest corner of the state, which relied heavily on Canadian trade. 

Then, in 1811, the state suffered a series of devastating floods, which were exacerbated by settlers’ heavy cutting of the forests. Vermont lacked significant industrial development at the time. What it did have for industry was largely in the form of small mills, which bore the brunt of the flooding. Rutland and Windsor counties were particularly hard hit, losing roughly two-thirds of their mills. 

Another factor spurring emigration was deadly disease, as outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever, influenza, measles, pneumonia and dysentery swept the state. A spotted fever epidemic killed more than 6,000 Vermonters in 1812 and 1813. Tuberculosis, however, was the biggest threat, accounting for between a quarter and a third of deaths in Vermont annually. 

These cascading miseries being visited on the state seem almost biblical. But, wait, it gets worse. In 1816, because of a freak event — a massive volcanic eruption halfway around the world in what is now Indonesia — the state suffered through “the year without a summer” when an estimated 100 cubic miles of debris blown into the atmosphere triggered a bitterly cold year. The frigid temperatures ravaged the state’s crops and caused many to quit Vermont. 

Who can blame them? The place seemed cursed. 

Mixed blessing 

Even a major Vermont economic success managed to spur more emigration. In the early 1800s, Merino sheep were introduced to Vermont, setting off a farming boom that lasted decades. Merinos were prized for the large volume of high-quality wool they produced. 

The timing of their arrival was fortuitous for sheep farmers. The War of 1812 had blocked America’s access to the British wool market just when American woolen mills were expanding. After the war, tariffs on imported wool continued to support the domestic market. Wool prices rose 50 percent between 1827 and 1835 even as sheep herds grew. 

By 1840, the state’s Merino population had soared to 1.7 million, roughly six times the human population. 

The sheep craze only increased the number of Vermonters leaving the state, however. Successful sheep farmers wanted to expand their flocks, so they began buying their neighbors’ land. One newspaper cautioned Vermont farmers: “Beware of the ‘western fever’ and above all, sell not your farms to your rich neighbors for sheep pastures.” The paper was evidently alarmed by the depopulation of the state, particularly in rural communities. 

But many farmers caught the bug, selling their land and moving west, where their money could buy larger properties. As rich farmers bought up their neighbors’ land, the cost of property rose in Vermont, making it still harder for young people to get into farming in Vermont. 

But it wasn’t just farmers heading west. As Lewis Stilwell noted in his 1948 book, “Migration from Vermont”: “The highways westward seem to have been dotted with Vermont carpenters, blacksmiths, shoemakers, printers, masons, coopers, and the like.” 

Brain drain? 

Some Vermonters headed south. Many Vermont farm girls and young women traveled to Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire to work in textile mills. In 1845, roughly 1,200 of them were working in just the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. 

If they had remained at home, their employment prospects would have been limited mostly to working as schoolteachers or domestic servants. Mill work was more plentiful and often paid better. 

The discovery of gold in California in 1848, and the economic boom that followed, drew thousands of Vermonters. By 1850, more than 11,000 Vermonters had sailed or trekked cross-country to California. That was at a time when Vermont’s population stood at 314,000, less than half what it is today. Some Vermonters worried what impact this loss of young people would have on the state. 

The concern wasn’t just about the quantity of people leaving, but about their quality: “It is this enormous emigration, that takes the young, the enterprising, the sanguine, and thus takes the energy, the hope, the life, of the communities.” That comment came in 1861 from the secretary of the state Board of Education, who complained that those remaining behind (whom he referred to as “the inert”) were too stuck in their ways to support “educational and other improvements.” 

Often the concern was that immigrants from places such as Ireland and Quebec were replacing those who were leaving, and that these newcomers somehow lacked the industriousness and other supposed virtues of Vermont’s original settlers. 

Historian Paul Searls questions the assumption that Vermont’s emigration, which came disproportionately from rural areas, signaled a worrisome decline. 

“What truly distinguishes those who left most often was not that they constituted what a 20th-century historian called Vermont’s ‘most creative and climbing stock,’” writes the Northern Vermont University professor in his book “Two Vermonts,” “but instead that they were primarily those with skills and resources most superfluous to the evolving rural economy.” 

Not forgotten 

A fair number of those who left Vermont went on to assume positions of responsibility in their new communities. I’ll leave it to others to say whether that was because of the sheer numbers of Vermonters heading west or because of their quality. 

The San Francisco Call newspaper clearly believed it was the latter. In 1911, the Call wrote, “Vermont has supplied the ancestors for hundreds of thousands of western people and is regarded with great affection everywhere west of New York.” Citing the state’s marble industry, the paper continued, “Tombstones and ancestors are, in fact, its greatest exports. The soil of Vermont when properly cut and polished makes beautiful tombstones, and the Vermont boy, if caught young enough and transported to some western state, becomes a congressman with scarcely any effort.” 

Vermonters who resettled in the Midwest and West sometimes named their new communities after their former homes. The map of America is dotted with distinctive Vermont place names like Bennington, Burlington, Brandon, Castleton, Middlebury, Montpelier, Rutland, Vergennes and even a Winooski and two Vermontvilles. 

Perhaps these names were a sign of homesickness. Indeed, many Vermonters have returned home over the centuries when it came time to raise a family. Perhaps that’s the consolation I should have offered my neighbor. 


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Mark Bushnell

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