People & Places

Then Again: Vermont took a rugged road to statehood

A 1784 map shows the legal limbo that once surrounded what is today Vermont. The map labels the territory as “Part of the State of New York now commonly known as Vermont." Library of Congress

History can make the past appear deceptively simple. Looking in the rearview mirror, we can see the road behind us and be deceived that this was the only route we could have followed. 

Take, for example, Vermont’s journey to statehood. In retrospect, it can seem straightforward. For the people living through the period, it was anything but.

The idea of joining the United States was roundly condemned at times by members of Vermont’s most famous family, the Allens. Their views, while often freighted with self-interest, reflect the ambivalence experienced by many of their contemporaries.

Ethan Allen at first favored statehood. In July 1779, with the American Revolution still raging, he and fellow Vermont political leader Jonas Fay wrote a letter to Congress proposing just that. As an incentive to Congress, Allen and Fay noted that, if Vermont were admitted to the Union, it would pay its fair share of war expenses. 

Soon, however, Allen, Fay and other leading Vermonters were in secret talks with British officials in Canada, suggesting that Vermont might want to align itself with Britain.

A few months after Allen died in 1789, his brother Ira wrote their brother Levi, who was in London, informing him of Ethan’s demise. In the letter, Ira lamented the move toward statehood, which he deemed inevitable. Ira said he would prefer an arrangement that provided “the most advantage in trade with Great Britain.” Before the completion of the Champlain Canal in 1823, Vermont merchants had no easy way to trade with New York and other markets to the south, so trading with the British in Canada had strong financial appeal.

Like Ira, Levi bitterly opposed statehood. Levi wrote Ira that he hoped “in the name of Common Sense, You have not, and in the name of Almighty God, you will not join Congress. Govr ____ C (Thomas Chittenden), my deceased brother (Ethan), Yourself … &c. &c. &c. all being full to the Contrary when I left you.”

Competition for the land

The Allens and other Vermonters were naturally distrustful of outsiders. The region’s recent history had been marked by attempts to control the land, often by dispossessing the current owners of that land. 

The first European settlements in what is today Vermont were located near British forts, which provided protection against the Native Americans who were understandably alarmed to see people moving onto lands they had used for millenia. 

Those Native Americans allied themselves with the French, who were vying for the region with the British. 

After the British defeated the French in Canada in 1759 and ’60, the two European powers stopped fighting over the area that would become Vermont. 

No longer needing protection from forts, settlers started to spread out across Vermont. Land speculators smelled an opportunity. Among these speculators were the Allens and others from southern New England, who secured title for land in Vermont from New Hampshire’s governor. The area became widely known as the New Hampshire Grants.

Unfortunately for these new landowners, New York’s governor began issuing title to some of the same lands. For each land grant, the governor collected a sizable fee. What’s more, much of the land went to his cronies. Not that New Hampshire’s governor didn’t charge fees or sometimes give land to friends, but at least his fees were lower.

Vermont finally joined the Union after representatives of New York agreed to drop that state's claim to land in Vermont in exchange for $30,000. The signed agreement is housed at the state archives in Montpelier. Courtesy of Vermont State Archives

By the mid-1770s, New York had issued grants to more than 1 million acres previously claimed by New Hampshire. New York offered to sell holders of New Hampshire grants title to land they believed they already owned.

The dispute gave birth to the Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen and other holders of New Hampshire land grants, who through threats and occasional violence defended their claims against the rival Yorkers. Not surprisingly, when the Revolution broke out, the Green Mountain Boys sided with the cause of independence, which aimed to tear down the existing colonial system that questioned their property rights.

Victory in the Revolution, however, did nothing to end New York’s claims to ownership of Vermont. It hadn’t helped matters that during the Revolution Vermont’s government had seized the property of “inimical persons” and sold them to fund its militia. Those branded as “inimical” included not only Tories, who sympathized with the British cause, but Yorkers as well.

Lobbying for statehood

Prominent Americans soon began lobbying for Vermont’s inclusion in the new country. Gen. George Washington, soon to be president, wrote to Chittenden that the territory had a good chance at statehood if it relinquished claims it had made to small parts of New York and New Hampshire. 

A congressional committee supported Washington’s statement, but the full Congress declined to offer statehood.

During this time in political limbo, Vermont was essentially an independent republic. But its leaders feared it could not remain that way for long. If the small region didn’t align itself either with Britain or the United States, the other one was destined to gobble it up.

The 1780s brought a huge influx of settlers to Vermont. During the decade, the population nearly tripled. These new arrivals hadn’t grown up immersed in the struggle with New York and they largely supported statehood. 

The main obstacle was New York, which continued to press its land claims and intended to block any vote on Vermont joining the union. The only solution was to strike a deal with New York, which Vermont officials did in 1790. For $30,000, New York authorities agreed to drop all claims to land. 

The signatures and seals of New York officials adorn the document by which that state relinquished its claims to the territory that is now Vermont. Vermont State Archives

Some Vermont officials worried that the state would join the Union and then a federal court would find the deal illegal and Vermonters would again have their land titles questioned. But those concerns were brushed aside by delegates to a special convention in Bennington, which in January 1791 voted 105-4 to adopt the U.S. Constitution and set Vermont on a course for statehood. 

The lopsided tally makes the decision seem easier than it was. Many opponents of statehood, like Ira Allen, saw they would lose the vote. So in a sign of solidarity, they cast ballots for statehood, but did so with extreme reservations. As one delegate fretted, once Vermont joined the United States, “her interest must then bend to the interest of the union.”  Say goodbye to independence.

Coming up with the cash

There remained, however, the not-so-trivial issue of raising the $30,000. It was an enormous sum for a small state. 

Vermont had until Jan. 1, 1794, to pay up. The Legislature levied a statewide property tax. Vermonters were used to property taxes, having paid them roughly every two years during Vermont’s years as an independent republic.

But this tax was particularly steep, coming during hard times when money was in short supply. Vermont had to beg for more time from New York, which that state granted. 

Finally, in October 1799, Gov. Isaac Tichenor declared that “(b)y the wise and prudent arrangement of the last and preceding Legislatures, the debts … for extinguishing the claims of a neighboring state are now happily discharged.”

But doing so came at a stiff price. Ironically, some landowners saw their property released from New York claims, only to lose their land soon afterward when they couldn’t pay this special tax.

Mark Bushnell

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