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In America the germ of political organization is the Township, older than the County, older than the State. In New England we find towns established as independent communities, endowed with distinctive rights and privileges, as early as the middle of the seventeenth century.
It is to these town governments that we must look for the foundation of republican liberty, to the town meeting, where all citizens meet on a plane of equality to choose their local officers and manage their local affairs. Here is the firm basis upon which all free institutions can rest.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once proposed that the records of a New England town should be printed and presented to the governments of Europe, to the English nation as a thank-offering and as a certificate of the progress of the Saxon race; to the continental nations as a lesson of humanity and love.
De Tocqueville said that the government of a New England township was the best specimen of a pure democracy that the world has ever seen.
The town charters granted by New Hampshire conferred upon the inhabitants of each township, from its first organization, the right of self-government in town meeting, by the election of town officers and general ejection of town affairs.
Such, also, had long been the practice in Connecticut, from whence a large proportion of all the early settlers had immigrated to their new homes in the New Hampshire Grants.
The royal decision of July 20, 1764, which extended the boundary of New York to the west bank of the Connecticut River, soon resulted in the practical relinquishment by New Hampshire of all claims to jurisdiction over these infant settlements. New York never succeeded in establishing her authority over them, and the people were thus left for nearly twenty years solely to the town meeting and the officers therein chosen for the protection of life and liberty, as well as for the management of their local affairs.
It is a curious fact in the history of Norwich that the town was organized and officered before it contained a single inhabitant, and before the first white man had entered it for the purpose of settlement. It illustrates the aptitude of our ancestors for self government, and their dependence on law and order as a necessary basis for civil society.
The first town meeting was held at Mansfield, Connecticut, on the same day (August 26, 1761) on which the proprietors of the town met and organized for business, and was composed, beyond doubt, of the same persons. The following is its brief record:
“At a Town Meeting of the Grantees of Norwich held on Wednesday ye 26 Day of August 1761 at the House of Mr WilliamWaterman in Mansfield, Eliezar Wales being moderator of sd meeting.
“1 Voted that Eliezar Wales should be Town Clerk for the Current year.
“2 Voted SamuelWest, Capt Abner Barker, Major Joseph Stores, Select Men for the Current year.
“3 Voted Andrew Crocker Constable.
“4 Voted that the next annual town meeting should be held at the dwelling House of Mr. William Waterman.”
From the date of this meeting the records of the town are continuous and unbroken to the present time, except that there are no records of freemen’s meeting preserved prior to the year 1794. It is thought that there are few towns in the State whose official records are more complete or in better condition. Previous to 1778 these are not original entries, however; but the records of preceding years were transcribed and compiled (from loose sheets, probably,) by Abel Curtis, then town clerk, in a clear, bold handwriting, into a large folio volume given to the town by Captain Elisha Burton for that purpose. The annual town meeting in Norwich was generally held on the second Tuesday of March, sometimes still later in the month, in conformity to the custom in New Hampshire, the parent state, until about 1847, when the time was changed to the first Tuesday, as is now the universal practice in Vermont.
Town meetings continued to beholden at the house of William Waterman in Mansfield, annually, for the choice of officers, until 1768, when the first town meeting within the town of Norwich was held at the house of Joseph Hatch, on the second Tuesday of March. At this meeting, in addition to the officers mentioned in the record above, Elisha Partridge was chosen tithingman, and Peter Thatcher, Hezekiah Johnson, Thomas Murdock, and Jacob Burton, fence viewers. Nathan Messenger acted as moderator and Thomas Murdock as clerk. Medad Benton was chosen constable, an office that he held both the preceding and following years. In 1769, John Hatch was elected town clerk, and was re-elected each year till 1780, with the exception of the year 1774, when Peter Olcott was chosen.
Town meetings were held at the house of Joseph Hatch from 1768 to 1774; in the latter year and up to 1780 at the house of Peter Olcott. On the 20th of April, 1780, town meeting was convened for the first time at the meeting house — then in an unfinished condition and from that time forward all town meetings were regularly held there for more than sixty years. As there was no provision for warming this house, stoves not having yet come into use, the annual March meeting, and special meetings held in winter, were sometimes adjourned to a neighboring dwelling house, usually to Colonel Olcott ‘s, to Abel Curtis‘, or Lieutenant Roswell Morgan‘s. After 1846 town and freemen’s meetings were held at the church on Norwich Plain for a term of ten years, after which they went back to the old meeting house at the Center again for two or three years. Town meeting was held for the first time at Union Hall, March 20, 1855, but freemen’s meetings were continued at the Center meeting house1 till 1858.
Additions to the short list of officers were made from year to year as the interests of the town were found to require, until prior to the Revolution nearly a full board of town officers, as now required, was annually chosen. In 1770 Hezekiah Johnson was chosen the first treasurer of the town and John Wright collector, although it does not appear that any town tax was voted until 1772. The first board of assessors (Phillip Smith, John Slafter, and John Sargent) was elected the same year, and likewise three overseers of the poor (Peter Thatcher, Aaron Wright, and Daniel Baldwin), thus showing that the poor, even in the newest settlements, are ever with us. One of the first necessities of a newly settled country is good roads, or at least, such roads as render communication and travel possible. The construction of these will always impose a severe tax upon the first settlers. The proprietors of Norwich, as we have seen, had already made some small beginnings in this direction, but the burden of that work was hence-forth to rest upon the inhabitants of the town to carry forward as they should find themselves able. At the annual March meeting in 1769, Hezekiah Johnson, Jacob Burton, Samuel Partridge, Nathan Messenger, and John Hatch, were chosen a committee “to lay out highways where they shall think needful.”
In July, 1770, this committee made a report at a special town meeting. The proceedings of this meeting are copied entire below, as they show the action of the town on the committee’s report as well as the location of some of the first roads opened to travel in town:
“At a Town meeting held at the house of Joseph Hatch in Norwich, July the 9th, 1770.
“1 Voted Mr. Peter Thatcher moderator, John Hatch clerk.
“2 Voted to accept the doings of Committee that was chose by the propriety to lay out H Ws .
“3 Voted to accept the alteration of the H W at pompanosuc.
“4 Voted to accept of the alteration of the H W by Joseph Smalleys.
“5 Voted that the alterations of the H W at Girl Island Brook2 are received and accepted.
“6 Voted that the alterations of the H W that goes through Mr. Baldwins Land are accepted.
“7 Voted that the H W that is laid from Hartford line to the Sawmill and to the H W that goes by Elisha Burtons are received and accepted.
“8 Voted to lay out a H W on the top of the hill above M r Watermans to Joseph Smalleys.”
The “H. W.” referred to in vote seven above, ran very nearly with the present road from the fork in the highway north of H. S. Goddard‘s to C. Bond‘s, and from thence easterly to the corner of the main street of Norwich village at S. A. Armstrong‘s (then Elisha Burton‘s). A road from the ferry then in use at the present site of the Hanover Bridge, past Captain Burton‘s to the site of the old corner store in Norwich village, burned in 1875, had previously been laid by the Proprietors’ Committee. The first road placed on record as laid by the selectmen of the town connected the ferry with the grist mill on Blood Brook, already referred to as built by Joseph Hatch and Oliver Babcock. This road was located in 1768, nearly as the road now runs to the present mill. The following year a road was surveyed, “starting at a white pine tree,” where the old corner store afterwards stood, and running two and one-fourth miles northwest towards Sharon. The course of this road was first west on the present road to A. G. Knapp‘s mill (where a grist mill was erected soon after by Elisha Burton), then crossing to the west side of Blood Brook it passed in a northerly direction, near an old barn now standing in Mrs. Dutton‘s meadow, up the hill past Deacon John Dutton‘s and the Crandall farm direct to D. H. Bragg ‘s, and from thence continued in a northwest course on substantially the present highway to Jonas Richards‘ (now, 1888, Charles E. Cloud‘s). In 1779, a four-rod highway was laid direct from the ferry to the first meeting house, then building on the hill (near Henry Goddard‘s). This highway, familiarly known as “the road from the meeting house to the college,” followed an existing road as far as Joseph Hatch‘s (Messenger house), thence ran 183 rods on the present main street of the village to a ledge just north of the upper schoolhouse, on a course one degree west of due north by the compass; and thence on to the meeting house much as the road now runs. The distance by the survey from Captain Hatch‘s dwelling house to the meeting house was 582 rods or 1.82 miles, nearly. This highway was continued through the town to Thetford line the same year, on about the site of the present road to Union Village, entering Thetford “¼ mile N. E. of John Rogers‘ house, and about six rods from Umpompanoosuc River.”
From the meeting house as a center, roads were projected during the years immediately following to all parts of the town. Many of these were at first, and for some time after their construction, mere bridle paths or cart tracks, which just sufficed for travelers to get through the woods on horseback, or with an ox-cart in summer and a sled in winter.
The need of a bridge over Ompompanoosuc River was early felt by the town. At the annual March meeting in 1771, it was voted to build a bridge at the expense of the town, and Captain Hezekiah Johnson, Daniel Waterman, and Peter Thatcher were chosen a committee “to view the place to build sd bridge and oversee sd business.” The location of this bridge, if ever built, is somewhat uncertain. No further reference to it is to be found on the town records for more than ten years, when (March, 1782) it was again voted in town meeting, “to build a bridge at some convenient place as the situation will admit near Hezekiah Johnson’s” the site of the present lower bridge across Pompa River. It was also voted “to build sd bridge the present year,” and a land tax of one penny per acre on all lands in town voted “to defray the expense.” Deacon John Slafter, Daniel Waterman, Jr., and Captain Timothy Bush were made a committee “to effect the building of sd bridge.” This second bridge seems also to have disappeared not long after, as the town again voted, in April, 1787, “to build a bridge over Ompompanoosuc River near the mouth, opposite Capt. Johnson‘s.” A tax for this purpose had been granted by the Vermont Assembly the October previous, and the expense of construction was probably shared with adjoining towns. A fuller account of the building of important roads and bridges in town, with special reference to the several bridges on the Connecticut, connecting Norwich and Hanover, will be attempted further on in this sketch. Matters of more general concern and wider interest will now claim our attention for a time.
This building was sold to C. A. and G. M. Slack for $150.00, and removed. ↩
Supposed to be the brook which empties into the Connecticut near Mr. Samuel Hutchinson‘s, since known as Johnson’s Brook. The tradition is that a young girl was lost or left on the island in the river near the mouth of this brook, from a party of settlers pursuing their journey on the river in the earliest times. Among the old families the island still bears the name above given. ↩