Biography of Abel Curtis
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In the abundance of able men that adorned the first twenty-five years of the history of the town, there is no more brilliant name than that of Abel Curtis. He was a son of Simeon Curtis and came with his father from Lebanon, Conn., where he was born June 13, 1755. The son graduated from Dartmouth College in the class of 1776, being the first graduate from this town, one year earlier than the Rev. Asa Burton. Abel Curtis is first mentioned in connection with town affairs in November, 1778, when he was chosen delegate to the Cornish convention of December following, in company with Peter Olcott and Nathaniel Brown.
From this time until his death in 1783, a period full of important events shaping the future of state and country, he was prominent in all the transactions of the town, representative for three years in the legislature; serving on many committees; delegate to Congress in 1782, with Ira Allen and Jonas Fay; assistant judge of the county court in 1782; delegate to the Charlestown convention of January, 1781, sitting at Windsor, by the joint action of which with the legislature of Vermont, the second union of New Hampshire towns was effected on the 22nd of February, following; delegate to the Thetford convention of June 1782, by which he was commissioned agent of the towns of Hartford, Norwich, Bradford, and Newbury to carry to the Government of New Hampshire a memorial, drawn up by himself, proposing to place said towns under the jurisdiction of that state, in certain contingencies. The last public service he performed for the state was as chairman of a legislative committee to secure the services of a state printer, which resulted in a contract with Hough and Spooner, who came to Windsor from Norwich, Conn., and acted as printers for the state for the term of eight years. We have hardly space to enumerate the town offices he held in these years. He was elected town clerk in March, 1780. The records of the town meetings from the organization of the town up to the time of his death in 1783 are in his handwriting.
These records he appears to have carefully copied from the note books and memoranda of earlier clerks and clearly arranged in a new volume. He was elected justice of the peace in 1781, was town treasurer in _____ , first selectman in 1781- ’82, lister, grand and petit juryman, and representative elect to the legislature at the time of his death. He also acted as a member of a committee to build the first meeting house.
An Unsung Worthy
[W. W. Morrill, Esq.]
In the old burying ground on Norwich Plain, a crumbling tombstone, adorned with the marvelous skull and scroll-work of the Revolutionary sculptor, bears the following inscription:
“In Memory of “ABEL CURTIS, Esqr ”
“whom heaven had blest
“with Genious bright & love
“Divine which now in
“Reims of Glory Shine.”
The missing words have disappeared with the shale upon which they were engraved, and must be sought elsewhere or imagined.
At the foot of the grave, upon another stone almost as large as the first, the inscription intact, as though “the carking tooth of time” had purposely spared to future generations this monument of orthography and song to the scholar whose glory is predicted, reads:
“Here lies dust of
“one whos Generous
“soul is gone to seats
“of high Renown
“to ware a Glorious
The first, though not the earliest, entries under the head of “Marriages, Births, Deaths,” in the first book of records of the town of Norwich reads:
”Abel Curtis married to Kezia Brown, May 12, 1779.”
“Lucy Curtis, born 22d February, 1780,” and the opposite page is headed with: “Abel Curtiss Esq r died October 7, 1783.”
The general catalogue of Dartmouth College contains, as it has or may have done for a century past, the following entry:
“1776 Abel Curtis, f. A. M. 1783. 28″
Who and what was Abel Curtiss (for so the name is always spelled by himself); this youth who left his alma mater at the age of twenty-one, whose subsequent career was almost coincident in time with the war of the Revolution, who became a farmer, a husband, and a father, and who died a hundred years ago, aged twenty-eight?
A little book, believed to be the first literary production of a Dartmouth graduate, or of a citizen of Vermont, as well as the first purely English grammar written and published in America, but a single copy of which is now thought to exist, bears the following upon its title-page:
“A Compend of English Grammar; being an attempt to point out the fundamental principles of the English language in a concise and intelligible manner, and to assist in writing and speaking the same with accuracy and correctness.
“Written by Abel Curtiss, A. B.”
“While Education bears her gentle sway,
And we her precepts cheerfully obey;
While every breast glows with the gen’rous flame
And Britons envy our increasing fame;
In mighty pomp America will rise,
Her glories spreading to the boundless skies,
“Dresden; Dartmouth College.
“Printed by J. P. & A. Spooner, 1779.”
The events of the seven years between Abel Curtiss‘ graduation and his death, crowded with the stirring scenes of the war for independence, are doubly interesting to the student of early Vermont history; they possess a still greater charm for him of the Connecticut River towns.
When Abel Curtiss left the college on the eastern bank for the farm on the western, the united colonies had just declared their independence of the British crown, the people of the New Hampshire Grants, whose territory was separately claimed by Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and particularly New York, were about declaring themselves an independent state; and the towns on either bank of the Connecticut had a special concern that they might not be separated from each other in the division into states. So while with the new made states they fought the savage and the Briton, common foes, the river settlers had three distinct contests to wage against individual states, and still another with whomsoever sought to make the Connecticut a boundary.
The town of Norwich, now almost a Sleepy Hollow with a Deserted Village, was in Abel Curtiss‘ time one of the foremost towns in the infant commonwealth; so important that when the first Governor’s Council was formed, in 1778, while other leading towns furnished each one of the twelve councilors, Norwich alone gave two.
The records of the town bear ample testimony that the Norwich fathers were able and influential men; so that when Abel Curtiss took the freeman ‘s oath it was by no means wholly for lack of efficient material that he was at once put forward as a leader in civic affairs; that now he is appointed upon a committee to lay out a highway from the river across the town; now an assessor to assess the inhabitants to pay a scouting party; now to take the list of inhabitants with a view to providing for the minister’s support; now to estimate the value of the several pews in the new meeting house, the finest in the state; now “to treat with the trustees of Dartmouth College respecting the expediency of endeavoring to obtain a lottery for the purpose of erecting a bridge across the river between this town and Dresden”; that he held all manner of town offices and several at a time, surveyor of highways, sealer of weights and measures, petit-jury man, grand-juryman, selectman, town treasurer, town clerk, justice of the peace; that he represented the town in the Vermont assembly in 1778, 1781, and 1782; that he was appointed a delegate to almost every one of the frequent conventions in which his town was interested. Nor certainly in larger fields was it from paucity of able and experienced men that he became one of the judges of the County Court; that in company with two of the foremost men of the state he was sent to the American Congress at Philadelphia to solicit admission to the Union; that he was appointed by the governor a member of the ‘ ‘ board of war ‘ ‘; that he held other delicate and responsible positions.
Important as were his services to town, county, and state, Abel Curtiss‘ political labors were chiefly directed to keeping the Connecticut River towns united in civil relations.
Prior to 1764 the territory of New Hampshire and Vermont had been under a single jurisdiction. The two banks of the Connecticut had been settled by neighbors, who had remained neighbors, whose customs and interests were identical. The division in Colonial times had affected them but slightly. But when it became a question of forming independent states, the feeling of indifference gave place to one of great concern that the river towns should not be separated.
Of these river towns, Norwich on the one bank was, as we have seen, important; on the other side was Dresden, the portion of Hanover, three miles square, which contained the college, and which New Hampshire had placed under the jurisdiction of President Wheelock as magistrate. These two important places were centrally located from north to south, and approximately so from east to west, should Vermont be allowed to extend to “Mason’s Line”: and the capital, which would doubtless be located on the river, might well come to one of them.
At all events, the college authorities were deeply interested, together with many east-bank towns, as was Norwich with those on the western bank, to remove the boundary from the river. What wonder that both parties saw in Abel Curtiss, one of the earliest graduates of the college, and doubtless the first collegian whom Norwich had produced, young, talented, and ambitious, a valuable coadjutor in their plans, and that he at once became a leader in the movement!
Finally, no better tribute can be paid to the patriotism of this almost prodigy of the olden time, than the reproduction of the following extracts from a letter written to a college classmate who had joined the enemy:
“For Mr. Levi Willard:
“To the care of any patriot; supposed to be with the British forces at the Northward, unless taken.
“My dear Willard:
“You can hardly guess my surprise and grief when first I heard the melancholy news that you had forsaken a father’s house, friends, and acquaintances, and had gone: gracious Heaven, where? To join yourself with (let me use as favorable terms as possible) those savage and unnatural destroyers of our country _____ _____ _____. If you think our cause unjust, I shall not at present multiply words; only ask you to look into the natural and equal right every man has to freedom, and then see if one may in justice assume power over another so as to ‘bind him in all else whatever’ _____ _____ . It is this arbitrary power these states are opposing; and indeed I am so convinced of the justice of our cause that should every man in the United States of America, even to his Excellency General Washington, willingly submit to the power of Britain, which I am confident is far otherwise, I should by no means be persuaded that we are not fighting in the cause of heaven and mankind _____ _____. That you may be thoroughly convinced of your error, return to your allegiance to the American States, be a faithful and true subject of the same, and experience the happy, happy effects of a pardon from God and your country is, once dear sir, the hearty desire and prayer of your well wisher and my country’s devoted servant.
”Dartmouth College, Sept. 22, 1777.”