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As we have already seen, Norwich virtually had its origin in the colony of Connecticut in the year 1761.
On the 26th day of August of that year, at the house of William Waterman, inn-holder, in the town of Mansfield, in said colony, were convened the proprietors or grantees of a newly granted township of land situated 150 miles away to the northward, in a wilderness country then just beginning to be known as the “New Hampshire Grants.”
These men were assembled to decide upon the first steps to be taken to open up to settlement and improvement a tract of forest six miles square located on the west bank of Connecticut River forty miles north of Charlestown, New Hampshire (Fort Number Four), then the farthest outpost of civilization in the upper valley of that river.
At the time of which we are speaking all that portion of the present state of New Hampshire lying west of the intervals of the Merrimac in the vicinity of Concord was entirely uninhabited, and lay in the primitive wildness of nature. A few townships along that river above Concord had been surveyed and located, and thither a few resolute pioneers had already penetrated, among them Captain Ebenezar Webster, the father of the future expounder of the Constitution, whose cabin was at one time, it is said, nearer the north star than that of any other New Englander. But beyond a narrow fringe of settlements along the Merrimac, the whole of western New Hampshire north of Keene was alike covered by primitive forests and untouched by the hand of man1. To the westward of the Connecticut, as far as the military posts of Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain, and northward to the valley of the St. Lawrence, lay one unbroken, trackless wilderness, unoccupied by a human habitation and traversed only by a few roving bands of Canadian Indians or by an occasional hunting party of white men from the older settlements of New England.
It was into surroundings such as these that the founders of Norwich thought to plant a town. Many conditions of the time, however, were favorable for leading out new colonies from the ever prolific New England hive. The long French and Indian War had finally ended in the complete conquest of Canada in the preceding year. Peace had now come, bringing security to the border settlements, harassed and terrorized by fear of hostile incursions from Canada for a long time. For nearly a generation the older settled districts of the New England colonies had extended their borders, but slowly and painfully, into the surrounding wilderness. With the reduction of Canada to English rule in 1760, a repressed and redundant population hastened to overflow existing bounds, and the instinct for emigration, always strong in the Anglo-Saxon blood, became irrepressible for expansion into new lands.
It was to prepare the way for such a migration that the proprietors of Norwich were assembled at the Waterman tavern in Mansfield, on the 26th of August, 1761, as we have already seen. They had received their charter on the fourth day of the preceding July, from the hand of Benning Wentworth, the royal governor of the Province of New Hampshire, within whose territory the new township was understood to lie. The neighboring towns of Hartford on the south and Hanover and Lebanon on the east bank of the Connecticut River, received their charters from Governor Wentworth on the same day with Norwich, and the proprietors of those towns met at the same time (Aug. 26, 1761) to arrange the business of preparation for the settlement of their respective locations2.
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Like the proprietors of Norwich, they were mostly residents of a small district of country lying along the Thames and its affluents, the Shetucket and Willimantic Rivers in Eastern Connecticut. It appears that early in the year 1761 a petition had been circulated in that part of Connecticut and extensively signed, asking His Excellency the Governor of New Hampshire for a grant of four townships of land, ”at a place known as Cohorse” (Coos), meaning the Lower Oxbow of the Connecticut River where the towns of Newbury and Bradford, Vt., and Haverhill and Piermont, N. H., now are, a locality even then known to be desirable to the settler as having the advantage of containing a strip of cleared interval along the river, which had previously been occupied and cultivated, in the Indian fashion, by a small body of Indians of the St. Francis tribe. Colonel Edmund Freeman and Joseph Storrs of Mansfield were the agents of the syndicate to carry the petition to Portsmouth, then the seat of the provincial government of New Hampshire. Unsuccessful for some reason in securing the coveted location “at the Cohorse,” they succeeded in obtaining charters for four townships some twenty-five miles further south, adjacent to each other and lying on opposite sides of Connecticut River. The close associations of these four towns, at the very beginning of their municipal life, was maintained for more than twenty years afterwards, and should be borne in mind by the reader, as it serves to explain some interesting events in their subsequent history.
The proprietors of Norwich organized at Mansfield, as we have seen, on the day provided in their charter. The terms and conditions of this document were the same with those of other Vermont towns chartered by Governor Wentworth. Among the most important of these conditions was the stipulation, that each proprietor or grantee should, within the term of five years, plant and cultivate five acres of land for each fifty acres contained in his share or proportion of land in said township, and continue to improve and settle the same, on penalty of forfeiture of his interest in the township lands. The usual reservations were made in the charter for educational and religious purposes, viz.: one share for the benefit of a school in town, one share for the first settled minister, one for a glebe for the Church of England, and one for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, His Excellency the Governor not forgetting to reserve for himself the customary 500 acres or two shares, as was his invariable rule in granting each new township. This 500 acres, in the case of Norwich, was located in a body at the north-east corner of the town and includes some of the best farming land in town.