Notwithstanding the fact that Norwich had for many years within its borders a collegiate institution of its own, founded and directed by its most distinguished son, the relations of our people towards the sister institution on the opposite bank of the Connecticut were always intimate and friendly.
Dartmouth College had been in successful operation for half a century when Captain Partridge first planted his Military Academy on Norwich Plain in 1820. The town and the college began their existence at about the same time, and during the days of their infancy and weakness had learned to be mutually helpful. Thus the college and the community grew up together. The founders of Norwich, almost without exception, were from the vicinity of Lebanon, Conn., the seat of Rev. Dr. Wheelock‘s Indian School, and were generally well acquainted personally and by reputation with the venerable founder of the College before he transplanted his school from that town into the wilds of western New Hampshire in the autumn of 1770. There is a current tradition, I know not how authentic it may be, that Doctor Wheelock would himself have preferred to locate his college on the west bank of the river at Norwich instead of at Hanover, had it not been for the fact that Norwich was at that time nominally within the jurisdiction of New York, and lay therefore outside of the territorial limits of that colony which had conferred the charter and corporate existence for the new institution. However that may be, there can be little doubt that as regards its immediate surroundings the college would have been more advantageously situated at Norwich during its earliest years than at Hanover. By the New York census of 1771, Norwich contained 206 inhabitants. A census of Hanover four years earlier gave that town but ninety-two, and these were located chiefly in the eastern and northern portions. Norwich was dotted with settlers’ cabins and little clearings while Hanover Plain was still a dense pine forest. Writing from Hanover, Dec. 7, 1770, President Wheelock says: “My nearest neighbor in town is 2½ miles from me; I can see nothing but the lofty pines about me.” Norwich had at that time both saw and grist mills in operation; and it is more than probable that whatever sawed lumber was used in the construction of the first college buildings at Hanover had been rafted across the ‘river from Captain Hatch‘s or Jacob Burton‘s saw mills near the mouth of Blood Brook in Norwich.
Although it received its charter from Governor Wentworth in 1769, the college was not definitely located at Hanover until the early summer of 1770, after eight weeks spent by President Wheelock and one or two of the trustees in a personal examination of the valley from Charlestown to Haverhill and many consultations with the leading men of the towns on both sides of Connecticut River. It was at a conference at the house of Jacob Burton in Norwich that this decision was finally reached. While the canvass for the location was going on, subscriptions in aid of the proposed college were solicited from the settlers along the river. The people almost invariably were poor. Many families had scarcely a roof to shelter wife and babies; still, out of their poverty they responded generously to the call. The General Court of Massachusetts is said to have taxed each householder in that colony a peck of meal in 1636, for the endowment of Harvard College; but the pioneer settlers of Norwich did better than that. Their voluntary donations in land and money for the founding of Dartmouth in the summer of 1770 were as follows:
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These donations amounted to 589 acres of land and 35 pounds, 15 shillings in cash. There were other gifts during the years immediately following as well as contributions of labor and materials from time to time, from such as had nothing else to give.
Nor does it appear that the infant settlement failed to endow the college in a higher sense. To Dartmouth went the bright boys of the Norwich pioneers for an education. The distinction belongs to Norwich of furnishing the first graduate from Vermont. No brighter intellects are found upon the rolls of the institution during the first decade of its history than those of Abel Curtis and Asa Burton. More than thirty descendants of the twenty-four families represented in the list of contributors above given have since received the honors of the college; and if we admit a dozen other families that settled in Norwich previous to 1780, the number is increased to upwards of fifty who have been thus honored.
The principal men of Norwich were in close alliance with the authorities of Dartmouth College in promoting an interesting political movement (the secret history of which has never been fully written) that was industriously worked for about six years following 1776. This was a scheme to form a new state in the upper valley of the Connecticut, to include the New Hampshire Grants on both sides of the river, whose capital should be Hanover or some town centrally located on the east or west bank, and whose intellectual and educational center should be Dartmouth College. This was by no means the visionary scheme it would now appear to be. As affairs then stood, it had much to recommend it; but the project failed in spite of the able and earnest efforts of its supporters (who comprised a large majority of the most influential people in the river towns), chiefly because fate and Ira and Ethan Allen of the new State of Vermont were against it. It was but a natural result, however, of their mutual labors and sacrifices for this “lost cause’ that the town and the college should be drawn closer together in sympathy and in friendly offices.
Local influences, it is fair to presume, had some share in securing to Dartmouth College from the legislature of Vermont, at its session at Norwich in June, 1785, the grant of a full township of land in Caledonia County (named Wheelock in honor of the founder of the college), the rents and profits of which have ever since accrued to the benefit of the college. A few years earlier, when Vermont extended her jurisdiction over the New Hampshire Grants east of the Connecticut River, the district of Dresden was admitted to representation in the legislature as a distinct municipality, embracing the corporation of Dartmouth College, a privilege never accorded by New Hampshire itself.
Out of a multitude of facts and circumstances like those above noted the conviction was early established in the minds of a large majority of the people of eastern Vermont, that they and the people of New Hampshire had a common interest in Dartmouth College. The amount of patronage which Vermont has given to that institution in supplying it with students has accordingly been second only to that of New Hampshire, to the serious detriment; it must be confessed, of our own State University at Burlington. Indeed, it may be questioned whether more Vermont young men have not sought an education there than at both of our Vermont colleges. The proportion of Vermonters in the several classes of the academic department during the last fifteen years at Dartmouth has averaged about one quarter of the whole number in attendance, while that of New Hampshire has been less than one third. In some of the classes between the years 1870 and 1880, the proportion from Vermont was from thirty to forty per cent of the whole. Of the class that graduated in 1879 not less than forty-one per cent were Vermonters.
Among the acts passed by the legislature of our State, while in session at Norwich, in June, 1785, was one granting 23,000 acres of land to the Trustees of Dartmouth College, and the President of Moor’s Charity School. By this act the Governor and Council were requested to issue a charter of incorporation for the same, when so surveyed, and in pursuance of that request, that land was chartered under the name of Wheelock.