Early History of Windham County (read more at Historical Society of Windham County)
Royal Charters and Land Grants
In colonial New England, the king of England appointed governors to his various royal provinces and ruled through them. They had the authority to grant, in his name, any unchartered land in their province, but this could be complicated when the land to be settled was unsurveyed wilderness, and the province borders uncertain.
The earliest grant in what would become Vermont was land in the future town of Vernon, included in the 1672 township of Squakheag (later Northfield MA). A further deed “…….covering (this) grant was made August 13th, 1687 by…..Indians of the place, in consideration of 200 fathoms of Wampum and 57 value of trading goods” (1). In 1736, Massachusetts granted another section of future Vernon, and it was here that Sartwell’s and Bridgman’s fortified settlements were built around 1740.
The year 1740 is an important date and will be returned to later, but first it is necessary to backtrack to another early land sale. In its eagerness to found new towns, the province of Massachusetts had exceeded its bounds. In 1713, in settlement of various disputes, Massachusetts agreed to cede to Connecticut 107,793 acres of equivalent lands. These lands were then sold by Connecticut in 1716 “one of the portions, containing 43,943 acres, being the present towns of Putney, Dummerston and Brattleboro” (2).
Unfortunately for the aspiring settlers of these newly acquired backwoods, “….the whole of this tract of county had previously, from time immemorial, been in the possession of the native Indians” (3), the Abenaki, who wanted to keep their land and were prepared to fight for it. Until the end of the French and Indian Wars, the Abenaki presented a formidable obstacle to settlement.
In recognition of the threat posed to their frontier, the Massachusetts authorities voted to build a defensive “….blockhouse above Northfield, in the most convenient place on the lands called the equivalent lands” (4). By the summer of 1724, Fort Dummer was ready for habitation. It was used as a base for “…scouting and punitive expeditions into Abenaki country” (5) during times of war, and as a trading post during times of peace. John Sargent arrived at the Fort with his family around 1730, followed by a few others. Another handful of frontiersman tried to develop settlements along the Connecticut River at Westminster (chartered by Massachusetts in 1735 as Township Number One) and Rockingham (under possible charters as Number Two or Fallstown or Goldenstown). Around 1740, fortified settlements were started on Fort hill on the Putney Great Meadows of the equivalent lands, and, as already mentioned, in Hinsdale/Vernon. All but Fort Sartwell were abandoned or destroyed during the King George’s War of 1744-1748, and many of the inhabitants killed or taken captive.
But to return to 1740. On March 5th, King George II ordered a survey to settle a north/south boundary dispute between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Upon its completion, Fort Dummer was found to be in New Hampshire, whose governor was Benning Wentworth. Despite an inconclusive correspondence with the governor of New York over their respective east/west border, and the decision to refer the question to the crown, Benning Wentworth took the 1741 survey results as recognition of his jurisdiction over the lands to the west of the Connecticut River. With the ending of the King George’s War, he went to work issuing Royal Charters to this land, starting with Bennington in the far south-western corner. In 1750, his second Vermont charter went to Halifax, his third in 1751 to Marlboro, followed by one to Wilmington. In 1752, the previous Massachusetts Township Number One, now abandoned, was regranted as Westminster, and the possible Township Number Two to the north was granted as Rockingham. According to Child’s Gazetteer “…Wentworth was interested in the settlement of Rockingham on account of the excellent masting for ships obtained in this section, and came here personally to make examination and to take measures for better securing the masting trees from being cut and felled, as they had, by charter, been secured for the masting of His Majesty’s navy”. (read more at Historical Society of Windham County)