The Proprietors of Norwich Vermont

The larger part of the names of the grantees of Norwich are names of Connecticut men then resident in Mansfield and neighboring towns. Captain Hezekiah Johnson, Samuel Slafter, Joseph Storrs, and William Johnson 3rd, are known to have lived in Mansfield; Amos Fellows, James West, Adoniram Grant, and Samuel Cobb were of Tolland; Ebenezar Heath, Captain Abner Barker and William Johnson of Willington, towns adjacent to Mansfield on the north. The last nine names are those of New Hampshire and Massachusetts men, several of them members of the provincial government in the former province. Major Joseph Blanchard was of Dunstable, Mass. He had executed in 1760, by direction of Governor Wentworth, the first survey of the townships lying along the river from Charlestown to Newbury. His name appears as proprietor in many town charters about this time. But few of the original grantees ever came personally to Norwich to settle.

Many of them, it is probable, were people of considerable property, well advanced in life, whose years unfitted them to endure the hard-ships of pioneers in a new settlement. Such would naturally transfer their rights to their sons, or to the young and enterprising among their friends and neighbors. This is known to have been the case in several instances. But Jacob Fenton and Ebenezar Smith, both proprietors, were here in 1763. The former died on the 15th of July of that year, and was thus the first white man known to have died within the township. Captain Hezekiah Johnson emigrated to the town very early and settled near the mouth of Ompompanoosuc River. He was long a leading citizen, prominent in town affairs.

Calvin Johnson, son of Captain William Johnson of Willington, one of the original proprietors, removed to Norwich in 1780, after a service of nearly two years in the Revolutionary Army, and occupied 100 acres of land given him by his father. Five of the original grantees bear the name of Johnson, a family that has always been numerous in town. The name of Daniel Baldwin appears early on the town records, presumably the same person whose name is found in the charter. Samuel Slafter conveyed his right to his son, John Slafter, who accompanied Smith and Fenton to the new township in 1763, well known afterwards as Deacon John Slafter, the pioneer settler of the town. Several other family names upon the list of grantees are still represented in considerable numbers among the inhabitants of the town, but whether these latter trace their lineage to the former is not known to the writer.

Space permits us only to glance at some of the most important steps taken by the proprietors of Norwich in forwarding the speedy settlement of the town. One essential preliminary to settlement was, of course, some regular division of the land into lots. The careful and accurate surveys that the United States Government now makes of all the public lands before they are offered for sale or settlement to actual settlers were unknown to that time. The customary plan for opening up new lands to settlement at that day was by granting the soil to a body of proprietors under a charter. Virginia, Massachusetts, and most of the English colonies in America, as the reader will remember, were founded and settled by a chartered land company, the charter conferring also upon the future inhabitants certain political and corporate rights. The New Hampshire town charters appear to have been formed after the same model. At the first meeting of the proprietors at Mansfield, as above stated, a committee of five of their number was chosen to make a partial survey and allotment of lands in the new township. In the succeeding year (1762) a surveying party came on and that part of the town adjacent to Connecticut River was laid off into lots. In this first division, one lot of 100 acres was assigned to each proprietor, besides an equal share of the interval land lying on the river, as had previously been determined .

The same year the proprietors voted to unite with the proprietors of the other townships (Hartford, Hanover, and Lebanon) in “clearing a road from the old fort in Number Four (Charlestown) on the east side of the river, as far up said river as a committee chosen for that purpose may think proper.” This vote was carried into effect in 1763; so far that something called a road was opened as far north as the middle of the town of Hanover, and thus another hindrance to the opening up of the region to settlement was removed.

The location of this primitive roadway through the towns of Lebanon and Plainfield, we are informed, is still mainly followed by the present river road along the western border of those towns.

At an adjourned meeting of the proprietors held in November, 1762, their committee were empowered to agree “with such person or persons as will undertake to erect a mill or mills on the mill brook (Blood Brook) in said town of Norwich.”

Early in the month of April, 1763, the proprietors, holding their meeting again at William Waterman‘s in Mansfield, “in order to encourage the speedy and effectual settlement of the town,” it was voted “to raise £5 upon each proprietor’s right” about £1050 in the aggregate, “to be divided between twenty-five men who shall immediately engage to settle or cause to be settled twenty-five rights in the following manner: To begin upon the business the ensuing summer, and further to continue to settle and improve at the rate of three acres annually for the space of five years, on penalty of repaying said money.” Permission was also given to each of the twenty-five first settlers to choose for himself a one-hundred acre lot of upland, provided the same be so chosen ”as not to incommode any future division of lands in said town.”

The requisite number of twenty-five men not appearing ready to undertake the work of settlement upon the conditions proposed, at a later meeting of the proprietors, held May 12th, it was agreed that in case “any number of men under twenty-five and not less than fifteen, shall by the first day of June next engage in the manner and form in which the said twenty-five men were to engage, they shall be entitled to the money in said vote.”

In March, 1765, a committee consisting of Jacob Burton, Hezekiah Johnson, Samuel Fenton, John Hatch and John Slafter, was appointed by the proprietors to make a further division of 100-acre lots in Norwich and to “lay out roads as they shall think best for convenience of settling said township.” Six shillings lawful money was voted on each right for this purpose and “other necessary business that shall be done by the committee.”

This committee, composed of men at that time on the point of becoming actual settlers, proceeded in the following June to re-survey and lay off sixty-eight river lots, one to every proprietor’s right, each twenty-five rods, four links wide and 160 rods in length from east to west along the banks of Connecticut River. Also, eighty 100-acre lots in five tiers of sixteen lots each, lying directly west of the lots just named. Between the second and third tier of 100-acre lots, a highway, six rods wide, was located, and between the fourth and fifth tiers an eight-rod highway, for the whole distance of five miles north and south. Land was also left between every second lot for highways running east and west across the town. This seems a very formal and arbitrary method of laying out roads in a new country, but it was perhaps the best that could be done under the circumstances. Of course, in a rough country, roads were never actually built to run in such regular checker-board fashion, though it is true that the early settlers did not mind climbing the steepest hills.

Equally impracticable to us now seems the survey and assignment of a one-acre lot to each proprietor, as a town or village lot, as required by the charter of the town, to be located “as near as may be to the geographical center of the town.”

Proprietors’ meetings continued to be held at William Waterman‘s in Mansfield till 1768, when the first meeting was convened within the limits of the town (July 28th) at the house of Jacob Burton. At this meeting the committee mentioned above for laying out lots and highways made a formal report of their doings, which were approved, and their report by the surveyor, John Hatch, accepted and put upon record. This report, with others subsequently made, all too lengthy to be inserted here, is of considerable interest to land owners in town, and may be seen at the town clerk’s office.

The last meeting of the proprietors, of which any record has been found, was held at Thomas Murdock‘s in Norwich, September 17, 1770. It was then voted “to lay out into lots all the undivided land in sd town,” and John Hatch, Captain Hezekiah Johnson, Mr. Peter Thatcher, Mr. John Slafter, Mr. John Wright, Mr. Samuel Partridge, and Mr. Samuel Waterman were chosen a committee for that purpose. It was also voted “to give a deed to Joseph Hatch and Oliver Babcock of the tenth river lot, upon the condition that they execute a bona to the proprietors’ committee for upholding a Grist Mill where said grist mill now stands, on Blood Brook; that Isaac Fellows shall have the privilege of pitching thirty proprietors’ rights on the meadow above the clay bank on Ompompanoosuc River, commonly called the middle meadow, containing 74½ acres, for the consideration of building a saw mill and grist mill on sd river. Also that John Slafter shall have the privilege of pitching seven rights in the lower meadow on Ompompanoosuc River, Hezekiah Johnson six rights, Peter Thatcher one and one-half rights, Daniel Waterman four rights, and James Huntington one right in said meadow, as a consideration for first coming into the town, and for the burden of first settling sd town.”

We have been thus minute in transcribing the votes and action of the proprietors of the town during the initial period of first settlement, because it cannot be doubted that it was largely due to their liberal spirit and enterprising policy that the town was so early opened to settlement and its growth so rapid from the beginning. Such a policy, of course, was as wise as it was generous, since the lands remaining unoccupied were appreciated in value with the coming in of every new settler. It is said that the usual fees paid by the grantees of a township under a New Hampshire charter were about $300, which sum was in addition to liberal presents made to the governor, in many instances, for choice locations. One historian of New Hampshire complains that Governor Wentworth often preferred for grantees men of other colonies to those of his own, alleging that they were “better husbandmen and more liberal donors.”

Very considerable advances, as we have seen, were required of the proprietors in surveying a township into lots, opening roads, and many other expenses. Allowing the town to contain 25,000 acres, an equal division of the land into sixty-eight shares would give upwards of three hundred acres to each right, after allowance for highways, etc.

Expenditures for fees, bounties paid to first settlers, charges for surveys and building roads, could not have amounted to an aggregate of less than thirty-five to forty dollars to each proprietor, up to the time of which we are now speaking.



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