Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"A Most Shocking Picture of Havock and Wild Desolation" - The Hampshire Land Grants on the Eve of the Revolution

On the eve of the American Revolution, a dispute over land grants located in modern day western Vermont was being played out. Known as the “Hampshire Grants”, this region of the American colonies was the scene of continuous warfare and civil unrest.

The source of the land disputes could be traced back to the aftermath of King George’s War. In 1749, Governor Benning Wentworth of the Colony of New Hampshire asserted that New Hampshire’s south western boundary line met at the juncture of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. In turn, the governor permitted the sale of land grants in territories west of the Connecticut River. Many of these grants were sold to land speculators at £20 per grant.

Unfortunately for Wentworth, the Colony of New York also laid claim to the same region. New York asserted its southern border with Connecticut existed twenty miles east of the Hudson, while its border with New Hampshire was placed at the Connecticut River. As with New Hampshire, the Colony of New York also initiated the sale of land patents to speculators and wealthy colonists.

The Hampshire Grants was flooded with New Englanders, Scottish and Irish immigrants, New Yorkers and veteran soldiers all seeking new economic opportunities. Prominent loyalists, including Ebenezer Jessup, acquired large tracts of land within the territory. However, when settlers arrived they found conflicting titles to the same land held by other settlers. New York colonists were alarmed when they discovered New Hampshire settlers creating townships further and further westward, while New Hampshire colonists objected to encroachments by New Yorkers.

By September 1762, tensions between the two colonies rose when New York settlers apprehended New Hampshire surveyors examining potential land grants on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain. In response, Governor Wentworth issued a proclamation reestablishing his colony’s claim to the Hampshire Grants. New York immediately appealed to the Board of Trade, requesting a confirmation of their original land grant. Ultimately, the Board of Trade resolved the dispute in favor of New York. A royal order of July 26, 1764 established the Hampshire Grants as part of New York. By March, 1772, the Hampshire Grants was incorporated into the County of Charlotte.

However, this did little to alleviate tensions on the local level. New Hampshire settlers refused to recognize the authority of the rival colony while New York settlers quickly removed the “illegal” occupiers. As Captain John Montresor observed with some frustration “they declare that possession is Eleven points in the Law and that they will take advantage of these Disturbances and as no law prevails at present will support themselves.” Violence erupted and became so prevalent that British soldiers stationed at Crown Point were ordered into the Hampshire Grants to subdue both factions.

1777 Map of Charlotte County and Incorporated Hampshire Grants

By 1771, the population of the Hampshire Grants expanded significantly as a new wave of settlers, including Connecticut and New Jersey colonists, flooded into the territory. The growing population only rekindled disputes over land titles and sparked further confrontations. On June 11, 1771, over a dozen armed men, led by Robert Cochran and supported by New Hampshire grantees, forcibly removed a New York grantee from his 350 acres of land, attacked several of his neighbors and burned their homes. Governor William Tryon of New York warned authorities that unless the problem of conflicting land titles was resolved, “the daring insults of these people will in a short time lead to serious consequences.”

Almost two years later, on April 21, 1773, British soldiers under the command of Captain Anstruther accidentally set fire to a barracks chimney at Crown Point while making soap. The fire quickly spread and ignited the garrison’s magazine. After the resulting explosion, local New Englanders seized the opportunity, descended upon the fort and plundered it. Shortly thereafter, “New Hampshire Rioters” led by Ethan Allen embarked on a campaign of terror to drive out settlers with ties to New York. The stability of the region deteriorated to the point that many New York settlers abandoned plans to reside on designated land grants, New Englanders built block houses on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, and British authorities deliberated as to whether or not a military expedition should be dispatched into the Hampshire Grants to quell the violence.

However, before stability could be restored to the region, the Revolutionary War began and the Hampshire Grants was thrown into even greater turmoil. Communities became sharply divided, competing militia and paramilitary organizations were raised, bloody skirmishes flared up and a mass evacuation of Charlotte County loyalists to Canada occurred. By 1777, much of the Hampshire Grants near Fort Edward and along the shores of Lake Champlain were “marked with Devastation, and of the many pleasant habitations ..., some were burnt, others torn to Pieces and rendered unfit for Use, and but a few of the meanest occupied: the Inhabitants in general having been forced to leave their once peaceful Dwellings to escape the Rage of War. Thus this once agreeable and delightful Part of the Country now displayed a most shocking Picture of Havock and wild Desolation.”

Unlike loyalists and patriots in other parts of New York and New England, allegiances to the crown or congress in the Hampshire Grants was often dictated by land claims and economic opportunity rather than social, cultural or religious principles. According to Paul R. Huey, contributing author of The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City 1763-1787, at the outset of the war, many inhabitants of the Hampshire Grants were more concerned with their respective land grants than the revolutionary crisis. Property owners in the Hampshire Grants had a strong desire to protect their property interests. In turn, these property interests guided whether or not one would maintain loyalty to the British government or support the revolutionary movement.

No comments:

Post a Comment