A Good Read from the September 2021 Newsletter

Breeding Radicals in Early Vermont 

Historian Phil Crossman summarizes the presentation he gave at the Annual Meeting on September 12, 2021.

Present-day Vermont has a reputation for offering a peaceful haven from the hectic stress of discord else-where. However, Vermont’s early history doesn’t align with this perception. In my lecture I suggested that the turmoil in early Vermont and the many political, cultural, religious, and personal contentions were imported from the older colonies, modified in Vermont, and then ex-ported elsewhere. 

Drawing of Ithamar Hibbard speaking with his hands raised.
Ithamar Hibbard of Poultney led services at the
Middletown Congregational church in 1790’s

I talked about the historical circumstances that motivated thousands of people to move into the New Hampshire Grants (now Vermont) in the 1760’s and 1770’s. Several phases of settlement in that period affected the evolution of Vermont and give those of us who live here today historical examples from which we can draw inspiration in staying true to our roots while open to new possibilities. My lecture highlighted the tensions that exist in a dynamic society living through periods of great demographic change.

The first settlers were embroiled in the basic struggle with nature and that struggle was complicated by political and economic instabilities inherent in the difficulty of establishing legal ownership of the land. I highlighted Vermont’s early social conflict between aboriginal people, the French, the British Empire, New Hampshire settlers and New York elites. Analysis of early documents, maps and primary sources reveals the reasons why certain demographic groups were so attracted to Vermont and the effect these peculiar demographics had on Vermont’s first structures of government and religion.   

My research in early Middletown history reveals how an understanding of the broader history of New England can help us to better understand early Vermonters and Vermont today. Pastor Ithamar Hibbard is a good example.  Hibbard moved from Norwich, Connecticut to Bennington as an unordained minister with charismatic gifts and he attracted a following. But as Bennington gradually gentrified, Hibbard decided to move further north to fledgling communities in Poultney and Middletown that were more open to his personal “style.” Eventually, when Middletown itself began to attract more gentrified settlers, Hibbard’s position in the Middletown church was supplanted by the Yale-educated minister, Henry Bigelow, and Ithamar Hibbard moved on again to the more frontier town of Hubbardton. It becomes clear as one studies individual cases like Hibbard’s that out-spoken leaders who move into a community during a period of great social flux may sometimes drive change in community culture but then lose favor. Sometimes this process is a smooth one. Sometimes it can be contentious. 

The lecture concluded with some questions about what it would mean to “get back to our roots” and about how communities can manage benefits and challenges when they extend a welcome to newcomers as they have in the past and continue to do today. I hope those in attendance enjoyed the great questions and good discussion as much as I did. 

Philip Crossman has spent most of his career teaching the humanities to high school and college students. His interest in Middle Eastern history was sparked by several years he spent working in Jerusalem. Upon his return to Vermont, he completed a Master’s Degree in Islamic-Western Relations at Norwich and went on to pursue a Master’s Degree in Education in Educational Technology at the University of Toronto. He is currently an administrator at Community College of Vermont (CCV) and teaches part-time at CCV and Norwich University.