The Founding of Woodstock, Vermont
By Robert Holt
Two hundred fifty years ago, in 1761, this part of the country we call Vermont was still an unbroken wilderness. The only significant settlement was at Fort No. 4, now Charlestown, NH. Twelve years earlier, in 1749, the Royal Governor of the Province of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth, began to exercise jurisdiction over this land by granting townships to groups of proprietors. His namesake, Bennington, was chartered on January 3, 1749, and was soon followed by Halifax (1750) and then 13 other grants. In mid - 1754, the war between Great Britain and France spread to this continent and intervened in Wentworth’s grant making. (See Langdon Map of 1756, below)
These township grants were located west of the Connecticut River and north of the Massachusetts boundary, which had just been confirmed and surveyed in 1741. It was the settling of this boundary with Massachusetts that reinforced Benning Wentworth’s notion that he had the authority to grant lands in this area.
But there was a problem: the land north of Massachusetts and west of Connecticut River was also claimed by New York by virtue of a grant from Charles II to his brother, the Duke of York, made in 1674. For nearly one hundred years, New York, with the exception of Long Island, did nothing about possessing these lands.
This was not the only dispute about land rights between colonies. Connecticut and Massachusetts also had conflicting claims with New York, however those two governments were able to negotiate a settlement, arriving at a boundary location 20 miles east of Hudson River. But it was unclear whether that boundary settlement pertained also to New Hampshire. Relying on the language of the decree that established New Hampshire’s boundary with Massachusetts, “thence due west until it meets our other governments,” Wentworth took an aggressive approach and aligned the westerly boundary of his grants, Bennington, with the westerly line of Massachusetts, i.e. 20 miles east of Hudson River. And so began the conflict with New York over the New Hampshire Grants, as the contested area came to be called.
At the end of the French & Indian War, (through which the conflict simmered without resolution), on January 8, 1760, Governor Wentworth picked up right where he left off in 1754 by granting the town of Pownal, just below Bennington in the southwest corner of his claimed territory. He had also used the hiatus afforded by the war to commission a survey of the Connecticut River from the Massachusetts line sixty miles north, laying out (at least on paper) three tiers of townships on the western side. This survey provided the foundation for a series of grants which commenced in June of 1761, when Wentworth granted the town of Reading, our neighbor to the south. Reading was followed in quick succession by Mount Tabor (6/28), Hartford (7/4), Norwich (7/4), Plymouth (7/6), Windsor (7/6), Killington (7/7), and Pomfret on July 8.
Just two days after Pomfret, on July 10, 1761, Benning Wentworth made his 26th, 27th, and 28th grants west of Connecticut River creating the towns of Bridgewater, Hartland, and Woodstock. (His most prolific day of granting would come two years later, when on July 7, 1763, he chartered ten new towns, including Burlington.)
“An Accurate Map of his Majesty’s Province of New Hampshire in New England & all the adjacent Country Northward to the River St Lawrence, & Eastward to Penobscot Bay. Containing the principal Places which relate to the present War on the Continent of North America, viz: Hudson’s River from Albany to Lake George, the Situation of the French Forts at Ticonderoga & Crown Point, Lake Champlain, & a Sketch of the River St Lawrence from Montreal down to Quebec: & exhibiting those Parts of his Majesty’s Northern Colonies which lie most exposed to the Encroachment of the French in Canada. To which is added a general Map of the River St Lawrence above Montreal to Lake Ontario, & the adjacent Country westward from Albany and Lake Champlain to the late English Fort at Oswego. __ Made from a great Number of attested Plans of particular Parts of the Province of New Hampshire, & other general & particular Maps of undoubted Authority; as well as several exact Observations & Measurements made by the Author. Humbly presented to his Excellency Benning Wentworth Esqr his Majesty’s Governor, together with the honourable his Majesty’s Council, & the House of Representatives of Sd Province by their most obedient Servt AD 1756 __SamlLangdon”
The town of Woodstock was granted to a group of 62 proprietors and was divided into 68 equal shares, or rights. Two of those additional shares were allocated to Wentworth himself. The remainder went to The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, a Glebe Lot for the Church of England, a lot for the First-Settled Minister of the Gospel, and a share for the benefit of a school in said town. The proprietors included David Page, four others named Page, Jonathan Grout and four other Grouts, John Church, John Darling, John Rogers, and Abel Willard, who was, (according to Edward Williams, Jr.), the father of one Oliver Willard – a man who figures most prominently in the charter history of Woodstock. The list of proprietors also included the names of many who really had no interest in settling the town. They were speculators in new lands, named primarily for political reasons, and very soon were bought out by others. The proprietors met for the first time on August 27, 1761, presumably in Massachusetts and moderated by Oliver Willard, who was named for this purpose in the charter.
At that initial meeting, Page and Grout were authorized to survey and apportion the town. They hired Theophilus Chandler, a Connecticut surveyor who was also working for the town of Pomfret. Beginning on October 1, 1761, Chandler surveyed the bounds of the town, and laid out three ranges of lots, running north-south through the center of the town.
Imagine, if you will, the journey up Connecticut River in the fall of 1761. Once past Fort No. 4, now Charlestown, NH, the only signs of settlement are the marks left by Wentworth’s surveyors a few years before, when they mapped the river. Chandler and company were required to locate the southwest corner of Hartford, only recently marked, and proceed from there, guided only by their compass and chain. What follows is an account from Pomfret’s history, published in 1884 in Child’s Gazetteer. This excerpt takes up the story after the first meeting of Pomfret’s proprietors on September 7, 1761:
“ Soon after this adjournment three of the committee, Isaac DANA, William WINCHESTER and William DANA, with Theophilus CHANDLER as surveyor, proceeded to the wilderness to locate the township according to the description given in the charter. They reached the town and began the survey about the first of October, 1761, commencing at the southwesterly corner of Hartford at a beech tree on the westerly bank of Ottauquechee River. That point was supposed to be the southwesterly corner of Hartford, the northwesterly corner of Hertford, now Hartland, the northeasterly corner of Woodstock, and the southeasterly corner of Pomfret, and is a few rods northwesterly of the iron foundry and scythe factory lately owned by D. TAFT & Sons. From this point they marked the southerly line five and one-half miles, in a westerly direction, crossing Mountain brook near the western terminus of the line. They then ran the westerly line in a northerly direction seven miles, and at the northern terminus left a bound fully marked, bearing the date October 2, 1761. They next laid a road ten rods wide through the center of the town north and south, and laid out seventy "town lots" of one acre each, thirty-five on each side of the road at the center of the town. These lots were four rods wide on the road and extended back there from forty rods and numbered back and forth from the southwesterly corner, that lot being numbered 1, that on the opposite side being number 2, the western side containing the even numbers and the eastern side the odd numbers. They then proceeded to lay out what is now termed the first division of lots, agreeable to the vote of the proprietors, viz.: one lot of one hundred acres to each of the proprietors, one lot for The Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, one lot for the First Settled Minister of the Gospel, one lot for the benefit of a school in said town, and one lot for a glebe for the Church of England, as by law established. The committee then returned to Connecticut, drew a plan of the township, and of all the surveys thus made, which was laid before the meeting of the proprietors on the fourth Monday (23d day) of November, 1761, when it was accepted by a formal vote.
To determine each proprietor's lot, a number corresponding with each lot was written on a slip of paper in the presence of the meeting, and it was then "voted that the lots [papers] all be put into a hat together and delivered to the moderator of the said meeting, and that he shake them together and call the name of a proprietor and the clerk of said proprietors should put his hand into the hat and take out a lot and open the same, and set the number of said lot against the name so called, and so proceed till the whole were taken out, or drawn, entering the number of each lot to ye name called." This method was carefully observed and the number of each lot was entered to the name of the proprietor so called by the moderator. At this meeting it was also voted to levy an additional tax of six shillings on each proprietor's right, making in all seventeen shillings per right for laying out the town. It was also voted to allow each of the committee four shillings per day and expenses. The expenses of each was estimated at three shillings per day, as the whole cost of the survey amounted to £53 2d, which amount was audited and allowed by the proprietors.
It must be remembered that at this time all of the country north of No. Four, now Charlestown, NH, was an unbroken wilderness. The old French war had been raging, terminating in 1760, only a year previous to the date of these proceedings. During the period of this war a military road was cut through the forest from No. Four to Crown Point, passing through what is now the southerly part of the township of Plymouth. This was the nearest approach of anything like civilization to Pomfret at the time of its survey and allotment. In the spring of 1762, Samuel Sleeper began the settlement of Newbury, on the Connecticut River, and in 1763, Timothy Lull commenced the settlement of Hertford, now Hartland. “
From this account it is rightly assumed that the Woodstock proprietors practiced a similar process. Apparently either unwilling or unable to continue with Chandler, the proprietors engaged the services of Br. T. Batcheller between October and December of 1762 to complete the survey of the town’s allotment, resulting in the lotting plan depicted next. The map is a reproduction of the Batcheller plan compiled using modern CAD software to overlay with other layers of geographic information. A very old copy of this map can be found in Baker Library at Dartmouth College; a reproduction of it is owned and displayed by the Woodstock Historical Society.
The Batcheller map depicts three divisions of sixty-eight lots, each lot containing about 100 acres, a common procedure within the Wentworth Grants. In Woodstock, the lots were numbered sequentially, 1 through 202. Thus, by coloring each grouping of 68 lots as depicted on the map below, first division blue, second division green, third division yellow, the pattern of the three emerges. The unusual aspect of the Woodstock allotment was the treatment of the public shares, as well as those of Wentworth himself, and those of his secretary, Theodore Atkinson. Even though allocation was made for 68 equal shares in each division, that number included the additional rights beyond the 62 named grantees, i.e. 2 shares for Wentworth and 4 public rights. There was also land set aside for public shares around the periphery of the lots, colored magenta on the map, giving the impression that those rights were being accorded more than an equal share. Unfortunately, no complete record has been found of the initial allocation of lots, so we do not know which proprietor drew what lots in each division.
Most of the concern for how the allocation was made was rendered of no consequence, however, by subsequent events. Beginning almost immediately after the Batcheller survey was completed in 1762, the proprietors entered into a frenzy of buying and selling shares so that ownership was consolidated among relatively few of the grantees. Page and Grout between them accounted for almost half of the town’s 25,000 acres, while John Church accumulated 1,200 and Samuel Hunt 600 acres. Another faction emerged in the person of Oliver Willard, who was also buying up what rights he could, and at the same time, was implementing a scheme to solidify his control over the new town.
All the while that Benning Wentworth was granting townships, the political battle with New York was being waged in the King’s Council. The dispute was over which province – New Hampshire or New York – had jurisdiction to grant lands in what is now Vermont. Finally, on July 20, 1764, King George III ruled in favor of New York, to wit: that the boundary between New Hampshire and New York was henceforth to be the west bank of Connecticut River. It was these two little words, to be, that left doubt in the minds of many as to whether the previous grants by Governor Wentworth were still valid.
The proprietors of the several New Hampshire Grants were now faced with a dire choice of potentially devastating consequences. Do they rely on their grant from Governor Wentworth as the source of title to their lands? Or, do they apply to the governor of New York for a new grant (with the requisite fees, of course) to remove any doubt as to validity of title? Not wanting to incur any more financial burden, the majority (Bridgewater and Pomfret among them) chose the former option. There were several towns, however, including Woodstock, who chose to seek a confirmatory charter from New York.
With the King’s decree giving jurisdiction to New York, Woodstock became first a part of Albany County, then Cumberland County, in the Province of New York. Oliver Willard saw which way the political winds were blowing and ingratiated himself to the New York government, filling several roles in its county judiciary. The Willard faction began the contest for Woodstock with a petition to the governor of New York dated April 8, 1766, from Levi Willard and Associates claiming that they had been, at considerable expense, surveying and settling the township of Woodstock, and prayed for a grant of the same from New York. Page and Grout countered with their own petition to New York in September, making similar claims and setting off a flurry of activity, but no resolution for the next five years.
In the meantime, the Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen had formed in the western part of the New Hampshire Grants, fighting off New York’s attempts at exercising control over their lands. They did not always do so lawfully. From The Vermont Encyclopedia, “In one incident in 1771, Ethan Allen, Remember Baker, Robert Cochran, and six others drove a small group of new settlers from land they claimed with a New York title and burned their cabins, causing New York Governor William Tryon to proclaim a reward of twenty pounds for Allen and each member of the band. In the same year, Allen and a small group of his men blackened their faces, dressed as Indians, and drove New York surveyor William Cockburn out of Pittsford with threats to kill him. On another occasion, they were reported to the sheriff in Albany for marauding at night dressed as women, tearing down fences, burning hay, and dispersing or hocking the cattle of New York title owners who spoke against them. Unwisely vocal in his support of New York, Dr. Samuel Adams of Bennington was tied to a chair and suspended from a pole in front of the Catamount Tavern.” Perhaps in recognition of the actions of Allen and others, and to calm the contentious situation in the Grants, the King decreed in 1767 that the Province of New York was not to grant any new lands within the disputed area.
Up until this time, Woodstock had remained unsettled. Tradition tells of Timothy Knox coming into the town in 1765 and erecting a log hut near a place called Beaver Meadows, on what is now the Kedron Brook, but he had no deed to any of the land that he occupied. Titled settlers began arriving in 1768 led by Andrew Powers, John Sanderson, and Joseph Call, all of who carried deeds from Oliver Willard, and settled in the northeastern corner of the town, near present-day Taftsville and along River Road.
In June of 1771, New York conducted a census that included the towns in Vermont. It shows a total of 42 persons (19 under the age of 16) living in Woodstock, in ten families. The heads of those families are: Andrew Powers, Abraham Powers, William Powers, James Harwood, James Sanderson, Joseph Call, John Sanderson, Ebenezer Call, James Powers, and Ebenezer Dike, who was the census taker for the town. Although Timothy Knox was no doubt in town at this time, not being a legal landowner he either would not have been counted or, more likely, he was counted in the household of one of the ten families, possibly even the Dike household as he would marry Ebenezer’s daughter, Abigail, the following year.
By 1772, no New York charter had yet been issued for Woodstock. In fact, under the decree of 1767 cited above, no new grants were allowed. And yet despite this situation, on the third day of June, 1772, Oliver Willard prevailed when his own petition for a grant to himself and 23 associates was recognized by the granting of the New York Charter still on display in the Woodstock History Center.
The very next days, June 4 & 5, 1772, all 23 of Willard’s associates conveyed their interests in Woodstock to him. Oliver Willard had title to the entire town! Willard’s first order of business was to repay his political benefactors, resulting in grants of large tracts of land. In the northwest corner of the town he conveyed 1,050 acres to Elihu Spencer; east of that, 1,050 acres to John Rodgers, Doctor of Divinity; along the western boundary, he granted 2,500 acres to Charles Ward Apthorp; and 800 acres to Elias Boudinot. In the extreme southwest corner, the least desirable area of town, he located the public rights, and along the southern boundary he granted 4,000 more acres to Apthorp.
Perhaps recognizing his tenuous hold over lands previously conveyed under the New Hampshire charter, many already settled by New Hampshire grantees, Willard did a wise thing and issued a number of quitclaim deeds to these occupants for a minimal consideration citing the statute for transferring use into actual possession. In this way, he was able to placate those owners whose titles did not derive from New York, while at the same time reinforcing his jurisdiction as the sole grantee of the town. An example of this type of conveyance is found in the deed from Willard to John Hoisington of Lots 172 and 174, (now part of the National Park and Billings Farm), dated November 20, 1772, and recorded in Book 1, Page 78 of the Woodstock Land Records. The language employed is typical of this time period: “Witnesseth that the Said Party of the first Part for the Consideration of forty-five Pounds lawful money of New York already by Him Received and from which he Doth Release and Discharge the Said Party of the Second Part and his heirs and assigns Hath granted Bargained and Sold Alined Released and Confirmed and hereby Doth grant Bargain Sell Aline Release and Confirm unto the Said Party of the Second Part in his actual Possession now being By Virtue of an Indenture for Bargain and Sale for a year Dated yesterday and of a Statute for transferring uses into Possession and to his heirs and Assigns forever all that Tract or Parcel of land lying and Being in Woodstock…”
The end product of Willard’s efforts is a lotting plan (see below) that retains about a third of the Batcheller surveys reconfigured into more saleable parcels, (such as Joab Hoisington’s 400 acres encompassing what is now the Green in the Village of Woodstock), and surrounded by the large grants described above. To this day, virtually every property in Woodstock can trace its chain of title back to Oliver Willard!
This article was prepared by Bob Holt, surveyor, especially for the 250th celebration on July 10, 2011.
Canfield, Dorothy Canfield – In the Valley of the Kedron
Dana, Henry Swan – History of Woodstock, Vermont
Hall – History of Eastern Vermont
Swift, Esther – Vermont Place Names
Nye – State Papers of Vermont, Vol. VII
Sherman, Potash, Sessions– Freedom and Unity
Williams – Early History of Woodstock