October 21st, 2016

Senate Report: The Origin of Washington County

By Sen. Bill Doyle

Political parties were not a part of the first years of the United States. Indeed, Washington and other founding fathers warned against them. But dissent is the hallmark of democracy, and soon after the adoption of the Constitution, America’s early leaders were divided into two groups. The first was the Federalists, who believed in a strong national government as advocated by Alexander Hamilton. The second group was called the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson, who believed in states’ rights.

The rivalry in the newspapers between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians was intense. The Federalist cartoons of the day portrayed the Jeffersonians as “cannibals, drunkards and pirates.” The Jeffersonians, in turn, accused the Federalists of “working toward a monarchy and hereditary privileged class.”

On November 1, 1810, the Vermont Legislature created what is now Washington County. However, originally it was Jefferson County. In order to establish this new county, towns were taken from existing counties: Orange, Chittenden, Caledonia and Addison. The Federalists, who opposed Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo, objected to the name Jefferson because the Embargo adversely affected the economy of central Vermont and the entire state. Our trade at that time was mostly between Quebec and Vermont and the economy suffered. However, in 1810, the Jeffersonians held a majority in the House of Representatives. At that time there was no Senate, which was created in 1836. The vote in favor of Jefferson County on a roll call vote was 101 to 90. The bill passed on the condition that a jail would be built, that there would be a house for the jailer and there would be “a convenient place for the holding of sessions of the court without public expense.” By 1814, the Federalists were in power, and changed the name of the county to Washington in honor of the first president of the United States.

The legislative act which was passed November 8, 1814, said in part: “It is hereby enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont that the name of the County of Jefferson be, and hereby is altered to that of Washington, and the said county shall hereafter be called and styled the County of Washington, instead of the County of Jefferson.”

There have been several changes in the boundaries of Washington County over the years. In 1822 part of Williamstown and the eastern section of Waitsfield were annexed to Northfield. Parts of Middlesex were annexed to Waterbury in 1850, and in 1859, East Montpelier became a town. In 1894, Barre City was incorporated by the Vermont Legislature and in 1895 Montpelier became a city. In 1898, part of Berlin across the Winooski River was annexed to Montpelier.

Almost all the states wanted to name places in honor of George Washington. It has been calculated that by 1935, there were more places named for Washington than for any other person. These place names include one state, 33 counties, 121 cities and towns, 257 townships, 10 lakes, 7 mountains, over 2,000 streets, and of course, our nation’s capital.

Although Native Americans fished, hunted and camped in central Vermont, they left few place names in Washington County. The only Abenaki place names turned out to be Molly’s and Joe’s Ponds.

Six towns in what ultimately became Washington County – Worcester, Waterbury, Moretown, Middlesex, Duxbury and Berlin – were part of a block of 17 towns that New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth granted in early June 1763. Most of these six towns were bought by the Onion River Company, established by Ira and Ethan Allen.

In 1765 the King of England decided that New York would own the land that was to become Vermont and a petition was introduced into the provincial legislature to designate five additional New York counties. One of those counties was named Colden, who was then the governor of New York, and included most of what is now central Vermont.

From 1768 to 1770, New York granted the following towns that were to become Vermont towns: the New York towns of Avery, Newbrook and Sidney ultimately became Warren, Berlin and Cabot.

According to Esther Swift in “Vermont Place Names,”

“The first Washington County was created in 1781. At that time, Vermont tried to attract national attention by annexing 14 New York towns to the west and 35 New Hampshire towns to the east. The Connecticut River towns of New Hampshire and the adjacent Vermont towns were called Washington County. The United States took notice of this annexation and George Washington wrote Governor Thomas Chittenden: “Now I would ask you candidly whether the clai of the people of Vermont… were not more of a political maneuver than one in which you conceive yourselves justifiable?” Since Vermont wanted George Washington’s support and because Washington himself advised Vermont to give back the New York and New Hampshire towns, Vermont gave up its claim to the newly annexed eastern and western towns. So the first Washington County fell by the wayside.”

Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail wdoyle@leg.state.vt.us; or call 223-2851.

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