The cordial and neighborly relations now existing between the Twin States of Vermont and New Hampshire were once strained to the limit, and both states ordered out their militia, fully armed and equipped, ready to enforce what each contended were its rights. Just now, the only serious contention between them, and one that has been before the courts several years with small prospect of settlement, is whether the dividing line between them, “The West Bank of the Connecticut River,” is at high or low water, as mills erected on each side are claimed for taxation in each state, because of a difference of judgment between them as to where “the west bank” is.
In 1781, just before Vermont was admitted as the 14th state of the Union, two men prominent in the Connecticut Valley were prominent actors in a controversy which for some months threatened to plunge the states of Vermont and New Hampshire into civil war, and, in fact, each state actually ordered out its military forces, fully equipped and ready to march against the other at a moment’s notice. Only for calm, conservative consideration of the other’s side of disputed questions, and a strong reluctance to cause bloodshed upon the part of both states, the collision would have occurred and the subsequent history of peaceful and mutually happy relations would have been reversed.
Vermont was then an independent commonwealth, not a member of the United States and without ties to other states or nations. New Hampshire was one of the original 13 states of the Union. Forty-five towns east of the Connecticut River had voted by large majorities to join themselves to the republic of Vermont, and Vermont had accepted them. For some months the majority and minority of these 45 towns had each had its own separate board of officers, and each had by this means a representative in the Vermont and also the New Hampshire legislatures.
A county known as Washington County, Vt., had been formed of towns in the New Hampshire territory, with Charlestown, N. H., as its shire town. Dr. William Page was High Sheriff of this county under Vermont authority, and at the same time Col. Enoch Hale was High Sheriff of Cheshire County, as the same territory was known in New Hampshire. As both governments had their own separate courts governing one and the same people, either side, owing to the opposition of the other, could enforce no decisions. The legislature of Vermont had met at Charlestown in October 1781. A clash of authority was sure to come.
Early in November of that year Sheriff Page, under Vermont authority, had arrested two citizens of Westmoreland for some offence. The legislature of New Hampshire, then sitting at Exeter, passed a special statute empowering Col. Hale to go to Charlestown and release these men “held under the pretended authority of Vermont.” Failing to accomplish this, he was to call on the militia for assistance.
He went to Charlestown and demanded of Jailer Ely the release of the prisoners. Being refused, he made show of attempt at breaking into jail, and was promptly arrested and placed in jail himself. The affair being reported to the governors of both. Vermont and New Hampshire, Governor Chittenden of Vermont authorized Dr. Page, with two Vermont justices of the peace, to go to Exeter and endeavor to arrange some peaceable solution of the difficulty regarding authority over this territory. Upon their arrival at Exeter, they were all three promptly arrested by direct warrant from the president of the Council of New Hampshire and confined there in jail.
The governors of each state at once ordered a regiment of militia to be armed and equipped, ready to march at a moment’s notice, to maintain the dignity of their respective commonwealths. In this situation, with both sheriffs in jail, and excitement running high among the people on both sides of the Connecticut, the strained conditions remained for some weeks. Governor Chittenden opened a personal correspondence with General Washington (who was not elected as the first president until 1789), and through his calm and conservative advice, Vermont was induced to give up all claim to territory east of the Connecticut River, although the individual towns still held by a large majority to their original wish to remain a part of this state. The west bank of the river was fixed upon as the dividing line and it so remains today, although its location is variously questioned.
The sheriffs were released upon their own recognizances about January 1, 1782, and were never brought to trial. They both became, a few years later, prominent and influential business men of Bellows Falls, and were firm friends. Very soon after this, Vermont was admitted as the 14th state of the Union, this incident being one of the strong points in demonstrating the wisdom of the admission.
Col. Enoch Hale, a prominent resident of Rindge, Walpole and Bellows Falls, in 1785, built the first toll bridge across the Connecticut River, and owned and managed it for many years. He was a leading citizen and landholder in the town of Rockingham and the village of Bellows Falls. He was moderator of the town meeting held on September 1, 1795, and, at different times, held various town offices. He died in Grafton, Vt., in 1813.
Dr. William Page of Charlestown, N. H., with Gen. Lewis R. Morris of Springfield, Vt., was named as an incorporator of the Bellows Falls Canal in Vermont in 1791, and in New Hampshire in 1792. He moved to Bellows Falls in 1798, and was the engineer in full charge of the construction of the canal, as well as overseer and projector of several manufacturing industries of the village. He was appointed as the first postmaster of Bellows Falls April 1, 1801, his office being in the same office as the Bellows Falls Canal Co., located in the rear of the present clothing store of J. J. Fenton & Co. He was the grandfather of the late Gov. John B. Page of Vermont and he died in Rutland in 1810.
Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.