How many of the present-day Vermonters ever heard of the Windham County Rebellion? Early Vermont history devotes but little space to it, and more modern history less, but the story is an interesting one, when its different phases are linked together and rescued from oblivion.
It was among the last of those stirring events in the struggle between Vermont as an independent republic, and New York as one of the states of the Union. In this county, as in most of the other counties of the state, there were two parties; one being loyal to Vermont, while the other gave fealty to New York. Since the close of the war of the Revolution, the government of New York had sought every opportunity to embarrass the newly formed government of Vermont. The center of this opposition was in the town of Guilford, then the most populous town in Vermont. Here was the most active opposition to the collection of taxes and the levying of troops by the Vermont government, as a majority of the citizens were favorable to New York, and so denominated as “tories.”
The adherents of New York who were drafted, refused to serve, and the Sheriff of Windham County was directed to seize their goods and chattels to the amount expended by the state in hiring their substitutes. When the officer attempted to execute the warrant, a cow which he had seized was taken from him by a mob acting under a Captain Phelps, commissioned by New York. In levying on the property of Timothy Church of Brattleboro, the sheriff was resisted by Church’s friends. Being unable to execute his warrant, the sheriff asked for a military force to assist him, whereupon by advice of the Vermont council, Governor Chittenden ordered Brigadier General Ethan Allen to “raise 250 men to support the civil authority,” and it was not many days before Gen. Allen started from Bennington with 100 Green Mountain Boys and marched across the mountains into the rebellious region.
Upon Allen’s approach, Phelps, in a loud voice, announced himself as the high sheriff of Cumberland County, as the territory was known as a division of New York state, and bade Allen go about his business; denounced his conduct and that of his men as rioters and ordered the military to disperse. With his traditional roughness, Allen knocked the hat from the head of the doughty sheriff, and ordered his men to “take the d-d rascal off,” galloping away to superintend the operations of his forces. Since that morning, the numbers of the Vermonters had been augmented by the militia forces under command of Col. Stephen R. Bradley of Westminster, and detachments from other towns, making a force of over 400 men. Allen made several arrests and met with no serious resistance until, while marching toward Brattleboro, they were fired upon by about 50 Guilfordites in ambush. Allen at once marched his men back to Guilford. On reaching that town, he made the historic proclamation, “I, Ethan Allen, do declare that I will give no quarter to the man, woman, or child, who shall oppose me, and unless the inhabitants of Guilford peaceably submit to the authority of Vermont, I swear that I will lay it as desolate as Sodom and Gomorrah, by God.” It has always been a mooted question whether the comma should be placed before the last two words or not, making a material difference in the expression, but the well-known habits of the old warrior tend toward the validity of the comma.
Without further molestation, the General conveyed his prisoners, more than 20 in all, to Westminster and lodged them in jail. When brought to trial, fines were imposed on the lesser offenders, while four of the principal ones were banished from Vermont, not to return under pain of death, and their estates were forfeited to the state.
During this disturbance, the militias of the West Parish of Westminster, although regularly organized, were for some time in doubt what course to take. True to the cause of Vermont, they were still unwilling to assist in hostilities against their neighbors who differed from them on the question of jurisdiction. On the morning of Tuesday, the 10th of June, 1784, although their captain, Deacon Ephraim Ranney, refused to lead them, they concluded to wait on Gen. Allen, and with this intention started for Brattleboro, when “in the edge of Dummerston” they met him and his forces. Turning about, they joined his retinue and accompanied him to Westminster with his prisoners.
During the next winter, things became still more serious, and on the night of January 17th, a party of Yorkers from Guilford attacked the inn of Joseph Arms in Brattleboro, which were the quarters of several officers under the government of Vermont. The Yorkers demanded the immediate surrender of Constable Waters, who, they claimed, had been guilty of extorting taxes from persons professing allegiance to New York, and Waters surrendered. This being reported to the Vermont officials the next day, the 18th, Col. S. R. Bradley, at the head of 200 troops from Westminster and vicinity, including the renowned old Azariah Wright and a company from Rockingham under Captain John Fuller, marched for the purpose of enforcing collections, and when he reached Brattleboro, he had a force of over 300.
Snow had begun to fall when the troops resumed their march, and it was necessary to use snowshoes. As the little army advanced, a violent snowstorm greatly increased the unpleasantness of the undertaking.
On the morning of Tuesday, the 20th, hostilities again began at Guilford, but the Yorkers were dispersed without much resistance, several of their leaders being taken to Westminster and punished by fine, whipping and pillory. At numerous times during the remainder of that winter and spring, collisions occurred between the two factions, and on March 5th, another skirmish occurred in which several Yorkers and Vermonters were injured. Before the close of the year, the Yorkers found their property mostly confiscated, and themselves so harshly handled by the civil and military authority of Vermont, that they either took the oath of allegiance to the state or abandoned the locality entirely, many going into New York state and settling on public lands of that state.
One authority says: “During the sessions of the court, Westminster had presented more the appearance of a military encampment than of a peaceful village. With the departure of the dignitaries of the bench, the lawyers at the bar, and the prisoners at the dock, it again assumed its wonted aspect, and the roll of the drum and shrill notes of the fife gave place to the music of the sleigh bells of winter, and left to their jingling notes the monopoly of noise for the rest of the season.”
During the next seven or eight years, the collisions between these two factions in the county were frequent. Congress vacillated upon the question of admitting Vermont into the Union of States. Col. Stephen R. Bradley of Westminster, and Gen. Ethan Allen each prepared proclamations defending the policy of the Vermonters, which were freely circulated in the army, and Gov. Chittenden reminded Congress of its solemn engagements to Vermont, but the sturdy inhabitants maintained their independence until 1791. Then the commissioners of the two states, meeting together, agreed upon the sum of $30,000 to be paid to New York as an indemnity for all claims and titles granted previously by the state of New York in the disputed territory, and Vermont was admitted “as a new and entire member of the United States of America” on March 4th, 1791.
Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.