How did Vermont Get to Be?: The Growth of a Regional Identity By Daniel Gade How our plucky little state's identity evolved from an 18th-century terra incognita is a process that reflects two basic facts: much has changed in 250 years that bodes for further change; and human decisions more than the land are responsible for regional identity. The concept of Vermont as a separate political entity fits the definition of a region as a bounded space with a perceived character of its own. This distinctiveness is the result of a set of historical contingencies acting on an undefined space. To make sense of what has occurred, we can identify four chronological periods in Vermont's past. Stage One: Bounding and Naming the Territory (1750–1800) Virtually nothing about Vermont's regional identity predates 18th-century settlement. The aboriginal presence is scantily recorded in early documents or in names on the land. The Western Abenaki had a distribution at white contact much wider than Vermont. Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1609 as the earliest European and found the eastern side of the lake, which he later named after himself, largely devoid of people, perhaps depopulated by war or disease. French forts and villages had short periods of use and most of the big estates laid out on paper in the 18th century for the Champlain Valley were never actually settled. Conflict between France and England did much to discourage immigration and land clearing for more than a century. Little by little colonists from Connecticut and Massachusetts moved into that demographic vacuum. The first settlers pushed into the upper Connecticut River Valley as early as the 1740s. By the 1760s, New Hampshire's Royal Governor Wentworth had chartered towns and granted to applicants land that covered almost half of the territory that is now Vermont west of the Connecticut River. Grantees then sold parcels to settlers. After 1763 and the end of the French and Indian Wars, land-hungry settlers moved into the Champlain Valley. But conflict arose over which agent was authorized to sell those lands, for the Colony of New York claimed ownership of the same territory as the Province of New Hampshire. Caught between two contending authorities, settlers were determined to protect their titles to property. Freeholders, some of whom were speculators, formed a militia led by Ethan Allen to protect their interests. Their participation in the American Revolution provided a convenient screen for the much more pressing matter of not being absorbed into the New York quasi-feudal land system. A fact that deserves emphasis, because it explains the strength of the town as a political unit, is that Vermont basically started as a federation of localities that saw security in unity. When the growing dispute between New Hampshire and New York threatened to nullify land titles, these anxious landholders cast their lot with neither and instead chose their own path as a separate polity. When its petition of 1777 to join the United States was turned down, Vermont defiantly declared itself to be independent of everybody: New York, New Hampshire, and Great Britain. For the next 14 years, this hardscrabble entity functioned as a quasi-republic with its own constitution and coinage. Only two other states, California and Texas, have had that same sovereign history. In 1791, soon after its land titles were legally accepted by both New Hampshire and New York, Vermont without hesitation joined the Union. Vermont's push for autonomy was favored by the use of physical features to bound its territory east and west. Two north-to-south water bodies, the Connecticut River on the east and Lake Champlain on the west, simplified longitudinal circumscription. Latitudinal delineation had no natural features to follow, but the southern boundary had already been defined in 1740 when a royal commission established the line between the Massachusetts Bay Colony and New Hampshire. The 45o north latitude line was used as the northern border when the southern boundary of Lower Canada was defined in 1763, although conflict about it persisted until 1842. Maps of a bounded Vermont date from 1789. By that time the territory had been largely settled except in the far northeast and on uplands above 1500 feet elevation. A distinctive regional name was adopted quite deliberately. The two early territorial designations of “New Hampshire Grants” (later shortened to “The Grants”) and “New Connecticut” were viewed as unsuitable in framing a separate geographic identity. “Verdmont” was proposed as the new name as early as 1763 in a supposed Gallic allusion to the Green Mountains that quietly mirrored the anti-British sentiment of the period. The awkward “d” in that manufactured word was soon discarded, and the more felicitous present spelling was accepted in 1777. The first usage of the name Vermont on a map dates from 1780, although not until 1794 did such a map appear that corresponded to present borders. This period also provided symbols that have sustained subsequent generations in their search for regional identity. The classic reading of the state's past still calls upon the Green Mountain Boys and their leader Ethan Allen to define the regional essence of freemen with the courage to act. Another symbol is the catamount, a subspecies of mountain lion found in the state until 1881, which gave its name to the tavern in Bennington where the Allen clan met to hatch its plans. Stage Two: Development of Regional Consciousness (1800–1880) Vermont emerged as a functioning region in the 19th century in several ways. A rapid settlement after 1790 increased the population from 85,000 to 281,000 by 1830. That influx, which domesticated 80 percent of the landscape, bolstered the collective confidence needed at a critical moment for an emerging political unit. However, soon thereafter, emigration over most of the following century led to population decline and a shrinking tax base in most towns. State government was a major factor in effectively dealing with these sharp changes. In 1805 Montpelier was designated to be the capital as a compromise site between the two broad valleys at opposite sides of the state. In that setting, laws were drafted to collect taxes, charter municipalities, found public institutions, and provide some state services. At the town level of government there was a desire for minimal state authority. The emergence of a Vermont identity had much to do with a strong egalitarian sentiment. Vermont's first constitution (1777) prohibited slavery and granted universal male suffrage. It was the earliest document in North America to codify these basic aspects of equality. The Civil War tested those beliefs in moral virtue and a larger per capita contingent of Vermonters served in that conflict than did from any other state. The end of slavery reinforced equality as a core value of Vermont identity. Vermont also acquired regional consciousness from the economic specializations that emerged after 1830 to replace generalized farming. Merino stock imported from Portugal gave rise to a sheep-rearing boom. Then dairying started to gain ascendancy in the 1850s with the fall in wool prices and the coming of the railroad. In 1869 the Vermont Dairymen's Association, concerned about getting products to market, put pressure on the state to construct adequate roads. By the 1870s much cheese and butter and, later, fluid milk was sent to Boston and New York. Hay and corn to feed cows drove rural land use and reinforced a mosaic landscape that has dominated the Vermont image up to the present. Maple products from the woodlots on dairy farms provided an important supplementary income. After the state came up with the idea of guaranteeing product purity, Vermont maple syrup gained wide recognition. Stone quarrying enhanced the region's identity as Vermont marble and granite were used on many monumental buildings of eastern American cities. Stage Three: Consolidation of Regional Identity (1880–1965) The emergence of a coherent Vermont image outside the state helped cement its identity as a region. With the rise of travel for its own sake, flatlanders increasingly appreciated Vermont's landscapes and inhabitants. Vermont became defined as a special place. Though the northeastern United States progressively urbanized, Vermont remained rural. Rurality was once proof of backwardness, but during the 20th century, it turned into an advantage. Eastern city dwellers who came as tourists at first by rail and then by car found pastoral landscapes attractive, perhaps because they were not involved in working the hill farms. When those farms were abandoned, the state as early as 1890 came up with the then-startling idea of advertising these properties as second homes to urbanites. Chief among any list of well-known Vermonters was U.S. President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), a crusty, laconic type born in Plymouth, Vermont, who catapulted into the national spotlight in 1923 by the fluke of assassination. Media commentary on Coolidge enshrined Vermont in American folklore as the domain of the pure Yankee. At a time when heavy immigration had diversified the American urban population, Vermont as a Yankee preserve was a notion that had unspoken significance for nativist sentiment. Self-sufficiency was part of this folk ethnocentricity, and federal challenges helped to define it further. When in 1927 a devastating flood left the state in serious disarray, the governor initially rejected federal rehabilitation assistance. Mindful of flood threats, the U.S. Government later sought to devise a river-basin management plan for the upper Connecticut River, modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority. Vermont vetoed the plan and it was not built. The State later constructed flood control dams on its own and under other auspices. In 1936 Vermont rejected another federal proposal, that one for a paved scenic road along the crest of the Green Mountains, thus preserving the heights for those on foot instead of in cars. Decisions have sometimes extended well beyond regional authority: in September 1941 the Vermont legislature voted to declare war on Germany, two months before the federal government in Washington did so. Stage Four: Reproduction of Regional Identity (1965–Present) In the 1960s Vermont became increasingly attractive as a place to visit and to live. The interstate highway system completed in that decade gave easy and rapid access to Vermont. Tourism greatly expanded to become the backbone of the economy. Ski resorts underwent heavy capitalization from outside the state. Second-home development surged in this same period. Most tourists and seasonal residents come from the urbanized eastern seaboard. Metropolitan Boston and New York have contributed the most to this flow, but even Washington is within a day's travel on the interstate or two hours by air. Permanent migration to Vermont since 1965 dramatically reversed the demographic decline of the preceding half century. Between 1960 and 2000 the state's population increased by almost 60 percent. Migration to the state continues even while industrial employment declines, as telecommuting and the growth of home-based businesses free people to live where they want. Newcomers seek a rural or small town way of life that includes a sense of civic community, clean air, and personal safety. The town meeting concept of participatory democracy, absence of serious atmospheric pollution, and the nation's lowest homicide rate gives Vermont an unforeseen appeal. Vermont's dominant visual image—quiet villages surrounded by neat farms—became catnip to the metropolitan imagination. The antique is also part of this image. 19th-century buildings, abundant in this state but replaced elsewhere by more dynamic growth, made Vermont a focus for the historic preservation movement. Vermont gives attention to environmental matters to an extent seldom seen elsewhere in the United States. A commonality of interest among small farmer populists, the village gentry with Yankee roots, and, more recently, the intellectual left, converge on issues of land, water, and air. Egalitarian continuity from a pioneer past and the absence of powerful special interests were instrumental in building that consensus. Billboards were removed in 1968, bottle return was mandated in 1972, and the country's most far-reaching developmental control statutes (Act 250 in 1970, followed in 1988 by the stricter Act 200) were enacted. These laws allow citizens to assess and participate in decisions concerning the impact of growth unleashed by large developments. Plans for suburban shopping malls and major condominium complexes, if not always rejected, have frequently undergone revision before being built. Newcomer's attitudes and state activism have made Vermont one of the country's more progressive states. That reputation was enhanced in 2000 by adoption of the first civil union law for same-sex couples in the United States. Whereas earlier generations saw state government as incompetent, tyrannical, and largely unnecessary, by the 1980s many viewed government as a potential force for good. State intervention has resulted in high taxation and a bureaucratic apparatus quite beyond that of its twice-as-populous neighbor, New Hampshire, where fierce opposition to all forms of statewide taxation has become the chief political dogma. Vermont's collective identity is now sometimes articulated by how it contrasts with that of New Hampshire. The use of a regional identity for economic advantage is a recent development. Vermont's image in the popular consciousness suggests the fresh and natural. To capitalize on that image, commercial enterprises increasingly give themselves names dominated by “Vermont,” and “Green Mountain.” A closely related phenomenon is the use of a “seal of quality” on products made in the state. “Vermont” has proved to have a demonstrated magic in helping to sell cheese, ice cream, syrup, spring water, turkeys, salad dressings, and jams all over the world. Historical Contingency and Vermont Identity The accretion of events and decisions over these four periods has solidified Vermont's identity. Originally, the Green Mountains separated the area of what is today Vermont into eastern and western halves, each with its own social character: the Connecticut Valley inhabited by conservative gentry and the Champlain Valley by freethinking land seekers. However, the people on both sides shared the determination to fight for land they believed was theirs. If those settlers had not made common cause in fighting for their perceived rights, New Hampshire and New York probably would have divided the area along the crest of the Green Mountains. That mobilization was the first incident to transform previously undefined space into a region with distinct identity. Once statehood was achieved, the combined effects of a constitution, legal statutes, taxation, and adjudication imposed an organization on the territory. Since the 1960s, however, the elements of the postindustrial age have been at least as important as anything done by the state itself in furthering Vermont's identity. Indeed, the present definition of Vermont as a region owes much to out-of-state sentiments that romanticize its qualities and landscapes. Vermont is seen as offering an antidote to the ills of urban life. A general American aversion to living in cities makes many people idealize the rural, even though uncertain livelihoods of unremitting hard toil on hill farms are nothing that a city dweller would choose. Threats to the Vermont countryside prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation to designate in 1993 and again in 2004 the entire state of Vermont as being among the “nation's eleven most endangered historic places.” Ironically, while the interstate highways facilitated the sprawl that threatens the state's image, without those very roads Vermont would not have been accessible enough to have developed its strong identity in the national consciousness. Newcomers to Vermont are those most inclined to proclaim the state's charms and identity. Many of these people understand who they are by defining where they are. Regional self-identification becomes a substitute for ethnic, religious, or class membership. Sometimes a syllogistic thinking takes hold: Vermont is concerned with the environment; since I live in Vermont, that demonstrates my concern for the environment. Another concern caused by Vermont's strong identity is the issue of material gain from that identity. Private interests, in complicity with state governmental agencies, promote Vermont in order to sell products, bring in more tourists, and lure suitable firms. Too much reality interfering with that image then becomes an economic threat, not just an intrusion. The directional gaze of Vermont deserves its own comment. Contact with Québec to the north is much less than might be expected by simple distance. The international border and its hassles, different currency, and cultural differences slow the flow of people, goods, and ideas. To the west, Lake Champlain makes a pretty good psychological barrier to movement. To the east, contacts are greater, particularly for shopping, but it is the south that dominates Vermont's outward gaze, and has the most influence on the state. That has been the case for 250 years. In the 18th century, proximity to the overpopulated “hearth” in southern New England filled this demographic vacuum with anxious land seekers. In the late-19th century dairying emerged as the economic base when Boston and New York provided major markets within easy reach. Now Vermont, linked inextricably to the north-south superhighways, is a recreational appendage of Megalopolis. Conclusion Economy, land use, and population by themselves are only part of the regional identity of Vermont. Myth and symbol are part of it too. Most intriguing is to consider how the historical-geographical processes at work in Vermont over two-and-a-half centuries hold clues to the future. What advances in place identity would it take to move into the Second Republic millennium? What new or revamped institutions would be needed and what symbols could be invented to achieve that objective? The Vermont project is still an act of becoming.