century sheep craze was a major motivation for emigration from the region as small farmers were enclosed into neighboring farms. When the craze turned to bust, many other farmers sought greener pastures.
wagons such as this one carried area residents to the West.
Other modes of transportation included sleds, canal boats, rail and foot.
In this 1872 image by John Gast
entitled "American Progress" the spirit of the nation is shown leading migrants westward. Native peoples and animals
flee before the onward rush of railroad, telegraph and other vestiges of civilization.
As published in the Journal-Opinion on December 30, 2009.
It has a pleasant variety of natural scenery, an abundance of pure water, a healthful climate, better markets and hard roads, plenty of timber and extensive sources of power as well as an equal distribution of property. What may appear to be a local development promotion is actually from the 1876 Vermont Agriculture Annual Report. It was extolling the virtues of Vermont in an unsuccessful attempt to stem the tide of emigrants leaving for better opportunities elsewhere.
In 2010, the United States will count its population. It has been doing so every ten years since 1790 as required by the Constitution. The count will show that towns in our area are growing. That was not always the case. Our area has a history of dramatic changes in population. Lewis Stilwell’s Migration From Vermont, Harold Wilson’s The Hill Country of Northern New England, Harold Meeks’ Time and Change in Vermont and Freedom and Unity by Michael Sherman et al along with town histories chronicle those changes.
The first wave of white settlers came to our valley from southern New England in the late 1760s. Population growth there had left little available land for new farmers. In the first twenty-five years there was spectacular growth, giving river towns such as Newbury, Thetford and Bradford a population of 873, 862 and 654 respectively.
Between 1790 and 1810 Vermont had a growth rate of 150 percent. That rate of growth was mirrored by most towns and more than doubled by Topsham and Fairlee. This was the result of continued migration from the south and the large families common to the farming communities. Vermont was young, with a majority of its residents age sixteen or younger.
However, Vermont’s boom time was brief. By 1810 migration slowed and some Vermont towns began to lose inhabitants. While none of the area towns experienced this early decline, the rate of growth in our area slowed. Some area residents joined the migration to newly opened lands in northern New York and Pennsylvania. “York fever” was followed by a similar epidemic of “Ohio fever.” Others were drawn to newly open lands on both sides of the Vermont-Canadian border.
In the twelve years following 1808 emigration “rose to a flood.” The stimuli were the economic and social problems of the War of 1812, an epidemic of spotted fever and the terrible weather of 1816 and the lure of better land in the West. That attraction was enhanced by advertisements and letters as well as the growing shortage of good farm land in Vermont and New Hampshire. A man, often a young one, would go first, acquire land, erect a shelter and then return for his family. They traveled to their new home by canal boat, sled, wagon or foot.
A major motivation for the emigration was a tradition of migration. Migrants’ ancestors had crossed the Atlantic and their children had moved out across the region. For some this created a wanderlust that encouraged them to pick up and move from established areas to new. To the families were added single young men, missionaries and craftsmen drawn to the opportunities and needs of newer communities in places such as Illinois and Wisconsin.
At some point in the decades from 1820 to 1860, every area town reached a peak of population and began to decline. Following is a list of some area towns showing the year with the highest early count and where it stood in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. Vershire (1810-1,311, 1860-1000), Lyme (1820-1,824, 1860-1,572); Fairlee (1820-1,143, 1860-549), Orford (1830-1,829, 1860-1,255), Thetford (1830-2,113, 1860-1,876), Piermont (1840-1,057, 1860-949), Topsham (1840-1.745, 1860-1,662), Newbury (1850-2,984, 1860-2,549). Bradford, with its mills, commercial center and railroad connection, peaked in 1860 with a population of 1,689.
That period of decline was the result of a great migration, described by Stilwell as, “great in numbers, great in enthusiasm, and great in results.” To some extent this was an organized group migration. Companies of settlers moved westward. There were newspaper reports of wagon trains moving through Bradford on the way to new territories west of the Mississippi. Some residents of the area joined the Mormons’ westward trek. In 1855, the Emigrant Aid Company of Boston persuaded George and Jacob Rowe of Lyme to join the free-soil movement to “sing upon the Kansas plains a song of Liberty!.”
Economic displacements caused by the Panic of 1837 and the rise and fall of the sheep craze contributed to the migration. Farmers could not compete with products shipped from the better farmlands to the west. Vermont had used up many of its resources. Many farmers tired of the annual crop of stones from the marginal soil. In 1848 the news of the discovery of gold in California only added to the number who sought riches in the West. My great-great grandfather left his family in Orange and sailed around the Horn to San Francisco, returning empty-handed. .
The out migration also included the young seeking better opportunities in the larger communities of the East. They were young professionals, craftsmen and mill workers. The lure was especially strong for young women who saw in their mothers’ lined faces the hardship of country life. Many agreed with Vermont-born Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas when he said “Vermont is a good state to be born in, provided you migrate early.” . Some other migrants from the two state area left the country altogether. A visitor to Tahiti in 1837 met migrants from Peacham and Bradford.
The upheaval of the Civil War as well as the post-war development of the West and cities continued to drain the area’s rural population. Only about 61 percent of native Vermonters made the state their permanent residence. Some rural districts became completely depopulated whereas thriving commercial villages and larger urban towns retained their population and even grew. Because of the impact of the Ely Copper Mine, Vershire’s population rose to 1,875 in 1880 only to be reduced to 754 ten years later when the mine closed. The population of nearby West Fairlee also grew dramatically and then fall. Fairlee reached its lowest population count in 1890 at 398 inhabitants. Haverhill had a slight dip in population but grew after 1840. Major factors in its growth were the railroad center at Woodsville and Pike Manufacturing Company in Pike. Its population reached 3,414 in 1900.
As Vermont lagged behind the rapid growth of other states, towns in the area continued to lose population. It was said that the only things growing in the towns were the cemeteries. Although they migrated away, native-born Vermonters wanted to retain some connections. From the very beginning of the exodus, new communities throughout the West were named for Vermont towns. They also formed organizations such as the Sons of Vermont of Iowa. Migrants from our area contributed significantly to their new homes, a topic for a future column.
Rural interests campaigned to keep the lifeblood of their communities from flowing away. Many feared that the selective nature of the migration would leave behind a population reduced by ability and replaced by foreign immigrants of dubious value as citizens. “Stick to the Farm, Young Man” was a theme that reflected suspicion of both urban and western lifestyles. But the same newspapers that carried such articles also carried advertisements trumpeting the opportunities in the West. The decline built upon itself as the state’s shortage of labor and capital discouraged manufacturing.
The out-migration that Vermont and our local area experienced during the last half of the 19th century continued through the first half of the Twentieth. The causes were the same although the destinations and the mode of escape changed. In the period 1900-1910 two-thirds of all Vermont towns lost population. Whole sections of rural towns reverted to woods with only cellar holes and stonewalls remaining. A future article will deal with those abandoned districts in our area.
In the decades between 1910-1920 and 1930-1940, Vermont actually lost population, the only times in its history when that happened. During World War I and the Great Depression the emigration exceeded the natural increase of births. In the period between 1920 and1950, many area towns had the lowest population since the early 19th century. Representative of this count are Lyme (1930 census-830), Bradford (1930-1,235), Thetford (1940-1,043)), Topsham (1940-707) and Corinth (1950-786). Vershire’s population reached its low in 1960 at 236 residents and Newbury declined to 1,440 in 1970.
Between 1945 and 1960 there was a modest growth in the population of Vermont, although it “lagged behind the national and regional growth rate.” Our area reflected the same slow to modest growth. However, after 1960, Vermont truly became “the beckoning country.” The changes from the population trends of the previous one hundred and fifty years were abrupt. The building of the interstate highway system made Vermont more accessible to the huge population within a day’s drive. The natural growth from the baby boom was enhanced by the increased magnetism of the state for residents from other states. Each of the decades since has reflected double digit growth in population.
The population increases in our area reflect the impact of the interstate as well as the closeness to Dartmouth College, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Memorial Hospital and the other entities that drive the economy of the Upper Valley. Thetford, with its interstate access, matched its 1830 census count during the 1970’s and had an estimated population of 2,779 in 2007. That represents a 165 percent growth since 1960. Across the river, Lyme with a 2007 estimated population of 1,697 equals that growth rate.
Further up the river, Bradford’s growth during the 1970’s had it matching the level of population of a century earlier. Haverhill’s population increased dramatically from 3,090 in 1970 to 4,661 in 2007 easily exceeded earlier highs. Its rate of growth was equaled by its valley neighbor Newbury. Although they grew, Corinth, Piermont, Topsham and Fairlee have not achieved the population levels of the early nineteenth century.
Following is the most recent census estimates for area towns along with the percentage of growth since 1960: Newbury (2,158-49 %), Corinth (1,458-127%), Fairlee (1,008-77%), West Fairlee (726-118%), Topsham (1, 139-79%), Vershire (625-165%) Piermont (690-45%) and Orford (1061-59%). This influx of new residents has changed these communities socially, economically and politically. “Where are you from?” is a much more common question when meeting fellow residents than it was in the past.
The Council on the Future of Vermont describes population changes over the past fifty years. Their report indicates a steady decline in the number of native-born residents, dropping from 75 percent in 1960 to 53 percent in 2005. The population is more highly educated. The emigration of local college graduates is somewhat offset by an in-migration of young well-educated residents.
While the natural increase of population is still slightly higher than people relocating from other places, it was recently reported that Vermont has the lowest birth rate in the nation. As a result of that and the number of retirees moving to the state, Vermont tends toward an aging population with 13.6 percent of the population over 65. While the state is still one of the most ethnically homogeneous in the nation, the ethnic diversity of our area has changed since the 1950.
In March, 2010 each household in our area will receive a questionnaire from the Census Bureau. The nation-wide result of that tabulation will determine the number of members of the U. S. House of Representatives and Electoral College assigned to each state. It will affect the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal funds for such services as schools, hospitals, job training and emergency services. It is truly the time to “stand up and be counted.”
The 2010 census figures were released on February 10, 2011. Population changes for Vermont towns in our area were part of an article in the February 11th Valley News as follows: (2000 population, 2010 population and percentage change) Vershire: 629,730. 16.1%; Newbury: 1,965, 2216, 12.8%; Bradford: 2,619, 2797, 6.8%; Fairlee: 967, 977, 1.0%; Thetford: 2,617, 2, 588, -1.1%; Corinth: 1,461, 1,367, -6.4%; West Fairlee: 726, 652, -10.2%.