Why Did They Go Away?

PrintPrintEmailEmailFifty years ago on a shelf of Monadnock Mountain in Essex County, Vermont, were the empty cellar of a house, the foundations of a barn, and the stubborn remains of an orchard. To us youngsters these things were the ruins of some ancient and extinct civilization, pervaded with the same mystery that held the excavators of Pompeii. The find of a bullet mold, or a pewter spoon, was an event comparable to the uncovering of the Temple of Apollo. There was also the melancholy of times past. One felt it in contemplating the lilacs which still struggled feebly in the smothering brush to put out a few pale blossoms. The great slab of pure granite lay where the door had been; to move it a hair would have called for a yoke of oxen the like of Job’s.

Each empty cellar on all Vermont’s many hills asked the same question: Why did they go away? Forty years ago I went away, and though I am still uncertain why I left, yet in forty years and nigh forty returns to my native state, I have come to an understanding of why Vermonters deserted their beautiful country in such astounding numbers and also why those who remained have continued to live—fairly prosperous, commonly happy, and above all in a sort of bemused wonder that anybody could want to live anywhere else.

Professional genealogists have complained that Vermont is a stumbling block in their researches, that only too often a generation is “lost” somewhere in the Green Mountains. They should bear in mind that for nearly half a century after the first settlements, the region was a no man’s land. Some declared it to belong to New York province. Others held it to be the New Hampshire Grants. Until admitted as the fourteenth state in 1791, Vermont was pretty much a wilderness and a violent wilderness at that. Little wonder if few private or public records were kept, or if even fewer survived the partisan raids and general chaos of this freewheeling time, a period that was characterized perfectly by Ethan Allen, both patriot and real-estate operator, whose Onion River Land Company gave him more trouble than his celebrated military exploit at Ticonderoga. In the latter case, both Jehovah and the Continental Congress were, said he, on his side. In the former business, however, the “whole avaricious, insatiable, and inhuman land-owning class” of York State opposed him. In defying this hideous monster, Colonel Alien, who was seldom at a loss for words, delivered a line that Vermonters, it no others, have quoted often these past 185 years. “Sir,” said he to John Taber Kempe, attorney general for New York, in refusing to compromise on land titles, “Sir, the gods of the hills are not the gods of the valleys.”


It was cryptic. Perhaps it was meaningless. Yet it had that indefinable something about it men remember through generations.

Though in recent times genteel writers have tried to sol’ten somewhat the story of Vermont’s formative years, the record indicates it to have been a rough-and-tumble region and its settlers superbly fitted to live there. The British General Burgoyne remarked of it as a place “which abounds in the most active and rebellious race on the continent.” A little later Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College and the authentic whale of Yankee pedagogs, was appalled almost but not quite beyond words by what he termed the “forester class” in Vermont, meaning the pioneering type, and he urged the founding of a college at Middlebury, hoping it might do something to break these shiftless people of a habit which he called in so many words their “orgies of dram-taking.” Then he went away from there. So did wave upon wave of his shiftless and restless topers.

Unquestionably they were restless, but shiftless was hardly the right word. Jim Fisk made a fortune in New York City. H. A. W. Tabor made another in Colorado. Jehudi Ashmun became “the Father of Liberia.” John Deere went away to put his name on a million plows. Two obscure Vermont preachers founded a beacon light in the West which they named Oberlin, then financed it by making and selling the cooking stoves one of them invented and patented. Joshua Stoddard went away to devise the steam-organ called calliope.

They were not only restless; they came in all styles. Paul Harris of Wallingford founded Rotary International. Sile Doty of St. Albans was, before the James-Younger era, the most energetic and notorious allaround bandit in the United States. Jason Lee founded the first American mission west of the Rockies. Conceived in Grand Isle County, Vermont, and born in Illinois to emigrants William Alonzo Hickok and wife Polly was a son, James, who became Wild Bill the frontier marshal. George Dewey took Manila. Louis Sherry led Manhattan’s wealthy. And Mrs. Stowe declared that her “Simon Legree” was a real person born in Vermont. So were two of Lincoln’s severest critics, Thaddeus Stevens and Stephen Douglas.