Why Did They Go Away?


Whether or not the characteristic restlessness of Vermonters is wholly environmental or is due in part to heredity is for the many experts to settle. In any case their yeasting had become, by the middle of the last century, something of a scandal. Writing then of Yankee emigration in the Hartford Courant , an observer discussed the large numbers of natives who had been leaving the New England states. One by one he ticked them off, the figures of the émigrés growing greater and hence more disheartening as Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut passed in review. Then he came to Vermont. One can almost see and hear him, this reviewer of shame, as he girded his loins to tackle the “most active and rebellious race on the continent”; and fancy the emotion in his pen as he went on to write that the figures quoted for the other five commonwealths paled to nothing compared to what had been going on in the Green Mountains. That is, in proportion. Almost half of the living natives of Vermont, said he, were living elsewhere than at home—53,000 in York State, 15,000 in Ohio, 12,000 each in Illinois and Michigan, almost as many in Wisconsin. And God alone, he went on, and certainly not the immigration authorities, knew how many Vermont people had moved into the provinces of upper and lower Canada.

Vermont is a four-season state

The exodus did not end in 1850. It continued briskly enough to 1890, a decade in which Vermont’s population increase was less than one-tenth of one per cent, indicating, when births and deaths and immigration were taken into consideration, a still notable departure of natives. By 1900 there were 343,641 people living in Vermont, and the saying was current that the state had more cows than people. This wasn’t quite true, but it was near enough.

Why they went away is something not to be learned in a moment, or charted in a graph. The reasons were almost as many as there were emigrants. A mortgage, a death, a fire—these were things not found in the record of the movements of peoples. The conventional reasons usually cited include the Year of No Summer, which was 1816; the more or less organized excitements of religious sects: and the great Merino Sheep Mania. This latter item deserves capitals. Raising sheep demanded more pasture than was readily available. Hill farms were bought by the sheepmen and turned into range; and the hill farmers went away. Go look at the maps prepared by Louis Stilwell to show what happened to the sheep towns. They have never recovered from the blight of the Merino boom which collapsed suddenly but not soon enough. Many thousands of Vermonters left home while their hills tinkled with the belled music occasioned by 1,700,000 sheep eating the life’s blood out of fields and wood lots. The same land had supported the people who laid those uncounted miles of stone fence, who fought New York and wolves, the British and Congress, and wallowed in snow up to their ears, establishing meanwhile the first American state whose constitution expressly forbade that a man should be held in bondage against his will.

Thousands more left home for a reason that the academic sociologists will not recognize. This was the identical reason that had brought their fathers to Vermont in the first place, namely a devoutly held belief that the grass was greener on the other side of the mountain. They had, in short, become professional pioneers, the sort of people destined almost never to be the oldest living citizens of a given community. “Man moves with the sun,” declared Thoreau. He was three-quarters wrong. Vermonters crossed two mountain ranges to settle Maine. They moved in droves to the eastern townships of Quebec. They went in organized groups to Tennessee and Carolina. They helped to drive Indians out of Michigan so they might found Vermontville in the midst of 5,000 acres of fine rock (sugar) maples; went on to build a few cabins in Iowa and call them Burlington; then walked across the Great American Desert to Oregon.

The coming of the new steam cars did nothing to halt emigration. It merely changed local conditions. The steam cars tended to concentrate population along the tracks. Elsewhere the villages started to fade and with them went the many little water-driven mills and factories that had been making textiles, flour, clothing, clocks, calf-weaners, and numerous things in the nature of Yankee notions. Maple sugar continued to be the chief source of income of a large part of the rural population.