Vermont's Boundaries and Political Divisions
Words to Know
county seat or shire town
The boundaries of Vermont were not always the same as they are today. The region we now call Vermont was once a vast, forested wilderness. It was home to different native American tribes or peoples, including the Abnaki. The American Indians did not establish borders the way we do today. Instead they had hunting and fishing territories that they used during the different seasons.
The Green Mountain region was later claimed at different times by France, England, the Dutch, New York, New Hampshire, and even Massachusetts. There were many disputes and changing boundaries. New Hampshire's famous royal Governor, Benning Wentworth, granted about 128 towns in the region. Only five present-day Vermont towns were granted by New York. New York also tried to establish counties in the Green Mountain territory to help administer the courts. It was the dispute with New York over land that made Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys famous. Ethan and his brother, Ira Allen, helped establish Vermont as an independent republic in 1777, one year after the American colonies claimed their independence. Only Vermont and Texas were independent republics before they became states.
By this time many Vermont towns had already been granted by New York's Governor Colden or New Hampshire's Governor Wentworth. They covered much of the fertile valley land in the state. Vermont began issuing charters for new towns. A grant or charter was the document that created a new town, city, or other place. Vermont issued about 128 charters for land not already granted by New Hampshire or New York. Vergennes was chartered as Vermont's first city in 1788. Some old mountain towns like Sterling, Mansfield, and Philadelphia never prospered, so they were split up and annexed (made part of) already existing towns. Small tracts of land called gores were also granted. Like some of the mountain towns, most of these small places were annexed to existing towns. Gores were often given to neighboring towns. That is how some towns got their odd shapes or became larger than others. Today, political divisions in Vermont include counties, towns, gores, and other places.
See a chart of how Vermont is split up.
Counties in Vermont
In 1778 Vermont had only two counties, Bennington and Cumberland. Each was divided into two smaller shires. As the population grew and settlers moved northward, new, smaller counties were carved out of the larger existing ones. By the 1800's there were eleven counties in the state. In 1802 Grand Isle County was established, becoming the smallest county. In 1810 Jefferson County was formed, but was renamed Washington County in 1814. In 1835 Vermont's last county, Lamoille, was formed from the surrounding counties along the upper Lamoille River.
A county seat or shire town was chosen for every county. Often it was a town that was near the center of the county, like Newfane in Windham County. That way all of the people living in the surrounding towns could get to that town easily. The county courthouse, the jail, and other important buildings were located in the shire town. Because it was an important place, many towns wanted to become the county seat. Sometimes large or important towns or cities became the county seat, like St. Albans in Franklin County. One county, Bennington, has two shires. They are Bennington and Manchester. Perhaps this was due to Bennington County's long shape and larger size.
Vermont presently has 14 counties. Some are large and have many towns and cities like Rutland County. Others are small like Grand Isle which is made of only 5 towns. We have used county maps in this book to help illustrate different geographical ideas. Counties are a kind of region, marked out on the landscape by people. Like the physiographic regions, counties break the state down into smaller areas that are easier to look at and study. Many of Vermont's county boundaries follow topographic features (mountains, streams, lakes). Counties or other political divisions created by humans on maps may also be considered a kind of region.
Find out what Vermont's Largest Towns are by clicking here!
Find out more about Vermont's Counties!
Towns in Vermont
In many places in the United States, the county is the basic political division or unit. In New England, however, the town is the most important unit of local government. In Vermont most government decisions are made at the state, city, town, and even the village level, but not at the county level. The State of Vermont has the power to charter or create towns, cities, villages, and other places in Vermont. It also has the power to change or take away the charter for a place. Cities and towns usually handle issues like schools and roads. The chart at the top of the page outlines the different levels of political divisions within the State of Vermont.
Vermont has 255 political units, or "places". This includes 237 towns, 9 cities, 5 unorganized towns, and 4 gores. The map of Vermont shows all 255 of Vermont's towns, cities, and other places. Within each of these places there are any number of larger urban areas, villages, and small localities.
Vermont presently has 237 organized towns. They were granted or chartered by New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. Each town has its own local government. Most towns were granted six miles by six miles square. Towns that were granted later were sometimes smaller than average, like Whiting or Stannard. Other towns had land added to them after they were granted and are very large, like Stowe or Chittenden. Some towns, first granted as one town, were later split into two. Burlington and South Burlington are one example; Windsor and West Windsor are another.
Vermont has nine cities. Some of these cities are large and others are small. A place does not become a city just because it has a large population. The state issues a charter to cities, towns, and villages in Vermont. Each city in Vermont, except for Vergennes, was formed from part of another town. Rutland City, for example, was once part of Rutland town.
Vermont has five political units known as unorganized towns. Glastenbury and Somerset, in the southern part of the state, are two unorganized towns that were once organized towns. In other words, they each had a local government and provided services to the people living there, just like other towns in Vermont. The other three unorganized towns are Averill, Ferdinand, and Lewis in Essex County. They are also called townships, because unlike Glastenbury and Somerset, they have never had a large enough population to be organized into towns. All five towns today have few or no permanent residents.
Finally, Vermont has four gores. They are Buels Gore in Chittenden County, and Averys Gore, Warren Gore, and Warners Grant in Essex County. These gores of land are in very mountainous parts of the state and have little or no population. They were called gores because they were often triangular in shape, being small, "leftover" pieces of land. Gores were created when Vermont's square-shaped towns (usually six miles by six miles) were mapped on the curved surface of the earth. In early Vermont, this was done by surveyors like Ira Allen and James Whitelaw.
In Vermont there are about 49 villages, like Essex Junction and Manchester, for example, that are incorporated. That means the village is organized and has its own government within the town. The village provides services like police, a fire department, and others. In the last few years some small villages like Randolph, Plainfield, and Proctorsville have merged back together with their town to help give better services to the people living there.
There are other large places or municipalities within certain towns like Bennington, Brattleboro, and St. Johnsbury that are called urban compacts. Urban compacts are similar to villages, but they are not chartered as such by the state. They sometimes form a school district or other municipal district, much like incorporated villages. Most importantly, they provide services to the people who live in them.
There are hundreds of other small places, or localities, across Vermont. Small clusters of houses or village crossroads are often named on the map of the state. While all of these small localities or places may not be as well known as Vermont's larger villages or cities, they are all important to local people who live and work there every day.
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