The Historical Geography of Vermont

This chapter is broken up into three main sections

Vermont's East and West Unions  

Montpelier: Capital of Vermont

Vermont Place Names

Vermont's East and West Unions

Words to Know

- historical geography

- annex

- disband


            Historical geography is the study of places and how they have changed over time.  As you read earlier, the boundaries of Vermont have not always been the same as they are today.  You also learned how New Hampshire and New York both tried to claim the Vermont territory as part of their own states.  These two states once thought of dividing the state in two--right in half down the peaks of the Green Mountains!


            We also know the towns along the Connecticut River in both Vermont and New Hampshire were much the same.  Their settlers came from the same places in southern New England and they shared the same culture.  Some settlers even wanted to have their own state centered in the Connecticut River Valley.  Its capital would have been Dresden, an old town where Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, is located today.


            In turn, Vermont tried to annex towns from New Hampshire and New York.  In 1778 seventeen New Hampshire towns, including Dresden, joined the Vermont Republic.  This was known as the first East Union.  Ethan and Ira Allen helped to break up this East Union in 1779.  Later in 1781 Vermont tried to annex more towns from both New Hampshire and New York.  This second East Union with New Hampshire towns and the West Union with New York lasted until 1782.  In 1781 the Vermont General Assembly even met across the river in what is today Charlestown, New Hampshire.  General Washington himself asked Governor Chittenden to disband the unions and that was done in 1782 by the Vermont General Assembly.


Map of Vermont's East and West Unions


The map of Vermont from 1781 to 1782 shows how different Vermont once looked.  All of these New Hampshire and New York towns were, for a short time, part of Vermont.  There was even a new Vermont county called Washington County.  The East and West Unions are just one example of Vermont's interesting historical geography.


Click here for an exercise dealing with this map! 




Montpelier:  Capital of Vermont


Words to Know

- neutral

- bicameral


            Montpelier was not always the capital of Vermont.  At first, the Vermont General Assembly met only once every two years.  Many of the first meetings were held in Windsor, Bennington, Rutland, and other towns.  In 1781 when certain towns from New Hampshire formed the second Eastern Union with Vermont, the General Assembly even met once in what is today Charlestown, New Hampshire.



Look at the map which shows the places where the General Assembly met in different years.  Look at the dates and notice the locations of the different towns.  Can you see how they moved to the north year by year?


     The capital of the state also shifted between towns east and west of the Green Mountains each time the General Assembly met.  Travel across the mountains was hard in these early years.  By shifting east and west the difficulty was shared by towns on both sides of the state.  This lasted for almost 30 years.  This idea of sharing political power was called the "mountain rule."


            It was soon felt that a permanent site for the General Assembly was needed.  Burlington was one town considered for the location.  People in Randolph thought that their town would be a good place for the capital of Vermont.  Randolph was a pretty town and it was also located near the middle of the state.


            In 1805 the General Assembly chose Montpelier as the new seat of the state government.  Montpelier was located near the center of the state and afforded easy travel along the Winooski River valley.  Because it had only a few settlers, it was neutral politically and the General Assembly had never met there before.  The local residents raised $8,000.00 for a new state house and Thomas Davis, the son of the first settler in town, donated the land.  The new building was finished in 1808.  That year Montpelier was made the permanent capital of Vermont.


            By 1826 it was clear that the original wooden State House was too small.  In 1831 it was agreed that a new statehouse should be built.  The idea of a different location for the capital was still alive.  Montpelier, Burlington, Woodstock, Windsor, Rutland, Middlebury, and Randolph were all interested in the honor.  After much debate, Montpelier was again chosen.  The work was begun in 1833 and the new state house was completed by 1837.  This second State House burned while it was being heated for a special session of the General Assembly in the winter of 1857.  The third and present capitol building was completed in 1859.


The Vermont State House Today.

            The State House is a fascinating place to visit and learn about.  The Vermont State House is one of only thirteen in the United States with a genuine gold dome.  The statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, sits atop the great gold dome.  Outside on the front steps is a statue of Ethan Allen, carved from Danby marble.  Inside there are many great works of art and some of the state's historic treasures.


            The State House offices include the Governor's Reception Room and the Governor's Office, which is used when the legislature is in session and for ceremonial occasions.  The State House is also where the Vermont State Legislature meets.  Officially known as the General Assembly, it meets every year from January to about mid-April.  It is a bicameral legislature, which means there are two houses.  They are the Senate and the House of Representatives.


            If you ever visit the State House in Montpelier, you will receive a welcome from the Sergeant of Arms, as well as a pamphlet with more information about the architecture and history of this important building.


Click here for questions on the capitals map:
Web Version
    Word Version     



Vermont Place Names


Words to Know

- descriptive

- origin

 - patriotic

- nationalistic


            In addition to the better-known towns, cities, and villages, there are many small localities around the state with sometimes unusual and always interesting place names.  There are places such as Adamant, Blissville, Birdland, Beartown, Goose Green, and Peach Four Corners, not to mention Jerusalem, Brimstone Corner, Podunk, Egypt, Mosquitoville, and Moscow!


            Place names can be mixed up and funny!  Take, for example, the names South Northfield and Westminster West.  Names that include a compass direction in them (north, south, east, or west) are called descriptive place names, because they tell the relative location of a place.  Relative location is the location of one place in relation to another.  For example, South Strafford is south of Strafford village.  Names with the word "center" in them also show the location of a place in relation to other places in the town.  Randolph Center, for example, is near the center of the town of Randolph.


            Some place names were completely made up or manufactured.  The town of Vershire was named by people who wanted to show the close friendship between New Hampshire and Vermont towns in the Connecticut River Valley.  So the Vershire name was formed by combining Vermont and New Hampshire.


            A large number of names for Vermont towns came to be when towns were divided or new ones were created.  For example, when Burlington became a city in 1864, the remaining portion of the town became South Burlington.  That was also the case when Montpelier was created, leaving the town of East Montpelier.  West Haven, West Fairlee, and West Windsor all came into being when they were split from the original towns of the same name.


            Many Vermont town names sound like names in England.  These place names were brought to Vermont by settlers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.  Others were given by New Hampshire's royal governor, Benning Wentworth.  These names came from England to southern New England and then to Vermont.


            There are also French names in Vermont.  Grand Isle, Isle La Motte, Danville, St. Johnsbury, and Vergennes are all French in origin.  It is also thought that the name Vermont was of French origin.  Les Monts Verts means "green mountains."  It is possible that a close friend of the Allens from Salisbury, Connecticut, Dr. Thomas Young, may have suggested the Vermont name.  No one is really sure, however, where the name of Vermont came from.


            Foreign sounding names like Peru, Eden, Athens, and Berlin were popular in early Vermont.  Perhaps the early settlers thought that an exotic sounding name would help their town grow and prosper.  Names from biblical lands were also popular as town names.  Some examples include Jericho, Goshen, Corinth, and Sharon.


            Other town names were given for famous people and for some of Vermont's great heroes.  These are called patriotic or nationalistic place names.  The Allens have a number of towns named after them.  They include Ira and Irasburg, North and South Hero (once called "Two Heroes" after Ethan and Ira Allen), and Alburg (once called Allensburg).  Chittenden County and the town of Chittenden were both named for Vermont's first governor, Thomas Chittenden of Arlington and Williston.  An old East Union county, a present Vermont county, and town of Washington were all named for George Washington, our first President.  Washington County was originally named Jefferson County from 1810-1814, after President Thomas Jefferson.


            Tiny Warners Grant in Essex County was granted to the widow of Seth Warner, who led the Vermont troops at the Battle of Hubbardton.  Starksboro takes its name from General John Stark of New Hampshire.  General Stark and Seth Warner led the troops in the Battle of Bennington in 1777.


            The town of Jay was named for John Jay and the town of Norton was at first named Hamilton after Alexander Hamilton.  These two great men from New York were representatives to the Continental Congress.  They helped Vermont to become the fourteenth state in 1791, the first state to join the thirteen original colonies.


            Two of Vermont's smallest and youngest towns took their names from famous Vermonters.  Stannard was named in 1867 after General George Stannard of St. Albans, a hero at the Battle of Gettysburg.  The town of Proctor took its name from the Proctor marble family.  The family produced four Vermont governors, including Redfield Proctor.


            Place names are not always what they may seem to be!  Franklin County was named after the great statesman Benjamin Franklin, but the town was not.  The town, once called Huntsburg, took its name from the county, hoping that it would become the county seat instead of St. Albans.  Another example is the town of Lincoln.  It was not named for President Lincoln as one might first think.  The town was settled much earlier and named after General Benjamin Lincoln, a Revolutionary War hero.


            To make matters even more confusing, there are four cities that have the same name as the town.  They are Newport, St. Albans, Rutland, and Barre.  Place names may sometimes be confusing, but they are always fun and interesting.  We can learn a great deal about the history, politics, and geography of a place by studying place names.


Click here for an activity on the place names of Vermont