by Karen Mecartney Joyce
Independence Day in Peacham is celebrated the same way the Fourth of July is acknowledged in small towns across the country — flag-waving, a tractor parade, games, contra dancing and a pig roast. But unlike most typical small towns, the year of America’s independence holds special significance for Peacham. As a sign in the middle of the village proclaims, Peacham was settled in 1776. Jonathan Elkins holds the honor of being the first settler.
Peacham’s beginnings go back to 1763, when Gov. Wentworth of New Hampshire granted proprietorship over Peacham to land speculators from Hadley, Massachusetts. Town lines were drawn, but the speculators did not develop the land. Border disputes between New York and New Hampshire made the validity of proprietorships granted during that period questionable, an issue that was not completely resolved until Vermont was granted statehood in 1791, years after the first settlers arrived.
On the edge of the frontier at the cusp of the Revolution, Peacham’s settlement was like that of many towns of the time, its early years and the lives of its settlers shaped by the war. In fact, according to Ernest Bogart, author of “Peacham: The Story of a Vermont Hill Town,” had it not been for the war, Frye Bailey, rather than Jonathan Elkins, might have been honored as the first settler.
Just down the road from the parade route, the Elkins Tavern, built by Jonathan Elkins in 1787, is the oldest house in Peacham. However, Frye Bailey, not Elkins, built the first house in Peacham in 1776. Bailey’s plan to move his family into the house early in 1776 was initially delayed, and ultimately not carried out. At the behest of an uncle living in Newbury, Vermont, Bailey and four companions travelled to Montreal in February 1776 to carry dispatches to General Wooster. When Bailey returned he “killed four moose,” and went to his Peacham house, but never moved in. Instead, he joined the fighting forces as a scout, serving also as a Minuteman and guard. He eventually settled in Newbury after completing his military service.
Bailey’s change of plans made way for Elkins and his family to be the first to settle in Peacham. Like Bailey, Elkins had also built a log house in Peacham, and moved there with his son in March 1776, followed by his family in July. Two more families settled in Peacham that year and three the next. The war slowed the town’s growth, so by 1780 there were just 13 settlers.
Bailey and Elkins were among a group of five settlers who “made pitches of lots” in the town in September 1774. As it turned out, Elkins was the only one of the original five to settle in the town, 13 years after Peacham’s inception.
Clustered in the village and along the Fourth of July parade route, some of Peacham’s earliest homes are marked with the names of their original owners. Vastly different from these permanent structures, the first homes of Bailey and Elkins were basic and temporary structures built from logs and bark. They were small and rough, but serviceable until replaced with permanent structures.
Neither Peacham nor Elkins were immune from the impact of the war. Running through Peacham, and under construction during the period, the well-known Bayley-Hazen Road was intended as a supply road between Newbury, Vermont, and St. John, Quebec, during the Revolutionary War. Although neither completed nor used as a military road, the Bayley-Hazen became an important route for commerce. Development continued along it after the war, connecting Peacham to the north, south and west.
Military operations shifted after the Battle of Bennington, leaving the Bayley-Hazen Road incomplete, and settlers vulnerable to attack from both the north and from Indians. Although such threats were felt in Peacham, the town was never attacked.
The first settlers handled threats by building stockades, sounding alarms, and in a case involving Elkins, the burial of a barrel of rum. The story is that Elkins kept a barrel of rum in his house. With threats of an Indian attack he was advised to bury the barrel, because, he was told, if Indians thought there was rum in the house they would kill everyone and take it. So, with the help of other settlers, Elkins filled bottles with rum and buried the barrel in the cellar, retrieving it only after the perceived threat was over, the event perhaps foretelling his future as a tavern owner.
Elkins himself, however, did not fare as well as his rum. Awakened in 1781 by a houseful of British soldiers, Elkins was taken prisoner. He was removed to England, where he remained until released about a year later in a prisoner exchange. After his release Elkins returned to Peacham.
Although tiny, Peacham provided support for troops and contributed to defense as it could, giving both men and supplies. When, in 1777, towns were asked to send half of their men to serve, Peacham sent two, undoubtedly a sacrifice for the small settlement. Over the course of the war, 23 Peacham residents served as soldiers. Eight are buried in graves in Peacham’s oldest cemeteries.
Perhaps few will be thinking of them, but it seems fitting that the multi-generational tractor riders, on vehicles ranging from modern to antique, pass the same way as those first settlers. The festivities serve as a striking acknowledgement of Peacham’s settlement in 1776 and the part the town played in America’s independence.