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History Corner: A Fraught First Winter in Montpelier

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Montpelier historian Daniel Pierce Thompson.

We don’t know much about the first winter passed by Montpelier’s first permanent settlers, but we do know 1787–88 was so snowy it stranded part of a family for months. The family, headed by Revolutionary War Colonel Jacob Davis, was stationed in Brookfield, Vermont, as they incrementally moved from Massachusetts beginning in 1787. Davis had previously joined 60 other people to charter Montpelier in 1781. But when he was ready to settle a few years later, the land was still wilderness. Davis’s wife (Rebecca), sons (Jacob and Thomas), and five daughters (Susannah, Rebecca, Mary “Polly,” Hannah, and Lucy) needed food and shelter, so he headed to their land in spring with his sons and nephew, Parley Davis, to make it liveable. 

He left his wife and five daughters in Brookfield, according to Daniel P. Thompson in his “History of the town of Montpelier, from the time it was first chartered in 1781 to the year 1860.” (Davis’s sixth daughter, Clarissa, was the first baby born in Montpelier in 1789). The men cleared the land, tilled for planting, and by late fall had built a log cabin, Thompson writes. They harvested the first crop and headed back to Brookfield — the closest settled town. Brookfield was then a wayside  stop for many settlers on their way north via a trail near the west side of Berlin Pond, according to Edson Bigelow in his “Old Roads” book.

As for what happened next, Thompson writes, “Colonel Davis gave up work for the season, and, with his sons, returned to Brookfield, for the purpose of getting the family in readiness for removal, and then removing them all, with their goods, with the fall of the first snow of a depth sufficient to make passable sledding.” Enough snow fell in December, so Jacob Jr., 19, and Thomas Davis, 15, brought their two sisters, Rebecca, 17, and Polly, 14, and as much furniture as they could carry. Thomas then stayed in the rustic Montpelier shelter with his sisters while Jacob Jr. went back to Brookfield for another trip. However, a “series of blocking snowstorms” prevented other family members from joining them until March, the following year. So from December through March, Thompson tells us, Thomas, Rebecca, and Polly anxiously stayed at the cabin without seeing another human until the rest of the family could travel.