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History Corner: Lawless Days in Early Montpelier

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The settlement of Montpelier went through huge changes between the first white encampments of the 1780s and the early 1800s. After that, it became Vermont’s center of government (the Statehouse was built here in 1808). But before the railroad came, Montpelier was burgeoning with activity. Historian Daniel P. Thompson paints a picture based on interviews with those who lived here at the time of a prosperous, bustling commercial center briefly overtaken by raucous and criminal behavior. 

A new county was created for Montpelier and surrounding towns in 1810, eked out of lower Chittenden, southwest Caledonia, and northwest Orange. First named Jefferson County when the Democratic Party dominated the Legislature, it became Washington County under the Federalists in 1814 and stayed so. Trades that took root included book, stationary, and grocery stores, a tannery, a cotton factory, a woolen mill, clothing works, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, mechanics, and shops to meet the wants anyone could have.

Without the connection of the railroad, Thompson writes that Montpelier attracted merchants and tradesmen (and others) from over 20 miles in each direction. 

“It attracted honest tradesmen,” Thompson writes, but also those who came to Montpelier to “make enough to indulge in depraved appetites.” 

Thompson defines the depravity — which led to the “rapid process of moral deterioration” — as occurring around 1800 to 1830 with the rise of taverns that became gathering places. This led to idleness, money spending, and “all sorts of dissipation,” including rum drinking, and with it, increased street “broils.” Also common in the village were acrimonious quarrels, gambling, and unscrupulous men taking inappropriate physical advantage of unsophisticated and unsuspecting young women. Also during this time, villagers “desecrated” the Sabbath with horse racing, amusements, visiting, and pleasure parties.

This led to some townspeople forming church groups to try and counter the situation by inviting Rev. Chester Wright to preach at the Congregational church. Thompson says the church had about 30 members when he arrived, but enthusiasm for Wright’s oration inspired more people to join the church and a host of other religious revivals. Sabbath schools and societies for “benevolent purposes” were formed, and “the animal enjoyments” gave way to “quiet, virtuous and rational recreations.” So, during this golden era of trade in Montpelier, as Thompson calls it, the “refined and intellectual” prevailed over the “rough and sensual”  — at least for the time being.