By Julia Purdy
On Sunday, July 18, the state of Vermont formally acknowledged Vermonters’ first defiant bid for autonomy, an incident now referred to locally as the “Breakenridge Standoff.” Two-and-a-half centuries ago in July 1771, settlers in Bennington stood up to a sheriff’s posse from New York Province sent to deliver a notice of eviction on farmer James Breakenridge from his own deeded homestead. This was not the first challenge, nor would it be the last.
In the well-attended ceremony hosted by the Bennington Historical Society, Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, presented a proclamation from the Vermont Legislature hailing the standoff as the spark that ignited the settlers’ opposition to outside control, a first step on the long road to the creation of the state of Vermont. Included in the ceremony was recognition of the Vermont National Guard, some of whose members were present.
Chief Master Sgt. Adrianne Schulz, the mission group superintendent for the 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont Air National Guard, spoke, remarking that today’s national guard is the direct descendant of the early colonial militias. The Vermont National Guard is still known as the Green Mountain Boys, after the independent, grassroots regiment that formed to support Vermont’s struggle for independence.
Reenactors in period dress represented both sides of the controversy, including a red-coated sheriff and his “Yorker” posse, the home-grown militia that later became the Green Mountain Boys, and Whitcomb’s Rangers, who conducted espionage for the Continental Army.
The day included tables interpreting the material culture of the 18th century frontier, from medicines to muskets. The Crown Point Road Association and the Descendants of the Green Mountain Boys were also on hand to answer questions.
The ceremony culminated with a skit depicting the confrontation at the James Breakenridge cabin in present-day North Bennington. Breakenridge’s house, now gone, stood up the road, not far from the home of Seth Warner, the first commander of the local militia.
Following the ceremony, visitors were invited to a walking tour along the road to the cabin site, led by Bob Hoar, a local historian and docent with roots in Bennington, who founded the Friends of the Bennington Battlefield and coined the term “Vermont’s Boston Tea Party” to describe the Breakenridge Standoff.
At stake were the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of settlers who had held deeds under New Hampshire land grants issued by New Hampshire’s royal governor, Benning Wentworth, between 1749 and 1764. His surprisingly modern vision was to establish self-sufficient, well-organized towns, governed by the residents themselves. Each Wentworth charter called for an annual town meeting in March — still our practice today — as well as providing for civic life: schools, church and market days.
Until this time, the territory between the Connecticut River and the Hudson was inhabited only by Western Abenaki groups. But the early Crown Point Military Road had opened a corridor through it, and Wentworth seized the potential. It was not until homesteads were settled and land was cleared and productive under New Hampshire, that New York suddenly remembered an ancient royal land grant that included the New Hampshire territory, and moved to seize the so-called Grants, by force if necessary. The freeholders would become little better than vassals of wealthy landlords; anyone who resisted was regarded as a squatter and the penalty was eviction and a steep fine.
After settlers’ unsuccessful attempts to appeal in the court at Albany, Breakenridge’s farm became a test case for New Hampshire resolve, the first collective action of the Green Mountain Boys grassroots militia.