The charter question: Wentworth, Chandler and Chester’s confounding founding history


Editor’s note: We undertook this explainer to attempt to clarify why some people say Chester’s 250th was in 2011 and others say it is in 2016. The issue has arisen because the Chester Historical Society is seeking $15,000 from the town to mount a re-enactor event among others as part of 2016 festivities. You can read that story here. (Scroll into the story to read it.)

By Shawn Cunningham
The reason that there’s a question about the year in which Chester was founded is because it was chartered three times. That explains a lot about how Vermont became Vermont.

Portrait of Governor Benning Wentworth (1760) by Joseph Blackburn. Are those charters in his back pocket?

Portrait of Governor Benning Wentworth (1760) by Joseph Blackburn. Are those charters in his back pocket?

The first charter – called Flamstead – was made by New Hampshire royal Gov. Benning Wentworth in 1754, at the height of the French and Indian War. Since no one wanted to move into a wilderness that was also a war zone, that charter “failed.”

Wentworth issued many charters, for which he was paid in land and cash. But his actions violated the guidelines of the Crown.  But it was war time and the British, needing to keep its colonies happy, turned a blind eye to Wentworth’s activities.

In 1761, he went overboard, issuing charters up and down the territory between New Hampshire and New York. Included in these was a charter for New Flamstead, which might have ended up like the first Flamstead, except Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended the war and made settling the area more attractive.

By 1764, several families – including Thomas Chandler Sr. and his sons John and Thomas, Jabez Sargeant Sr., Edward Johnson, Isaiah Johnson, Charles May and William Warner – had moved to the area and started a settlement. (The first child of the settlement – Thomas Chester Chandler — had been born the day after Christmas 1763.)  Then in 1764, George III proclaimed the border between New York and New Hampshire to be the Connecticut River, but never mentioned the Wentworth charters – apparently leaving them intact.

In 1766, New York, looking for a piece of the action, proclaimed that all the Wentworth towns needed to pay for confirming charters or lose the right to their land. This angered many and lead – in time – to the creation of the Green Mountain Boys to fight off “Yorker” aggression. But Chandler, sensing an opportunity, hurried off to New York to pay for a charter, and returned holding  a charter for the newly named Chester. While in New York, he had also arranged to be appointed to the position of justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas.

New York was unable to enforce its land claims in what some called “New Connecticut” due to ruthless badgering by forces under Ethan Allen and, as time passed, the Revolutionary War pushed such concerns to the side. In 1777, Vermont (dropping the New Connecticut moniker) formed a republic and in 1779 Thomas Chandler successfully petitioned the Vermont Legislature to recognize the 1761 Wentworth as the governing charter but to change the name from “New Flamstead” to Chester. When the war ended, Vermont was precluded from entering the United States by New York’s land claim. This was settled with a $30,000 payment for which New York gave up all claims in Vermont.

There were significant differences between the 1761 and 1766 charters and the town of Chester has defended the 1761 founding document up to the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled in 1998 in Galkin v. Chester that “Wentworth II” is the governing charter. This is the date emblazoned on the signs that welcome visitors, on the town’s annual report and on the front wall of Town Hall.

Shawn Cunningham has been a history museum curator and administrator with the H.L. Mencken House, the B&O Railroad Museum and the Baltimore Civil War Museum at President Street Station. He attended the Colonial Williamsburg Seminar for Historical Administration and volunteered as a grant reviewer for the Institute of Museum Services and as a surveyor for the Museum Assessment Program. He is the author of two books – on railroad and on civil war history – and has written for Museum News.

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  1. Katherine says:

    I thought there should be a 250 year celebration back in 2011, but was told that the 1761 year was incorrect …. thanks for clearing it all up! Guess we missed an opportunity for a huge party!