2018-02-28 / Front Page

Forgotten history: The Westminster Massacre of 1775


Re-enactors stage a re-enactment of the Westminster Massacre of 1775 for the Westminster Historical Society on Sept. 12, 2015. The 243rd anniversary of the historical event will be March 13.
COURTESY / VIRGINIA LISAIRe-enactors stage a re-enactment of the Westminster Massacre of 1775 for the Westminster Historical Society on Sept. 12, 2015. The 243rd anniversary of the historical event will be March 13. COURTESY / VIRGINIA LISAIWESTMINSTER — Is an obscure event in history important? Two hundred and forty-three years ago on March 13, 1775, two patriots, William French and Daniel Houghton, were shot and killed during a protest occupation of the Westminster Courthouse. The event is interesting to us locally, for sure. And it is certainly one of the steps toward our Revolution.

The Westminster Massacre occurred five years after the famous Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, just over a month before the battles of Lexington and Concord, and a year before 13 colonies declared themselves independent on July 4. 1776.

Noted children’s book author Jessie Haas is a longtime Westminster resident, member of the Historical Society, and also author of two books on the town’s history, “Revolutionary Westminster” and “Township No. One.”

She says, "It did not influence the outcome of the revolution by any means," but it was "a flashpoint."

In response to the Tory posse firing on unarmed protesters, 400 armed militia from surrounding towns, including Col. Bellows leading a contingent from Walpole, New Hampshire, and as far away as Northampton, Massachusetts showed up and arrested the Tories.

Haas says the armed response shows the settlers "were done with it." And, had Lexington and Concord not occurred soon after, this could have been the flashpoint where the revolution "ignited," she added.

Leading up to the massacre, Westminster itself has a history of changing governmental jurisdiction. It began as Township Number One on the Connecticut River, called New Taunton, under the jurisdiction of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1734. Then in 1751, a survey placed it in the New Hampshire Grants with the name Westminster. In 1749, Benning Wentworth, Colonial Governor of New Hampshire, had begun granting townships in present-day Vermont which he claimed as part of his colony.

Colonial Governor George Clinton protested, claiming all the land west of the Connecticut River had been granted to New York in 1664 by Charles II.

All three colonial governments respectively had granted land to settlers in Westminster. The dispute was referred to the King and Parliament in London, and after years of deliberation and debate, George III ruled on July 20, 1764 in favor of New York. Westminster then became part of Cumberland County, New York.

An ambitious New York lawyer, Crean Brush, a Tory loyalist, arrived in 1771. He pushed for and obtained a new charter from New York naming Westminster the county seat and establishing the county Court of Common Pleas there. These moves received a mixed reception, since the majority of the settlers considered themselves New Englanders, not New Yorkers.

The opening of the court session in 1777 set the scene for the Westminster Massacre. Leading up to that session, the Continental Congress had passed Articles of Association in 1774 that were basically a trade embargo against Britain.

New York was the only colony that had not ratified the Articles. People in Westminster, however, had voted to adhere to them. That same year the Massachusetts Farmers’ Rebellion, in reaction to the British closing Boston Harbor and taking over the Massachusetts government, had closed the courts in western Massachusetts. A number of disputes between New York landowners and settlers had led to a number of foreclosure cases being scheduled for the 1775 Westminster court session.

Thomas Chandler, who lived in Chester, was the New York appointed judge for the court. On March 10, 40 men from Rockingham traveled to Chester and asked the judge to cancel the session.

The judge promised to cancel, but instead sent word to Tory authorities. Sheriff Patterson marched north from the Brattleboro area with an armed posse intent on securing and allowing the court session to be held as planned.

Alerted to this, 100 settlers armed only with wooden staves occupied the courthouse the night before the session was to convene. The Tory posse arrived soon after, and a confrontation with gunfire ensued. The protestors were taken into custody and jailed, where French died of his wounds. Houghton died later of his as well.

When the patriot militia showed up the next day, the tables turned. The Tories were taken into custody without incident, and the protesters were freed. The Tories were transported to Northampton. They were later transferred to Albany, where a New York Court set them free. The Cumberland County Court in Westminster never convened again.

The spirit of independence continued in Westminster. Crean Brush got New York to vote funds to put down the "rebellion." Westminster and Cumberland County citizens met on April 11 and voted to resist the New York government.

But following the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 19, New York joined the rest of the colonies in the revolution. In January 1777, representatives from all over present-day Vermont met at the Westminster Courthouse and declared Vermont independent and free of all outside rule.

The following June, representatives met in a tavern in Windsor and established a formal republic. And for that reason Windsor claims to be the "birthplace of Vermont." Haas, and a lot of Westminster residents, aren't so sure it shouldn’t be their town instead.

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