These towns are the only ones in the
state which were settled by colonies from beyond the Atlantic, and Ryegate
is unique among all New England towns in that its affairs were, during
some years, regulated by an association of farmers and artizans in far-off
Scotland. Its history, therefore, must be very different from its
neighboring communities, which were settled by immigrants from the older
towns along the sea coast, who were, themselves, descended from the
earliest settlers of New England.
In many things this colony was
unique. Upon those who formed it the Church of Scotland had laid the
strong hand of her faith, and the Presbyterian form of belief and practice
is held, almost without dissent, by their children.
It is the purpose of this work to
consider the reasons which induced the first settlers of Ryegate to leave
Scotland; the organization through which the land was selected, divided,
and governed during some years, the toils and privations of the colonists
and their ultimate prosperity, to give the history of its institutions and
gather the annals of its families.
In the first place it is necessary
to give some account of the region in which it lies, and what we know
about its history before its settlement. It occupies the southeastern
corner of Caledonia County, and is separated by Connecticut River from
Bath in New Hampshire. South lies Newbury, in Orange County, and west and
north are Groton and Barnet. The soil of Ryegate is not excelled in
fertility by that of any other town in New England, and the town has
always ranked high in the amount and value of its agricultural products,
especially those of the dairy. The underlying rock is granite, with
limestone alternations, and the town lies in a strip of Iand which extends
through Barnet, Peacham and Danville, and is considered by eminent
geological authority to be the most productive section east of the Hudson.
It is watered by brooks which flow into the Connecticut, or into its
tributary stream called Wells River. In the center of the town, in the
midst of rolling uplands, lies the hamlet of Ryegate Corner. North of it,
to the height of 2192 feet above sea level, rises Blue Mountain, its
southerly side scarred by quarries. South Ryegate and East Ryegate,
several miles apart, are thriving villages along its borders. A few small
ponds surrounded by romantic scenery, are found in different parts of the
All over the town, among the hills
and upon the uplands, white houses and huge barns evince the taste and
prosperity of its inhabitants.
This is the Ryegate that we know.
But Ryegate, when first called by that name, was an unbroken wildernesss,
without a clearing of any kind, or roads or paths, except those made by
Indian feet. Could one have stood on Blue Mountain then, he would have
seen only a vast forest, stretching as far as the eye could reach, with
the chain of mountain peaks rising in the east. It formed a part of the
wilderness which lay between the English colonies, and the French
settlements along the Saint Lawrence, and we do not know whether its first
white visitors were French or English.
Those who have devoted much time in
studying Indian history and traditions are of opinion that this part of
New England was never the pemanent abode of any large tribe of Indians,
but that it was neutral ground lying between the tribes along the Atlantic
coast, and the nations of tlle interior. It is known, however, that from
time immemorial, parties from different tribes visited the great meadows
of Newbury and Haverhill, which they had cleared, and where they raised
corn in their rude fashion.
The section of the Connecticut
valley between Orford and the mouth of the Ammonoosuc, was called coos or
Kohass, and a similar tract near Lancaster and Guildhall was called by the
same name, and these sections were distinguished by the titles of the
Lower and Upper Coos. There is much difference of opinion as to the
precise meaning of the name.
To reach these cleared intervales
there were paths or trails which led to the distant Indian towns or
hunting grounds. One of these trails came up from the Merrimac Valley,
following very nearly the course of the railroad from Plymouth to
Haverhill. Another lay along the Connecticut. According to the best
authorities there was a famous trail which left the great river at the
mouth of Wells River, held a northerly course, and divided into two
branches about where Ryegate Corner is now. One of these trails went north
through Peacham, Walden and Greensboro to the head waters of the Lamoille,
and the celebrated Hazen
Road followed its general course.
The other branch took its way over the high lands west to the Winooski
Valley. There is a very ancient map which gives the general course of both
the Connecticut and Wells Rivers, with the line of this trail and says,
"Along this route many captives have been carried to Canada." The famous
Indian scout known as Indian Joe or Joe Indian, who lived at Newbury, and
whose grave in the Oxbow cemetery there is suitably marked, knew all the
trails well, and much of the little we really know about them, came
through those who knew him. He died in 1819. Joe’s Pond and Brook in Cabot
and Danville perpetuate his name, and Molly’s Pond and Brook that of his
These trails existed from time
immemorial, and the principal ones were so much traveled that they could
be easily followed. It will help us to understand this subject to study
the journal of Capt. Benjamin Wright, who commanded an expedition which
passed through Ryegate in 1725.
JOURNAL OF CAPT. BENJAMIN WRIGHT.
A true journal of our march from
Northfield to Messiscouh Bay under ye command of Benj. Wright, captain,
began July 27 Ano Dom., 1725.
July 27. It rained in ye forenoon;
about 2 o’clock in ye afternoon I set out from Northfield, being
fifty-nine of us, & we came vt night to Pomroy’s Island, 5 miles above
28. We set off from Pomroy’s Island & came to Fort
Dummer & there we mended our canoes & went yt night to Hawleys Island 5
miles above Fort Dummer, in all 10 miles.
29. We departed from Hawley’s Island, & came to a
meadow 2 miles short of ye Great Falls 18 miles.
30. We set off from ye great meadow & came to ye
Great Falls, & carried our canoes across & from there we went 10 miles.
31. From there we set out & came within 3 miles of
Black river, 17 miles.
August 1. We came to ye 2d falls 15 miles.
2. We set oft from hence & came to
the upper end of White river falls 15 miles & 1/2.
3. From ye upper end of White river
falls to paddle Island 13 miles.
4. Foul weather, and we remained on
paddle Island all day.
5. From paddle Island we went up 13
miles and encamped.
6. From hence we came to the third
meadow at Cowass 20 miles yt day.
7. From thence we came to Wells
river mouth 15 miles.
8. We encamped here and hid our
provisions and canoes, it being foul weather yt day.
August 9. Foul weather in ye forenoon, in ye
afterpart of ye day we marched from the mouth of Wells river N. 5 miles.
10. This day we marched West & by North 10 miles.
11. We marched to ye upper end of ye 2d pond at the
head of Wells river upon a N. W. course ten miles. About noon this day we
came to ye first pond, 5 miles & then we turned round N. West & travelled
5 miles further in very bad woods.
12. We marched from ye upper end of ye upper pond 3
miles in very bad woods & here encamped by reason of foul weather; here
David Allen was taken sick.
13. We lay by to see if Allen would be able to
14. We marched from ye upper end of ye 2d pond W. by
N. to French river 9 miles; we crossed French river and travelled 1 mile &
½; in all ten miles & half.
15. Here we encamped all day by reason of foul
weather; this day Clark Hubbard being very lame was sent back & two men
with him to the fort at the mouth of Wells River.
16. We marched from our camp 3 miles and came to a
branch of ye French river; from thence we marched 6 miles & came to a
beaver pond out of which ran another Branch of said river; from thence we
traveled 6 miles and came upon another Branch where we camped our course
being W. N. W. 15.
17. We marched from said branch 13 miles and crossed
avast mountain & there we camped that night, 13.
18. We marched. from our camp a Little & came to a
4th branch of French river & we traveled down sd branch 10 miles & then
struck overye Mountain 6 milesfurther & there we camped, our course was W.
N. W. 12.
19. We marched from thence W. N. W. to the top of a
vast high mountain which we called Mount Discovery, where we had a fair
prospect of ye Lake 4 miles, from whence we went down said mountain 2
miles on a N. course & then., travelled 6 miles N. W. on a brook; here
arose a storm which caused us to take up our lodgings something before
20. We followed said brook N. N. W. 2 miles and then
ye brook turned N. & we travelled on it 9 miles further & ye brook
increased to a considerable river, 18.
21. We marched 6 miles N. & then came to where ye
river emptyed itself into another very large river coming out from ye east
somewhat northerly; we travelled down said river W. 7 miles; then the
river turned south & we marched 7 miles farther & here we encamped at the
foot of ye falls, 20.
22. Here we lay still by reason of ye rain.
23. Now I gave liberty to some yt they might return
home by reason that our provision was almost spent, & there appeared 41.
The Capt. Lt. & Ens. (Ensigns) with 12 men marched over ye river at ye
foot of ye falls & marched 6 miles S. S. W. & 3 miles W. & yn came to ye
Lake & marched 6 miles down upon ye Lake & this N. W. & ye N. W. end of ye
Lake or bay being at a great distance, & then we turned homeward without
making any discovery here of any enemy.
August 25. We set off from ye Lake
to return home, & came to ye mouth of Wells River in five days and a half;
here we discovered 3 Indians who had waded over ye River just below ye
fort which we took to be our own men by reason yt ye two Indians which
were with us & one man more set away early in ye morning to hunt; but it
proved upon examination that they were enemies, but it was too late, for
they were moved off.
29. We set off from ye fort at ye
mouth of Wells river & came to Northfield Sept. 2d at Night.
[NOTE. This journal is taken by permission from
Sheldon’s History of Deer-field. In a note Mr. Sheldon says that the
distances given as traveled by the company must not be considered as
accurate, but were computed by their time and difficulty. To the men
struggling through the wilderness the way must have seemed long.]
Several points are settled by
Wright’s journal. Not only, is the existence of some kind of shelter and
defense at the mouth of Wells River long before the country was settled,
but another very interesting fact is brought to light.. We have mentioned
the Indian trail which lay across the mountains to Onion or Winooski River
then called French River. We observe that the company, led by their Indian
guides, did not follow along the banks of Wells River, but took a more
northerly course, coming out at Ricker’s Pond in Groton, taking the
general direction of the road from Wells River to Ryegate Corner, and
thence to Ricker’s Pond. This was one of the great trails between Canada
and the Connecticut Valley, along which passed not only hunters and
migratory families, but war parties for attacks on the English
settlements, and the same bands returning with their captives and spoil.
Along this trail, where now lie the
sunny farms of Ryegate, came in February 1704, a force of two hundred
French and one hundred and forty Indians, bound upon one of the most
fearful errands recorded in the long chapter of Indian massacres. They
came up Lake Champlain on the ice to the mouth of French or Winooski
River, which they followed, and passed through the mountains very nearly
where the railroad now runs. They went down Connecticut River on the ice,
and on the night of the 29th fell upon Deerfield, Mass., burned the
village, killed fifty persons, and carried away one hundred and fifty
prisoners, eighteen of whom were killed on the march. At the mouth of
White River the captives were divided into small companies, making their
way to Canada by different routes.
Rev. John Williams, the minister of
Deerfield, lived to return and publish a narrative of their sufferings,
entitled, "The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion." This little volume
when first printed may have been sold for a shilling. A copy of the first
edition is now worth many times its weight in gold. It has been often
The narrative of Stephen Williams,
[Samuel Carter’s address at Deerfield, 1884. - NOTE. Stephen Williams was
only eleven years old when he was taken prisoner. He graduated from
Harvard College in 1713, and was for 66 years a noted minister at
Longmeadow. He was a chaplain in the expedition to Louisburg in 1745, and
a son of his was killed in the old French War. Mr. Williams had three sons
who were prominent clergymen in their time. See "Longmeadow Centennial,"
also "Proeeedings of the Pocumtuck Valley Association." These, with the
History of Deerfleld, are in the library at Newbury.] the minister’s son,
is of special interest in local history, and his experience was probably
that of hundreds of others at different times between 1650 and 1760. The
small party to which Stephen was attached reached the great meadows at
Newbury on the ninth day after the massacre, where they remained two days,
then proceeded up Wells River, a day’s travel, making a camp among the
hills not far from the line between Ryegate and Groton, and there spent
some days in hunting.
"Twelfth Day. March 11th. While we
tarried here the French that were in the army passed by," says Stephen’s
narrative. His master, with a small company, turned north, and made a camp
somewhere in Peacham, it is believed, where they were joined by some other
captives from Deerfield, who had been left by the French army in
its passage. They
remained there hunting over a wide area of country, and collecting furs
till about the middle of June, when the party started for the Coos
meadows, it being their custom to spend their summers there, cultivating
the land, feasting, and having a general good time.
But when they had gone only a few
miles they met some Indians, who told them that a party of white men and
hostile Indians had come up the river, and, a short distance below the
great meadows, had fallen upon a camp of Indians and killed them all, so
that all the Indians were fleeing from Coos. This was Caleb Lyman
oFNorthampton, who left that place about the first of June and fell upon
the Indians near Coos, and all who were there, fled, and their fields were
not cultivated that year.
The party to which Stephen and his
master belonged, returned to their camp, and were joined by several other
prisoners. After some time they ventured back to the Newbury meadows,
where they suffered from hunger, and where one of the prisoners, Dea.
David Hoyt of Deerfield, died of starvation.
About the 1st of August they set
away for Canada with large packs of furs which they had taken, and which
the captives were compelled to carry till French River was reached.
Another of the captives, Jacob Hix of Deerfield, died of starvation and
fatigue, somewhere, probably in what is now Plainfield, "at the first
carrying-place on French River." The company arrived at Chambly in August.
This narrative is here given to show something of the life which went on
in the wilderness two hundred years ago.
This bloody warfare came to an end
with the close of the Old French War in 1760. The destruction of the St.
Francis Village by Rogers’ expedition in that year, struck terror to all
the Indian tribes. The story of his expedition has been told too often to
need repetitidn here. Some of the survivors of that company struggled
along through the dense woods on the banks of the Connecticut. It is said
that several of the men fell down and died between the mouth of the
Passumpsic and that of Wells River.
It will he observed that Wright’s
Journal of 1725 mentions the latter stream by the name we know it now and
speaks of "the fort at the mouth of Wells River." A-tradition handed down
from the first settlers of Newbury is that in 1704 one Captain Wells
ascended the Connecticut with a small force of men, and at the mouth of
this stream one of the men fell sick with small pox, and a small building
was erected there, in which some of the men spent a part of the winter,
and the stream has been called Wells River ever since. This was the year
of the destruction of Deerfield, and the company was probably commanded by
Capt. Jonathan Wells of that town, and one of several expeditions which
were sent to Canada to negotiate for the ransom of captives.
Other narratives of journeys along
the Connecticut Valley between 1710, and 1770, are extant, but they give
little information concerning the country. It is probable that, between
these dates,- several hundreds of white persons passed through Ryegate.
The "Fort" we have mentioned was
probably a rude structure of logs, and large enough to give shelter and
protection. to such as needed either, in the wilderness. When Br
Chamberlin, in 1770, began settlement in what is now Wells River village,
he found the ruins of a building in the woods, a little above the junction
of the two rivers, it was the first building erected by Englishmen in this
part of New England.