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PAST TIMES: Thomas Chittenden — Vermont’s first governor and Williston pioneer

By Cameron Clark

Special to the Observer

As Vermonters, we often hear of Ethan Allen as the most famous man in Vermont history. But one of the most important and influential figures in shaping this state in its early years was Thomas Chittenden. 

In recent decades, his name has been overlooked or outright forgotten. But if not for Chittenden, Vermont would not be the state it is today. Among his many pursuits and accomplishments, he was the first governor of Vermont, and made his residence here in Williston.

Thomas Chittenden was born in Guilford, Conn. in 1730. His father was a farmer, and Thomas followed suit, with a brief foray as a common sailor during the Anglo-French War in the mid 1700’s. Afterwards he settled in Salisbury, Conn., with his wife Eleanor. There he farmed and engaged in town affairs, serving in many offices, the local militia, and in the Connecticut Legislature for six years.

Williston was first chartered in the year 1763 as one of many land grants issued by New Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth. At that time, it was unsettled wilderness with few inhabitants. Chittenden first came to the area in 1764 on a military rescue mission pursuing captives held by Native Americans on their way north along the Winooski River. Upon the return trip after rescuing the people from the natives, he first visited the site that would become his home. 

The event is described in the book “A History of the Town of Williston, 1763-1913.”

“He camped upon a bench of land where … in the morning there was a scene of singular beauty … ‘It is a paradise’ he thought ‘if the time comes when I can get title, this upland and interval shall be mine. Here I will build my home’…”

Nearly 10 years later he purchased the land that comprised that scene of beauty. In the spring of 1773 he cleared the land and built a log cabin for his family, returning in 1774 with his wife and 10 children in tow. 

He was forced to leave for a time in 1776 after the American army retreated from Canada and the area was left defenseless. He settled in southern Vermont for a while, during which time he started to advocate for independent statehood for Vermont amidst the ongoing dispute between New Hampshire and New York for the rights to the land between them. 

Chittenden was chosen as a delegate for Williston to the convention that crafted the petition to the Continental Congress declaring Vermont an independent state, and later, in 1777, the first Constitution of Vermont. The first general election was held in March 1778 and Chittenden was elected the state’s first governor. Subsequent years required many a diplomatic wrangling between New Hampshire, New York and the Continental Congress of the newly formed United States. Chittenden was at the center of it all and conducted the affairs of the young state, resulting in it finally being recognized and admitted into the union in 1791.

The stately brick house built by Thomas Chittenden in 1790 in Williston was burned in 1926. OBSERVER CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Chittenden was able to return to his estate in Williston in 1787, where he built a stately brick mansion in 1790. The home was three stories with a ballroom on the third floor and two unique inverted Y chimneys on the north and south sides with fireplaces in each room. Sadly, the house burned in 1926, but a few pictures remain that illustrate its grandness. 

Despite his stature at the state and national level, Chittenden continued the pursuits of farming and participating in local town affairs. He was one of the largest landholders in Williston, and true to his dreams when first coming upon the land, his four sons settled on land around him, two in Williston and two in Jericho across the Winooski River. His sons went on to participate in local and state government as well. 

A story from that time, as recalled in “A History of the Town of Williston, 1763-1913,” tells of how Chittenden was a down-to-earth man despite his many accomplishments: “The Governor was a working man, laboring with his men in the field … One day a British officer rode into the yard and asked if the governor was home. Being answered in the affirmative, the Governor was told to hold his horse while he (the British officer) went to the house to speak to him. He asked of Mrs. Chittenden if he might speak to the governor, to which she replied she had seen him speaking to him but a moment before and using him as a hitching post … The officer was mortified and apologized profusely to which the Governor only laughed and did not blame him in the least for mistaking him for a hitching post.”

Thomas Chittenden died in 1797 and was buried in what is now the Chittenden Cemetery just east of Williston Village on Route 2. A large monument was erected in 1896 in the cemetery honoring his memory and accomplishments, and a statue of his likeness was placed on the village green in 1998. The land that he called home exists today almost quite like it did over 200 years ago and is still used for farming. It is now known as Riverhill Farm and has been in the Clark family for eight generations.

Cameron Clark is an eighth-generation Williston resident and farmer.

Past Times is a biweekly trip down memory lane with members of the Williston Historical Society.