If it weren’t for Benning Wentworth, Vermont probably wouldn’t exist.
Wentworth was the Colony of New Hampshire’s first governor, and on Jan. 3, 1749, he issued the first of 135 land grants west of the Connecticut River. Unfortunately for the settlers on the land, New York was also issuing land grants for the same territory. Decades later the dispute over the land was resolved by the settlers, who declared Vermont an independent republic.
Benning Wentworth had at least two good reasons to expand New Hampshire westward: He was paid for the land grants, and he could sell the giant white pines – known as the King’s Masts -- on the land.
After 25 years, Wentworth left office in 1766 a very wealthy man.
As Good as the Money
How Benning Wentworh became New Hampshire’s governor is a story in itself. He was a Portsmouth, N.H., merchant, the son of the provincial lieutenant governor. He had had shipped timber to the government of Spain, which refused to pay him because of hostilities toward England. So he went to London and lobbied the British government to reimburse him for his loss. Instead of the money, he was given the governorship of New Hampshire, newly separate from Massachusetts.
The governorship was as good as the money. Maybe better.
Wentworth returned from London to Portsmouth, where he took up residence as governor. In that office, he had the right to reserve pine trees for himself and to grant – that is, sell – townships in the undeveloped part of the colony.
The pine trees were a big deal. Britain no longer had forests that produced trees like the ones in New England -- 120 feet high and at least 24 inches in diameter, ideal for masts and spars. Britain’s military strength depended on sea power, and so the British government tried to commandeer American timber for building its ships. In 1691, the Royal Government forbade anyone in the Province of Massachusetts Bay to cut any pine over 24 inches in diameter, except on private property. In 1760, "all white and other pine trees fit for masting the Royal Navy" were declared off limits. The prohibition was honored more in the breach than in the observance.
One of the first things Benning Wentworth did as governor was to buy the title and office of the surveyor general. The surveyor deputy and his deputies were supposed to identify and mark the King’s Masts with three slashes representing the King’s Broad Arrow, a traditional mark of the Crown's property. They were also supposed to seize illegal timber and prosecute offenders.
Wentworth had a brother, Mark, who had contracts with the British Royal Navy for masts and timber. As governor, Wentworth took advantage of his rights to the giant white pines while ignoring his responsibility as surveyor general to reserve them for the king.
Dragging a Tree Through a Primeval Forest
It wasn’t easy bringing white pine from the New England wilderness to the coast, where cargo ships specially fitted out would carry them to England.
The tall white pines near the seacoast had already been cut down. As time went on, woodsmen had to go farther and farther inland to find trees big, tall and straight enough for masts.
First a solid, sound tree had to be found. Then it had to be cut down, usually in the winter because the snow leveled off the ground. A straight road had to be cut to a river because a 120-foot log couldn’t go around corners.
The timber would be hoisted onto a sled or onto wheels 18 feet high. Then a team of oxen, as many as 200, would haul the timber through the wilderness to the water.
Robert B. Pike, in Tall Trees, Tough Men, describes what it must have been like: “Imagine the sight – a tree-trunk from three to seven feet through and perhaps 120 feet long being dragged through the primeval forest by a double string of long-horned, heaving oxen strung out over a furlong’s distance, with ‘spare’ steers switching their tails against the mosquitos, or shivering with cold…”
The New Hampshire Grants
By the mid-18th century, there weren’t many King’s Masts left in what is now New Hampshire. But there were farther west. In 1749, Benning Wentworth issued the first New Hampshire Land Grants for a future town named after himself -- Bennington.
Many of the 134 grants that followed became towns. Wentworth named them after well-known men of the day to win their support for his westward expansion of New Hampshire. Rutland, for example, was named for John Manners, 3rd Duke of Rutland.
The grants averaged six square miles, the size of a town, and were settled by middle-class farmers.
New York also issued grants for the same land, mostly to wealthy landowners. The dispute over the territory dragged on for years. In 1770, the New York Supreme Court invalidated all the New Hampshire grants, and tried to force many of the New Hampshire grantees to buy their land a second time. That infuriated Ethan Allen, who formed the Green Mountain Boys militia to protect the interests of the New Hampshire farmers. The American Revolution put the issue on hold until 1777, when Vermont declared itself a Republic. For 11 years, Vermont was its own little country, with courts, a constitution, an assembly and its own currency.
Benning Wentworth died on Oct. 14, 1770, in Portsmouth, at the age of 74. Vermont would become a state on March 4, 1791. It's no accident that at the center of the Flag of Vermont stands a pine tree.