Politics and Military

The Time Vermont and N.H. Went to War Over (What Else?) Cows

The year 1813 was a rough one for the scrappy farmers who made their living in Northern New Hampshire’s Stewartston region. The War of 1812 had made America and neighboring Canada officially warring enemies. The growing season was poor. And residents were moving south out of fear that open conflict would break out.

With barely 200 people living in the area (and nearly as many cows and oxen), a certain degree of lawlessness set in. The Canadians on their side of the border needed cows for food and oxen for muscle. On the American side, Vermont and New Hampshire farmers needed money.

Border War

On top of that, New Englanders hated the War of 1812 — Mr. Madison’s war, people called it. Federalists derided it as folly. The blockade on trade with England devastated the New England economy. The blockade hit the seaports hardest, but the trade stoppage hurt the entire region.

New Hampshire and Vermont were not as strongly opposed to the war as Connecticut and Massachusetts. So a little off-the-books trading with Canada in remote reaches of New Hampshire and Vermont – where borders were fluid anyway – wasn’t going to be viewed with outrage.

war

Durham Ox (by John Boultbee)

Capt. Ephraim Mahurin of Colebrook, N.H., commanded a small garrison with some 50 soldiers to protect the northern border of New England from Canadian invasion. But other than the occasional skirmish, the area was peaceful.

Samuel Beach of Canaan, Vt., tested that peace in September of 1813. Beach sent a man with two oxen north toward Canada. He said he wanted to do some lumbering to repair a mill dam that he owned there. Army Lt. John Dennett didn’t believe Beach. He suspected the farmer of trading with the Canadians. So he seized Beach’s oxen. When Dennett attempted to take them back, a confrontation between the two men broke out. Dennett shot Beach.

After the shooting, Beach’s friends arrested Dennett and imprisoned him at Guildhall, Vt. Dennett escaped, and in 1814 Beach’s friends chased him down and shot him.

More Smugglers

In an attempt to keep the smuggling under control, the governor had appointed John Hugh of Maidstone, Vt. as customs collector. He and his brother Samuel were tasked with controlling the contraband trade.

In one oft-talked-about case, a smuggler with 40 head of cattle was intercepted within a mile of the border. In a tense standoff, the customs official had to be disguised in a dress and bonnet and smuggled out of his hotel to avoid a conflict. The U.S. Army disbursed the cows into the woods. The affair then ended in a fracas between the would-be-smugglers and those who thwarted their plan.

Gov. Martin Chittenden

Posse

In 1814, the Hughs brothers learned that a group of smugglers planned to drive several cows north to Canada to sell them. Samuel Hugh assembled a posse and they pushed toward Canada in hopes of heading off the cows. But they were too far behind. A standoff took place in the woods of Canada in which a man from the Canadian side was shot and killed. Samuel Hugh and his party fled. The only harm to Hugh was caused by a bullet that passed through the cloth of his coat, but missed him.

About a month later, a Canadian raiding party surrounded Samuel Hugh’s home. They seized him and his property and transported him to Montreal. Eventually he would go on trial. Though not convicted of murder, he was convicted of other crimes and put in jail for more than a year.

After the close of the War of 1812, Gov. Martin Chittenden petitioned the Canadian government to release Hugh, which it did. He returned home and received a $1,000 award from the government for his services.

Thanks to: Indian Stream Republic: Settling a New England Frontier, 1785-1842, by Daniel Doan and A History of New England, by R. H. Howard and Henry E. Crocker. This story last updated in 2022.

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