• Montpelier’s great historian
    By
     | April 01,2013
     
    Vermont Historical Society

    A depiction of Montpelier historian Daniel Thompson. He is probably best known for his “History of the Town of Montpelier,” an arresting narrative enhanced by Thompson’s firsthand accounts of the earliest days of the capital city. Thompson was an interesting character, walking the streets in his bedroom slippers with a fishing pole in hand.

    When he is remembered at all, Daniel Pierce Thompson is usually known as the author of “The Green Mountain Boys,” a romantic account of the era of the Revolutionary War when Yorkers battled New Hampshire partisans for title to Vermont, and Ethan Allen engineered a military triumph at Fort Ticonderoga. The book has been in print almost continuously since its first appearance in 1839.

    In Montpelier, however, he is also known as the author of the essential history “The Capital City: History of the Town of Montpelier; from the Time it was first Chartered in 1781 to the Year 1860.” This great history of Montpelier was published in 1860 and has never been supplanted. Thompson had an advantage over all subsequent historians: He knew the founders personally and collected their stories as earnestly and frequently as he rambled the banks of the Winooski River with his fishing pole.

    Thompson was born in Charlestown, Mass., in 1795 from forebears who were among the early settlers of the Bay Colony and fought for independence in the Revolutionary War. His grandfather was killed at the battle of Lexington.

    When he was just 5 years old his family moved to a farm in Berlin that abutted the town line of Montpelier. A granite marker honors the Thompson family farm, indicating at the roadside where the homestead was originally located (near the present site of Cody Chevrolet). Their property was bisected by the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River, and, in his “History of the Town of Montpelier,” Thompson records the naming of the branch with a historical account in which the author plays a small part.

    “A reputable young man by the name of Stevens, residing in Corinth, when that was a frontier town, was engaged to a girl of the same town, who, from fickleness or some unwarranted freak of jealousy, broke her plighted faith, and suddenly married another.

    “This so wrought on the mind and feelings of Stevens that he soon resolved to banish himself from society into the lone forests, never to return. He provided himself with guns, traps, and other things composing the hunter’s outfit, and having made his way to the bank of the stream that subsequently took his name, about a quarter of a mile from its mouth, on the farm occupied, for the first forty years of the present century, by Daniel Thompson, the father of the writer of these pages. This was in early autumn and nothing more was heard from him until the following spring, when two hunters, passing that way, found his dead body near his camp. He had evidently been seized with sickness, induced by despondency, had breathed his last alone in the dark wilderness. The exact spot where the hunters had buried him was not known till about the year 1806, when Mr. Thompson, in plowing up a spot from which he had removed an old hedge fence, turned out his bones. I, then a small boy, was present on that occasion, and the sight of these remains as they were thrown out by the deep furrow that was made lengthwise through them, with the rust-eaten jack-knife lying in the midst, caused it to become one of the most vivid of my early recollections, and subsequently led me to make minute inquiries of the oldest settlers in all that related to the unfortunate hunter.”

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    Going to town

    Thompson’s early years were consumed with the practical activities associated with claiming a homestead from the wilderness. He learned to fish and hunt, paddle a boat, and plant and hoe as he acquired the skills of a Vermont farm boy. We know from his autobiographical novel “Locke Amsden” that he hated farming and used all of his resources to find an alternative way to make a living.

    Amazingly, he never entered the town of Montpelier until he was 12 years old. The occasion was a Fourth of July celebration in 1807 on the new Statehouse grounds. When Thompson and his brother, Joseph, reached the foundation of the soon-to-be-constructed Statehouse, they saw stakes marking out the street that would lead to the capitol building. The boys joined the throng assembled to listen to the Independence Day proclamation, and Thompson heard the first oration of his life. His biographer, John Flitcroft, noted that in exactly 20 years Thompson would himself mount the stage to deliver the annual Fourth of July address.

    At about the same time Thompson noted the construction of the Pavilion House, the first iteration of a hotel that was to stand in the same location near the Statehouse until it was razed in 1970. The original Pavilion was designed by Sylvanus Baldwin, the self-taught architect who planned the first Statehouse. The present Pavilion opened in 1971 as a state building with an office for the governor and facilities for the Vermont Historical Society. The mansard-roofed replica pays homage to the well-known version of the hotel that opened in 1876 and incorporates some of its original components in its reconstruction.

    Thompson regularly attended ceremonial functions in Montpelier, which became more frequent with the completion of the Statehouse in 1808.

    Schooling for him amounted to irregular attendance at the district school and what lessons his parents were able to impart. The chance acquisition of a volume of English poetry awakened his thirst for learning. With money earned from a small flock of sheep and skins from a trap line, he was able to purchase a Latin grammar, a volume of Virgil and a text on arithmetic. He spent a winter boarding with a clergyman with the intent of “fitting for college.” Eventually he was admitted to Middlebury College, which in 1817 had been in existence for less than 20 years.

    He completed his course of study in 1820 and briefly served as a tutor for a wealthy family in Virginia. The position is remarkable for the opportunity it allowed the young man to interview Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Thompson’s notes on the occasion indicate that they discussed Patrick Henry, slavery and Jefferson’s plans for the University of Virginia. Thompson spent more than three years in Virginia and studied law when not engaged in tutoring his pupil.



    ‘Intelligent survivors’

    By the time he returned to Montpelier in 1824 he was ready to open a law office, but instead found related employment in official capacities such as judge of the Probate Court and as a legislative assistant. He was remembered as a man with varied interests including folklore, botany and local history. His biographer noted, “His favorite recreation was fishing. Local tradition represents him as wandering through the country with his fishing rod, and stopping to chat with some old settler by the roadside or at a farmhouse door, where he would spend hours listening to reminiscences of the early settlement of Vermont.”

    Shortly after his return to Vermont, he was asked by Zadock Thompson (no relation) to prepare a narrative sketch of Montpelier for the new Gazetteer he was preparing. Daniel Thompson began his research by interviewing the early settlers who still lived in town. He noted in his preface to his full-length “History of the Town of Montpelier,” “We visited, for the purpose of collecting materials for that task, the most intelligent survivors of the first settlers of Montpelier and the neighboring towns, and made minutes of the facts and incidents which we condensed into the brief sketch of the town that appears in the Gazetteer.”

    His work on the Gazetteer proved instrumental in preparing Thompson for undertaking a more thorough treatment of the history of the capital city. The fact that he was often present at important events added a sense of immediacy to the work as well as a charming perspective on the city’s history. As a teenager he was in the front row of the audience when the country’s participation in the War of 1812 was hotly debated between the Democrats and the Federalists on a cold February afternoon.

    “When the day arrived, we mustered out a few boys of the neighborhood, and with them proceeded on foot, to the scene of the action. As we neared the village we found every road almost literally black with the throngs of men and boys on foot, on horseback, in cutters and thickly packed double sleighs, all pouring into town and hurrying forward to the place of the appointed meeting. On reaching the State House we found the doors just being thrown open; and, standing amidst the waiting and impatient crowd, we were borne on, in the mighty rush through the principal entrance, till we were forced up close to the broad plank platform, that had been erected over the clerk’s desk for the accommodation of the opposing speakers; for it was understood, that even here, the Federalists would appear in force, to prevent the passage of any resolves going to encourage the threatened war by Congress.”



    Eyewitness

    It has always been a privilege to live close to government, especially for a teenager, and find oneself at hand when important ideas are debated. Thompson had found his calling — to be a witness to portentous events. Thompson recalls how Chester Wright, a beloved Montpelier clergyman, was asked to offer a benediction before the debate, and how his refusal “on account of conscientious scruples about the war” was received with “a low burst of indignation.” The intrusion of his personal observations allows Thompson to make much more of his town history than it otherwise would have been. His history is almost as much memoir as dispassionate narrative and is more pleasurable reading as a result.

    Almost one half of his history is given to biographies of influential citizens such as first settlers Col. Jacob and Rebecca Davis, printer and publisher Gen. Ezekiel Walton, Gen. Pearly Davis, the Rev. Chester Wright, Col. J.P. Miller and Timothy Hubbard. Many of the biographical subjects would play an important role in the history of Vermont as well as Montpelier, and many of their names will always be associated with the town. The citizens of Montpelier heartily endorsed Thompson’s research and writing. In fact, at Montpelier’s 1859 town meeting he was appointed the municipality’s “official historian,” and the following year saw the publication of his magnum opus. Despite the accolade, he was often seen dressed shabbily. Historian Charles Morrissey described his demeanor:

    “He always looked as though he needed a haircut, walking through the village, a wooden fishing pole over his shoulder, a single suspender holding up his overalls, a broad brimmed straw hat on his head to shield out the summer sun. He often seemed to be lost in abstractions, plodding with a preoccupied expression down the middle of the road.”

    In 1938 he joined Henry Stevens and two other antiquarians in forming the Vermont Historical Society. Its collections were housed at Stevens’ home in Barnet until accommodation could be made in the Statehouse. Thompson is remembered with a brass plaque that still hangs near the Senate Chamber.

    Both Thompson and Stevens were recalled in Weston Cate’s book about the Vermont Historical Society:

    “Henry Stevens and D.P. Thompson were the state’s two leading antiquarians during the middle nineteenth century. Both were named in the Society’s original charter and both became Society officers.

    “Both men were in love with the past, but their approaches to history were quite different. Stevens was basically a collector of manuscripts, documents, books, and historical ephemera. Thompson was an early exponent of oral history. He loved to roam the hills and valleys of the state with a fishpole over one shoulder and a pocket notebook in which he would carefully record his conversations with rural folks, especially those who could recall Revolutionary and early settlement days. Thompson, though a lawyer by profession and a writer by avocation, edited the Laws of Vermont down to 1834, wrote the first history of Montpelier at the request of the townspeople, wrote ten novels including the famous Green Mountain Boys, and prepared a number of articles for the periodical press.

    “He cared little how he dressed, and was less careful in the way he chewed his tobacco. He would leave his Barre Street home and stroll downtown in his bedroom slippers, always walking exactly in the middle of the road. Despite his unusual habits, he was a highly respected member of the community and the village children loved him, for he always took time to stop and tell them a story of earlier days.”

    The Green Mountain Freeman, an abolitionist newspaper edited by Thompson from 1849-1856, summed up the local attitude toward his history of Montpelier succinctly.

    “In his prime of life he was identified with almost every incident of our town history. Several years since, at the request of the town he prepared and published its history, which work is in many respects the most perfect of his writings. Interwoven with minute statement of fact, records and dates, are incidents of the earliest settlers, trivial in themselves, perhaps, but interesting to our citizens and calculated to endear our home to us all, and to perpetuate the memory of those most stalwart men of our earlier history. In a series of biographical sketches accompanying the history he has with great truthfulness and a keen appreciation, portrayed with anecdote and illustration, the characters of our leading departed citizens. The work is an excellent record of our town history.”

    Suffering the consequences of a stroke, Thompson died at his Barre Street home in 1868. The house was consumed by fire within a few years after his demise, and with the flames his carefully written notes on the early history of Vermont were lost forever. Montpelierites may be thankful that his great history of their town was already in print.

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