Who Owns the Connecticut River?



By David Dean

Top: Connecticut River two miles above Hanover, New Hampshire. Middle: Ottaquechee Mills, Harland, Vermont. Bottom: Pumping Station, Passumpsic River, St. Johnsbury, Vermont.

The Contested River
Our Connecticut River has a storied past—especially the struggles between contenders for who owned the River. As one of our most discernible landmarks flowing down the center spine of New England, the River was referenced as a boundary of the various states beginning as early as 1644 with kerfuffles lasting nearly 300 years.

The Connecticut River, rising near Quebec, flows south through four states to Long Island Sound, but five states and three countries had disagreements over who owns the River and/or the location of their state/national boundary relative to the river. Most of the discussions hinged on errors in surveys but imagine a landowner’s exasperation when two jurisdictions insist on collecting their tax levies.

Early Times
The earliest disagreement along the Connecticut River arose between New York and Connecticut. When the English colonies of Saybrook, New Haven, and Hartford merged in 1644, Connecticut claimed all the intervening land including the eastern part of Long Island based on a patent granted to the Earl of Sterling that was mortgaged to residents of Saybrook.
  King Charles II of England, willfully ignorant about this joining of Connecticut towns, made a land grant to the Duke of York (his brother) in 1664 for “all that Island or Islands commonly called by…Long Island situate lying and…upon the main land between the two Rivers there…called Hudson’s River and all the Land from the West side of Connecticut River….”

Resolving these dual claims took political maneuvering in the colonies and before the English Crown, with only one military confrontation, no loss of life, and some well-done survey maps. In 1731, the two colonies agreed to the location of the Connecticut western boundary with New York, assigning the “panhandle” of Greenwich and Stamford and the Connecticut River to the state of Connecticut henceforth. The deal made Long Island part of New York.

Further Upriver
In 1642, Massachusetts surveyors erroneously placed the southern border with Connecticut seven miles south of its actual location, understandably since they were not surveyors at all and did not actually walk the survey line but sailed up the Connecticut River to complete the western leg of their task.

With new surveys, by 1713 the states agreed to a new boundary well north of the 1642 location but the citizens who thought they were, and wanted to remain, residents of Massachusetts did not agree and petitioned the Court for redress.

One notable squabble was Longmeadow’s desire to remain wholly in Massachusetts. In 1749, the court settled a suit to accommodate Longmeadow but in order to comply, Enfield’s town boundary had to be extended into the Connecticut River running north-south down the middle of the river creating the “Longmeadow Jog.” The jog created a 4 ¼- mile long singular boundary between Massachusetts and Connecticut, and is the only boundary over the River’s 410-mile length between states set in the middle of the river.

Turmoil Birthing Vermont
The Longmeadow Jog mid-river boundary should not be so unusual since most waterbodies marking a boundary have an invented dotted line running down their middle. It is not true on the upper Connecticut River because everyone ‘knows’ the river belongs to New Hampshire. But with boundaries being a human conceit, it is more complicated than that.

The early English grants set the boundary between then New York and New Hampshire as the western bank of the river, and then Vermont declared her independence. That incited community leaders in 22 New Hampshire towns west of the River to secede from New Hampshire. They wanted to eliminate the river as a boundary. A convention of river towns from both states met in Cornish, New Hampshire, to consider forming a state called “New Connecticut” reflecting the starting place of many of the settlers. After due consideration, in 1778, the New Hampshire towns joined the Vermont Republic outright.

New Hampshire tried to appease the rebels and floated the idea of annexing Vermont river towns into New Hampshire. When that failed, New Hampshire asked the Continental Congress to settle the dispute making it clear that unless Congress returned the towns, New Hampshire would no longer contribute to the revolutionary war effort. New Hampshire then threatened to send soldiers westward to the valley, ostensibly to protect against Indians but in reality, to take back the annexed towns. That did it and the Vermont Congress resolved in 1782 to forego the New Hampshire towns.

Over the ensuing years, Vermont asserted her claim over half the river and invited New Hampshire to appoint commissions to settle the boundary in 1792, 1794, and 1830. New Hampshire offered no response to the first two invitations and answered a flat NO to the last. New Hampshire had the river and was not letting go.

In 1915, Vermont sued in the US Supreme Court to set the boundary between the states as the thread (deepest part) of the Connecticut River. Vermont said it held title up to the thread by virtue of English common law and since Vermont joined the Union as a sovereign country, she herself established her boundaries claiming thread was her boundary. Undaunted, New Hampshire cross-filed with the Court to acquire jurisdiction of that narrow width of land on the Vermont shore between the low and high water mark.

The Court found that by passing the 1782 Resolution renouncing their interest in annexing the upper valley New Hampshire towns, Vermont had relinquished any claim to jurisdiction beyond the Vermont shore at the low-water mark. The low-water mark was further defined as “the point to which the river recedes at its lowest stage without reference to extreme droughts.”

As to the New Hampshire claim on the land between the high and low water marks, the Court found that even if New Hampshire had authority over that part of the river, there would be, “insurmountable difficulty, in attempting to draw any other line than the low-water mark.” Therefore, in 1934, the US Supreme Court decided that New Hampshire got the river and Vermont kept its shore land.

A Court Master surveyed the boundary and placed 4-inch brass disk markers at 112 survey points from Vernon, VT, upriver to the 45th parallel where the river crosses into New Hampshire entirely. Each marker gives the distance from the marker along a compass heading to the actual low water boundary. Vermont and New Hampshire law requires that the boundary line “shall be perambulated…wherever necessary.”

The Court even foresaw power dams since the surveyed low water mark would be “unaffected by improvements on the river.” The reservoirs behind the nine power dams have now submerged the natural low water point but the original surveyed locations remain the border, although in some cases the boundary is under water more than one hundred feet off the Vermont shore.

The Republic of Indian Stream
Europeans settled far northern New Hampshire under a land grant from Chief King Philip of the Abenaki St. Francis nation. Unfortunately, the 1783 Treaty of Paris settling the American Revolution created uncertainty about the US Canadian border. The question: was the boundary Halls Stream or the Connecticut Lakes 10 miles to the east. In 1827, the two countries agreed to submit their competing claims to a neutral King of Holland but when the King decided in favor of England, the US ignored his decision.

In 1832, a New Hampshire court upheld a prisoner’s claim that New Hampshire and the US did not have jurisdiction in the Indian Stream area and set him free. The decision meant there was no local New Hampshire /United States law protecting the citizens from ruffians and smugglers; yet the US asserted its right to levy duties on goods imported into Indian Stream and England asserted its right to impress Indian Stream citizens into her army.

In 1832, in response to this untenable situation, the citizens devised a Constitution for the “Indian Stream Territory” that provided for an assembly, a council, a judiciary and a president, a school system, a 41-member army, and coexisted peaceably with the United States and England both.

Then there occurred a series of misadventures involving an unpaid hardware store debt, a Canadian sheriff, Indian Stream challenging New Hampshire, a series of US/Canada cross border arrest warrants, and the arrest of the Indian Stream deputy who, after his removal to Canada was to stand trial for ignoring Canadian warrants. He was later retrieved by the New Hampshire volunteers crossing the border into Canada.

The citizens of Indian Stream felt things were out of hand and decided to acknowledge they were part of Pittsburg, NH. The Indian Stream Assembly adopted resolutions dissolving their country in 1836. The dispute was definitively resolved by treaty and the land assigned to New Hampshire in 1842.

This brief history of the Connecticut River as a boundary shows ongoing discord and confusion about human affairs involving the river. Of course, given that the river does not care about political boundaries, the Connecticut River is not confused at all.

View between Thetford and Lyme.

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