WESTMINSTER-"Who, but the heroes of Vermont, were first to strike the blow? At Lexington and Bunker, before a martyr bled, the blood of that glorious war, at Westminster was shed." - Charles G. Eastman
Westminster. Off hand, this sleepy Vermont village doesn't conjure up rebels, redcoats, or revolutions yet with less than 3,100 residents today, Westminster might very well force a few revisions to history textbooks-at least if one Vermont historian gets her way.
For before the Battles of Lexington and Concord there was-the Westminster Massacre. And then came author and historian Jesse Haas, 236 years later.
Haas's' new book, titled "Revolutionary Westminster" (The History Press • ISBN:978-1-60949-166-6 • Paperback • 176 pages • $19.99 • 2011), may help rewrite those dog-eared patriotic texts. The book should become the definitive history of the true, first shot-heard-round-the-world.
While Massachusetts has long been blessed the cradle of the American Revolution, the Green MountainState deserves a lot more of the limelight. After all the first American blood shed in the War of Independence was right here, on Vermont soil.
On March 13, 1775, a little over a month before Lexington and Concord, Westminster Whigs (later the Republicans) endured an attack from the local Loyalist sheriff-William Paterson, an Irish immigrant-and his surly men that left two local patriots, William French and Daniel Houghton, dead.
Sheriff Paterson led his Loyalist posse that day from the nearby Tory Tavern and marched the musketeers to the courthouse. It was said Paterson shouted to the posse, "Fire on them, God damn ye, and send them all to Hell!"
In response to the cold-blooded killing of French and Houghton, people of Windham County-and far beyond-rose up following what became known as the Westminster Massacre.
"Really, it's a wonder there was only one Westminster Massacre," Haas said. "It was a confused and passionate time. Vermont towns were granted by three different colonies. Westminster alone had four charters. A new king trying to close a budget deficit, growing sentiment for independence, jurisdictional confusion:Vermont was a revolutionary incident waiting to happen."
The small but bloody event in Westminster had big implications when viewed from today's perspective; it set the stage for Vermont's eventual secession from the British Province of New York (and those other pesky claimants as well). It also established Vermont's position as the lodestone of American independence, both during and after the war. For even as the new United States of America was born, Vermont wandered off on its own short-lived experiment in independence-as a free, unfettered republic-before returning to the continental fold as the fourteenth state in 1791.
In her book, Haas vividly retells the story of this real first battle of the American Revolution and Windham County's role throughout the war.
And in Haas's case, too, the apple of Vermont independence hasn't fallen far from the Liberty Tree.
She grew up in Westminster on a farm owned, back in Revolutionary War times, by militia man and Continental soldier John Wells. Haas's parents were the inspiration to the author; they were always interested in local history including appearing around town as costumed reactors of the massacre event. Of course, as a youngster, Haas wasn't too interested in what her parents were doing but later it all clicked.
"We used to have reenactments of the massacre by local school children but it hasn't been done in awhile," she said. "There's still strong memory of the event locally but some of our newcomers aren't aware of it."
Haas has found her creative voice in Vermont and is also no stranger to the rugged pioneering lifestyle of the Revolutionary era.
She and her husband, anti-nuclear activist Michael J. Daley, built their own cabin where they live, off-the-grid; it's one way to escape the prying eyes of 21st-century equivalents of 18th-century Loyalists.
"It's probably an uphill battle to think textbooks will be revised to include the Westminster Massacre," Haas said, "but we can hope."
A graduate of Wellesley College, Haas is the author of over 30 award-winning books for children and young adults, including several historical novels. But her prime interest is now American history and the shots fired in Westminster that started a great rebellion. And from the author's bloody hometown soil sprang a state, a nation, a beacon of freedom.
Check It Out:The village of Westminster, is located four miles south of Bellows Falls in the Connecticut River Valley along Route 5, the old King's Highway. While the county courthouse is gone, you can still see where it stood (a cornfield today) as well as the nearby former site of the infamous Tory Tavern. The tavern was the headquarters of the infamous Sheriff Paterson and his cut-throat musketeers.