Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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David Shribman

A little-noted rebellion reflects an American dream

PITTSBURG, N.H. -- This is a remote part of the world, squeezed between Vermont, Maine, and Canada. Take the steep climb above the tree line on the Coot Trail on Mt. Magalloway -- the name means "dwelling place of moose" -- and then ascend the 50 additional steps to the top of the fire watch tower. You will see a vast expanse of northern white cedar and sparkling water, a rugged redoubt of individualism and independence.

That's in normal times. In times of rebellion, such as the one that ranged across this region nearly two centuries ago, it's even more forbidding.

Forbidding -- and forgotten amid the ferns and fir. Even the magnificence of Garfield Falls, produced by the Dead Diamond River, doesn't soften the harshness of this land, for here beauty can be an obstacle. In the old days, the 40-foot drop was a formidable challenge for log drivers.

Even today, this is an almost empty part of America. At 296 square miles, Pittsburg is the largest incorporated town in all of New England. This spring the high school's graduating class numbered five students.

Don't even try to make a cell-phone call. Don't worry about traffic lights either. The closest one is about an hour south.

This is an area of contention, not congestion. The only backups occur when a moose grazes along the road. It happens a lot.

In this tranquil land of lakes and loons, where the horizon is jagged but the view unimpeded by any contrivance of man -- a place that Lainie Castine, a sturdy and studious mountain guide, calls "very awesome" -- upheaval once ruled.

Some 175 years ago, one of the most passionate political debates in American history occurred in these hills, the echoes carrying to Ottawa and Washington, London and Amsterdam. Rebellion ruled. A European king was defied. An empire was spurned.

All because 56 people in homespun flax, homemade boots, moose-hide moccasins, and hand-knit wool socks decided they wanted to form their own country.

That country was called the Indian Stream Republic. Don't look for it in your textbook, because it's not there, which is why it's a stretch to say that these 56 rebels made history.

But they made a statement, or even two. They asserted that the business of providing order and creating a society in which basic law prevailed was theirs and nobody else's.

And they said that the American impulse for independence didn't end with the War for Independence.

"This rebellion fostered a sense of independence that runs strong and true to this day," said John Harrigan, the former owner and editor of the Colebrook News and Sentinel, published not far from here. "There is a fierce sense of place and identity here. People took it upon themselves when they were sick of the government to change things."

Today, when secession is a settled issue, the causes of the rebellion here are forgotten. It grew out of a complicated set of grievances stemming from a land grant from an Indian leader that prompted a simple question in a region full of stands of cedar and stands on principle but fairly empty of people -- save for the trappers, hunters, scouts, and rangers who wandered through on their way to someplace else.

That question: Did American or British law apply to land ownership here?

The rebels decided that the land was neither American nor Canadian. It was theirs.

"To us in the North Country and to anyone interested in constitutions, this is of enormous consequence," said Jere Daniell, a retired Dartmouth College historian who specializes in the history and character of northern New England.

"This is the last vestige of creating a polity by writing a constitution in New England -- a process that the United States invented," he said. "By writing their own constitution, they sought to legitimize the land grants they were already acting under. This is a fundamental concept."

All this started after the king of the Netherlands, acting as arbitrator, awarded this long-contested territory to Great Britain. That transformed the residents of this hard land into Canadians, threw earlier land disputes and settlements into uncertainty, and imposed customs duties on agricultural products moving freely here.

In the middle of haying season, five dozen angry men trundled into the schoolhouse, talked bravely of rebellion, and approved a constitution for the republic "of the tract of land situated between Hall's Stream and the stream issuing from Lake Connecticut." Their bill of rights included religious freedom, prohibitions against legal double jeopardy, a ban on unreasonable search and seizure -- and the right to organize their own government.

"The people inhabiting the territory formerly called Indian Stream Territory do solemnly and neutrally agree," they said, "to exercise all the powers of a free, sovereign, and independent state so far as it relates to our internal Government till such time as we can ascertain to what Government we properly belong." Three voted no.

The new government set jurors' fees at four cents a mile for travel, kept liquor a quarter-mile from government offices, and provided that each inhabitant could keep one cow, one hog, three tons of hay, $20 worth of farm tools, five bushels of potatoes, and two bushels of salt free from taxation.

"Oligarchy did not appeal to true northern independents," wrote Daniel Doan, the author of the most authoritative account of the episode.

This was big trouble -- a land dispute involving an international border. It was resolved only when another New Hampshireman, Daniel Webster, negotiated the 1842 Webster-Ashburton treaty that set the border and awarded this land to the United States.

The rebellion ceased -- but not the sense of rebellion inherent in this land and these people.

"We should go back to the Indian Stream Republic," Judd "Bing" Burnham, who has been elected to 12 three-year terms as a Pittsburg selectman, told me. "We could run our own township a lot better than the state and federal government. Believe me, going back on our own keeps coming up."

That's not likely. But though the Indian Stream rebellion has faded from memory and history, the virtues and values that prompted it are not.

They remain here in Pittsburg, and in the larger Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, and in the 30 other Pittsburgs scattered about a country that is preparing for an election in which free people freely choose their leaders. In that sense, we are all Pittsburgers.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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