The first Europeans arrived in the area in 1764, when Col. Thomas Chittenden followed the Winooski River north of Jericho as he tracked a group who held captives. When he returned, he camped along the western bank of the river in what is now Williston and decided to stay. He later settled on the piece of land, built a log cabin there in 1773, and brought several families back with him who settled across the river on the Jericho side. These families were the Browns, the Messengers, and the Roods. The Messengers also settled along the Winooski River, the Roods near Mill Brook, and the Browns went farther northeast, near what we now call the Browns River.
This was an unsettled time, and there were many conflicts not only between the Native Americans and the European settlers but also between the officials who controlled the land on paper. Most of these original settlements were not used permanently until 1783, when hostilities died down and settlers returned to the land.
The Shaping of Jericho
The original boundaries of Jericho were drawn onto a map by New Hampshire’s colonial governor Benning Wentworth, who divided up most of the state of Vermont into six-by-six mile blocks. At this time, the town’s southern border extended all the way to the Winooski River. Richmond was later carved out of the southern portion of Jericho and the northern section of Huntington in 1794.
To cover just a few basic time periods of local history, let’s start with farming trends. From the time settlers arrived in 1784 until about 1820, subsistence farms popped up gradually on the landscape, with each family producing what was needed to feed themselves with little or nothing left over. These homesteads were generally built with local materials and were quite small. Although there were over 100 farmsteads in Jericho by 1815, the land was less than 12% cleared.
In 1820, the sheep industry took over, producing wool that was shipped down the Hudson River to New York City and elsewhere. At this time, the world wool market was very profitable. Jericho had over 3600 sheep at this time, and there were five wool carding and cloth dressing mills in town. Land was cleared at a much faster rate during this time to pasture the sheep. The landscape went from being 12% cleared to 65% in only 30 years.
The profitability for Vermont farmers in the wool industry crashed around 1850, when changes in transportation caused sheep farming to suddenly be much cheaper in the west. A railroad line went up in the Winooski Valley in 1849, and the general way of life changed dramatically in the entire region. These changes in transportation brought changes in agriculture, with most of the area’s farms switching to dairy, producing butter and cheese to export to nearby towns and within New England. From 1850 until 1950, there were more cows in Jericho than people. This was a very stable time in the local history, when many farms were built and the size of houses and barns steadily increased. Most of the area’s rock walls appeared in the late 19th century, switching over to barbed wire in the early 1900s.
This industry went strong until the 1920s, when regulations demanded that farmers store milk in a bulk tank in order to stay in business. Small farms suddenly could not keep up with the costs of running a farm, and while a few farms grew larger and larger, the family farmers slowly dropped out of the picture. We now have only two dairy farms remaining in Jericho.