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Town Analyses > South Burlington > Early Settlement

Early Settlement


Since the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet 13,000 years ago, Vermont remained an inhospitable place for human habitation for thousands of years. According to the authors of The Story of Vermont: A Natural and Cultural History, the Abenaki (the main indigenous group residing in Vermont today) inhabited the area when Europeans arrived in the 1600s, and descended from a line of American Indians whose home territory expanded with changing environmental conditions (1999). Records indicate that large villages existed near Lake Champlain and along major rivers for a couple centuries before European arrival, with an estimated population of 4,000 Abenaki living in the Champlain Valley.

The first European to visit Vermont, Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1609. However, it was not until the mid-1700's that large numbers of Europeans began to come into the area, due to military and political interactions between the French in the north and the British in the south.

Population data for the state of Vermont began in 1790, listing 330 residents for Burlington (Vermont Indicators Online 2006), which included South Burlington at this point because it did not exist as a separate township until 1865. The number of Burlingtonians had grown more than ten times that amount by 1830 when the census recorded 3,526 residents.

In 1865, Burlingtonians voted to create the separate township of South Burlington mainly due to the diverging thoughts of how to spend public money. Residents living in the urban areas near the water were experiencing an outbreak of typhoid fever and attributed this directly to the proximity of the sewer discharge point in the lake to their source of potable water, the water intake point in Burlington Bay. Rural residents in what became the Town of South Burlington were far removed from this problem and did not want to vote for the expensive project of extending the sewer effluent pipe farther into the lake. According the Jane Dorney, Vermont cultural geographer, this split separated Burlington's urban residents from the farming communities living outside of the growing city due to insurmountable differences in opinions regarding the use of public money for the installation of sewers in the city center (pers. comm., February 18, 2009).

By the 1870 census, 13,596 residents lived in the City of Burlington and 791 inhabited the newly formed Town of South Burlington. At this point, South Burlington's population was left decentralized and without a clear sense of self that has, to some extent, continued into the present day. The town kept its population size and dairy farming character relatively constant until about 1950, when it began to grow at an accelerated pace, despite the state wide population decline. Around this time, it was common for traffic to stop along Williston Road for cattle crossings. However, this rural character changed quickly in the coming decade.

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