The system of local government in use in New England is very different from that found throughout the rest of the United States. The basic unit of the New England system is an entity called a “town”. A “town” in the New England sense is not necessarily the same thing that residents of other parts of the U.S. have in mind when they think of a “town”.
In most parts of the U.S., incorporated municipalities typically consist of a single, compact populated place, and communities do not incorporate unless and until a decision is made at the local level to do so. Areas that have not been organized into incorporated municipalities receive their local services directly from counties (a common setup in the south and west) and/or from administrative subdivisions called townships (a common setup in the midwest). In these areas, rural non-built up territory is typically unincorporated, and some states have significant amounts of unincorporated territory even in urban areas. County government tends to play an important role in local government.
In New England, by contrast, almost all territory is organized into incorporated municipalities, typically called towns. Towns were originally set up so that all land was essentially within the boundaries of a town. Except in some very sparsely populated areas of the three northern New England states, the concept of unincorporated territory, even in rural areas, is unknown. Since virtually all residents live within the boundaries of an incorporated municipality, residents receive most local services at the municipal level, and county government tends to be very weak (in some areas, county government has even been abolished). Residents usually identify very strongly with their town for purposes of civic identity, thinking of the town as a single, coherent community. This is true even though towns often cover sizable land areas and may include multiple distinct populated places and/or a mixture of both built-up and rural territory.
The contrast between the New England town system and the municipal systems used elsewhere in the U.S. can sometimes lead to confusion. A New Englander who moves to a different part of the country may not realize that the rest of the country does not work the same way New England does, and may be puzzled by concepts like unincorporated territory, townships and county-based local government services. Similarly, individuals from outside New England sometimes have a poor understanding of how the New England system works. A common misconception is that New England towns are not incorporated and/or are much more similar to midwestern townships than they actually are.
The Development of the New England Town System
Towns date back to the time of the earliest European colonial settlement of New England, and pre-date the development of counties in the region. Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, as areas were settled, they would be organized into towns. Town boundaries were not usually laid out on any kind of regular grid, but were drawn up to reflect local settlement and transportation patterns or natural features. In early colonial times, recognition of towns was very informal, but by 1700, colonial governments had become more involved in the official establishment of new towns. Towns were typically governed by a town meeting form of government (as many still are today).
The entire areas of Connecticut and Rhode Island had been divided into towns by the late 18th century, and Massachusetts was almost completely covered early in the 19th century. By 1850, the only New England state that still had large unincorporated areas left was Maine, and by the end of the 19th century most areas in Maine that could realistically be settled had been organized into towns.
Early town organization in Vermont and much of New Hampshire proceeded in a somewhat different manner from that of the other New England states. In these areas, towns were often “chartered” long before any settlers moved into a particular area. This was very common in the mid to late 18th century (towns in southeastern New Hampshire whose existence predates that period were not part of this process). Once there were enough residents in a town to formally organize a town government, no further action was necessary to incorporate. This practice can lead to inconsistencies in the dates of incorporation for towns in this region. Dates given in reference sources sometime reflect the date the town was chartered – which may have been long before it was even settled – not the date its town government actually became active. In other parts of New England, it was not uncommon during for “future towns” to be laid out along these lines (sometimes referred to as “townships”), but such areas would not be formally incorporated until they were sufficiently settled to organize a town government. In particular, much of the interior of Maine was originally laid out as surveyed townships.
Many early towns covered very large amounts of land, and once areas had become settled, new towns were sometimes formed by breaking areas away from the original existing towns. This was an especially common practice during the 18th century and early 19th century. More heavily populated areas were often subdivided on multiple occasions, producing towns that are typically smaller in terms of land area than towns in rural areas. Formation of new towns in this manner slowed in the later part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, however, and is very rarely seen today; in fact, boundary changes of any type are fairly rare.
Other Types of Municipalities in New England
Although towns are the basic building block of New England municipality system, several other types of municipalities also exist. In addition to towns, every New England state also has cities. Certain states also have incorporated boroughs or villages, and Maine has a unique type of entity called a plantation.
Boroughs and Villages
One of the most striking features of the New England system is that fact that, unlike in other parts of the U.S., incorporated municipalities do not necessarily consist of a single, compact populated place. In most areas of New England, for example, there is no real equivalent to a “town” in the south, a “village” in the midwest/New York State, or a “borough” in Pennsylvania/New Jersey. Such entities would seem to just represent a redundant layer of local government in the New England town system.
Two of the New England states do have general-purpose municipalities of this type, however, to at least a limited extent. Connecticut has incorporated boroughs, and Vermont has incorporated villages. Such areas remain a part of their parent town, but assume some responsibilities for municipal services within their boundaries. In both states, they are typically regarded as less important than towns, and both seem to be in decline as institutions.
It should be noted that the term “village” is sometimes used in New England to describe a distinct, built-up place within a town. This may be a “town center” which bears the same name as the town or city (almost every town has such a place), or a name related to that of the town, or a completely unrelated name. The town of Barnstable, Mass., for example, includes “villages” called Barnstable, West Barnstable, and Hyannis.
Except for the incorporated villages in Vermont, these “villages” are not incorporated municipalities and should not be understood as such. Towns do sometimes grant a certain measure of recognition to such areas, officially referring to them as “villages” and using highway signs that identify them as villages. Many villages also are recognized as places by the U.S. Postal Service (some villages have their own post offices, with their names used in mailing addresses) or the U.S. Census Bureau (which recognizes some villages as “Census Defined Places” and tabulates census data for them). But they have no real legal existence separate from the town, and are usually regarded by local residents as a part of the town in which they are located, less important than the whole.
In addition to towns, every New England state also has incorporated cities. A city differs from a town only in its form of government, and even that distinction has become somewhat blurred in recent decades. In fact, most cities are simply former towns that changed to a city form of government because they grew too large to be administered by a town meeting. Cities are typically governed by a mayor (and/or city manger) and city council or other similar arrangement. Cities and towns are regarded as equivalents under both state law and the attitudes of local residents; in common speech, people often refer to communities which are cities as “towns”, drawing no distinction between the two types.
There are some quirks to this in certain of the New England states. In Connecticut in particular, the historical development of cities was quite different from in the other New England states, and some of the technicalities of cities are still very different today. In practice, though, most cities in Connecticut today do not function any differently from their counterparts elsewhere in New England.
There are far fewer cities in New England than there are towns, although cities are more common in heavily built-up areas, and most of the largest municipalities in the region are titled as cities. Across New England as a whole, only about 5% of all incorporated municipalities are cities. Cities are more common in the three southern New England states than they are in the three northern New England states.
There has never been a bright-line population divider between towns and cities (i.e., no rule that communities that achieve a certain level of population automatically become cities), and there are many instances of towns that have larger populations than nearby cities. The practical threshold to become a city seems to be higher in the three southern New England states than in the three northern New England states. In Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, every city has at least 10,000 people, and there are only a few that have less than 20,000. In Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, there are a number of cities with less than 10,000 people, a couple with fewer than 5,000.
The first New England state to have incorporated cities was Connecticut, which established its earliest examples in the 1780s. Connecticut’s early cities did not really follow the general description of cities given above. These did not represent an entire town that had grown too large to be governed by a town government. Rather, they were more like a borough that had grown too large to be administered by a borough government. They only covered a portion (not all) of the town in which they were established, assuming responsibility over some municipal services in that area.
In the same time period, a few other attempts were made at establishing city governments elsewhere in New England, perhaps influenced by Connecticut’s actions. In 1791, the Vermont legislature authorized the incorporation of the City of Vergennes. Like the cities in Connecticut, Vergennes only covered a borough or village-sized area, much smaller than a typical town. Unlike the cities in Connecticut, Vergennes was a completely independent municipality, not part of any town. For many years it would remain an anomaly, a city in a state in which all other top-level municipalities were towns. During the 1780s, there was also a short-lived city government set up in Newport, Rhode Island. It was ultimately abandoned, and the town government re-established.
The “Boston Model”
By the early 19th century, it had become apparent that some of New England’s larger cities were reaching levels of population that made them too large to be governed under an open town meeting form of government. By 1820, Boston’s population exceeded 40,000.
In the early 1820s, the Massachusetts state legislature authorized the introduction of a city form of government, and in 1822 Boston became the first community in the state to adopt one. Unlike the earlier cities in Connecticut, these new cities in Massachusetts did not cover only a portion of, and remain a part of, the town in which they were established. Instead, the entire municipality was transformed from a town into a city. Other New England states soon followed Massachusetts’ lead. In 1832, Providence became the first city in Rhode Island, along similar lines. By the 1840s, New Hampshire and Maine had also introduced city governments along the lines of what Massachusetts had done.
Connecticut and Vermont
In the wake of the introduction of the “Boston model”, Connecticut incorporated some additional cities. But it did not abandon its traditional model of borough-like cities that overlaid, and only included a portion of (not all of), a town; some of the new cities were simply former boroughs that had upgraded to a city form of government. Over time, however, many cities in Connecticut consolidated with their towns, expanding so that the city was coextensive with the town, and the entire town could participate in the city government. Today, almost all of Connecticut’s cities are like that, and in practice these cities are really no different from cities in the other New England states that followed the “Boston model”. Technically, however, cities in Connecticut still overlay towns, and even if an entire town becomes a city, the town continues to exist. For example, while Hartford is commonly thought of as a city, there is technically both a coextensive “City of Hartford” and “Town of Hartford”, the latter essentially existing only on paper. And from a historical perspective, most cities in Connecticut are not simply towns that became cities in their entirety in one fell swoop; a borough or city often existed within the town long before the entire town became a city.
Vermont also began to create more cities after the middle of the 19th century. Just as boroughs influenced the development of the city process in Connecticut, the presence of incorporated villages in Vermont shaped the direction of city development there. Many of the new cities formed in Vermont were formed by villages that adopted a city form of government, not by entire towns changing into cities. As a result, most cities in Vermont today are former villages rather than former towns, and are much smaller than a typical town in terms of land area. Unlike Connecticut, however, Vermont has never used overlays with cities. If a village in Vermont becomes a city, it broke away from its parent town and becomes a completely separate municipality. This is more like the other New England states, where a city is seen as separate, distinct and equivalent to a town. The above two rules have combined to create several instances where there are adjacent towns and cities with the same name. In all cases, the village was once the “town center” of the town, but later incorporated as a city and became a separate municipality.
Over time, the distinction between a town and a city has become blurred. Since the early 20th century, towns have been allowed to modify the town meeting form of government in various ways (e.g., representative town meeting, adding a town manager). In recent decades, some towns have adopted what effectively amount to city forms of government, although they still refer to themselves as towns. As a practical matter, one municipality that calls itself a town and another that calls itself a city may have exactly the same governmental structure. With these changes in town government, a reluctance to adopt the title of city seems to have developed, and few towns have officially become cities since the early 20th century.
In addition to towns and cities, Maine has a third type of town-like municipality, the plantation. A plantation is essentially a town-like community that doesn't have enough population to be a true, full-blown town. Plantations are organized at the county level, and are typically found in sparsely populated areas. There is no bright-line population divider between a town and a plantation, but no plantation currently has any more than about 300 residents. Plantations are considered to be “organized” but not “incorporated”. Not all counties have them; in some southern counties, all territory is sufficiently populated to be covered by a town or a city.
No other New England state currently has an entity equivalent to a plantation. In colonial times, Massachusetts also used the term “plantation” for a community in a pre-town stage of development – in fact, Maine probably originally got the term from Massachusetts, as Maine was once part of Massachusetts – but the term has been out of wide use there since the 18th century. Massachusetts also once had “districts”, which served much the same purpose. Districts were typically municipalities that had been formed by breaking off from existing towns. They were considered to be incorporated, but lacked the full privileges of a town. Maine and Rhode Island are also known to have made limited use of the district concept. Districts have not been at all common since the first half of the 19th century, and there have not been any districts anywhere in New England in over a century.
All three of the northern New England states (Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) contain some areas that are unincorporated and thus not part of any town, city or plantation. Maine has significantly more such area than the other two states. Most non-town areas are located in very sparsely populated regions; much of the barely-inhabited interior of Maine is unincorporated, for example. While it is important to note that such areas do exist, their importance should not overstated; they are certainly the exception rather than the rule in the New England system, and the number of New England residents who live in such areas is extremely small in comparison to those who live in towns and cities, even in Maine.
Most non-town areas can be classified under two categories, “unincorporated townships” and “gores, grants, locations, and purchases.”
Unincorporated townships, sometimes called “unincorporated towns”, are town-sized areas that do not have a formal town government. Many have no local government at all (some have no permanent population whatsoever); some may have a very rudimentary organization (e.g., a town clerk’s office exists for the purpose of conducting elections). Note that the meaning of the term “township” in this sense is not at all the same as a Midwestern township. Some townships are areas that were drawn up on a map in the 18th and 19th centuries as “future towns” but never saw enough settlement to commence operation of a formal town government. Some townships were once incorporated as towns but disincorporated due to population loss. Much of the interior of Maine is divided into surveyed townships that are identified only by letters and numbers and were probably never seriously intended to ever become towns.
The gores, grants, locations and purchases are areas (typically smaller than a normal-sized town) that were for whatever reason not included in any town back when town boundaries were being drawn up in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sometimes these areas were not included in any town due to survey errors (which is actually the technical meaning of the term “gore”). Sometimes they represent small areas that were left over when a particular region was carved into towns, not large enough to be a town on their own. Some appear to be in areas where it was not contemplated that towns would ever develop. Like the unincorporated townships, these areas typically have either no local government at all, or a very rudimentary form of organization. It should be noted, however, that Harts Location, NH has incorporated as a town, and Wentworths Location, NH was also incorporated as a town at one time. These areas were once more numerous, and were even present in the southern New England states as well, but over the years those located in more populated areas have tended to be annexed to neighboring towns or to simply incorporate as towns in their own right.
Maine has significantly more unincorporated territory than Vermont or New Hampshire. Fewer than 100 Vermont residents and fewer than 250 New Hampshire residents live in unincorporated areas. In Maine, by contrast, about 10,000 residents live in unincorporated areas (not including residents of plantations, which are technically “unincorporated” but have much more of a municipal organization than the areas being discussed in this section). As a result, Maine has developed more of an infrastructure for administration of unincorporated areas than the other New England states. The existence of this fallback is probably explains why Maine has had significantly more town disincorporated over the years than any other New England state. There have been several instances of towns in Maine with a few hundred residents disincorporating; while these are certainly not large communities, they are large enough to realistically operate a town government if they want to, but apparently elected not to do so. In the other New England states, disincorporation has generally not been brought up unless a town’s population has fallen into single digits.
Census Treatment of the New England Town System
Because they often do not represent single, compact, populated places, the U.S. Census Bureau treats New England towns differently from incorporated municipalities in other states. Rather than listing New England towns as “incorporated places”, the Census Bureau treats them as “Minor Civil Divisions” (MCDs), the same category into which midwestern townships fall. The Census Bureau does so because they feel that, from a population-distribution standpoint, New England towns are not really equivalent to, and cannot be fairly compared to, the “single, compact populated place” type of municipalities found in other states. The Census Bureau also treats plantations in Maine as MCDs.
The Census Bureau does treat New England cities as incorporated places, apparently because, as larger, more consistently built-up places, they tend to be closer to the city concept found in other states. Boroughs in Connecticut and Villages in Vermont are also treated as incorporated places.
To fill in some of the “place” data, the Census Bureau sometimes recognizes Census Defined Places (CDPs) within towns. These often correspond to town centers or villages, although not all such areas are recognized as CDPs. In cases where a town is entirely or almost entirely built up, the Census sometimes recognizes a CDP which is coextensive with the entire town.
While the Census Bureau does its best to compile data for New England in a manner that is suitable for comparison with data from the rest of the country, the Census Bureau’s methods are at the root of much of the confusion over how the New England town system works:
• The fact that New England towns are not classified as incorporated places leads some to believe that they are not incorporated. This is incorrect. New England towns are not classified as incorporated places because the Census feels that they do not meet the census definition of “place”. They are in fact incorporated.
• The fact that towns are classified under the same category as Midwestern townships leads some to believe that New England towns and Midwestern townships are very similar to one another. This is incorrect. Aside from population-distribution patterns (which is the reason why the Census places them in the same category), they really are not very similar at all.
• The fact that New England cities are recognized as incorporated places while New England towns are not leads some to believe that they are two fundamentally different types of entities. They are not; the differences between them are slight, and they are seen locally as equivalent to one another. Once again, the distinction is related to the Census Bureau’s perception of population-distribution patterns.
• While most New Englanders think in terms of entire towns (i.e., MCD data), most people outside of New England use “place” data for population statistics. For New England, the statistics included in the latter will reflect CDPs rather than entire towns. This data does not at all reflect the actual organization of municipalities or the way local residents actually look at things. CDP data for a given “town” usually represents only a portion of a town, and towns in which no CDP is recognized will not be listed at all (essentially, there is no such “place”). Most of the CDP data is meaningless to New Englanders.
• In most parts of the country, CDPs represent unincorporated places. This leads some to believe that CDPs in New England are likewise unincorporated, which is particularly confusing in cases where a CDP bears the same name as a town (i.e., it is the “town center” of the town, or is coextensive with an entire town); non-New England data users sometimes assume that the community by that name must be unincorporated, if it is a CDP.
In New Hampshire and Vermont, the Census Bureau treats each individual non-town area (township, gore, grant, etc.) as an MCD. In Maine, apparently due to the extent of unorganized territory, the Census Bureau typically lumps contiguous townships, gores and the like together into “unorganized territories”, which are then recognized as MCDs. In a few cases where a township or gore does not border any other unorganized territory, it is treated as its own MCD.
Statistics and Superlatives
Note: all population statistics are from the 2000 U.S. Census.
Massachusetts contains 40 incorporated cities and 311 incorporated towns. Collectively, these 351 municipalities cover the entire state; there is no unincorporated territory.
(It should be noted that different sources will quote varying numbers of cities and towns in Massachusetts, due to apparent attempts to classify certain communities that call themselves "towns" as "cities", based on having a form of government that is essentially a city form of government. While other New England states have towns with similar arrangements, only in Massachusetts has any attempt been made to classify communities along these lines. The U.S. Census Bureau claims that there are 45 cities and 306 towns; the Massachusetts Secretary of State's office claims that there are 50 cities and 301 towns. There are only 40 municipalities which consistently identify themselves as cities, however. For purposes of this article, only those 40 municipalities are recognized as cities.)
The largest municipality in Massachusetts, by population, is the city of Boston (pop. 589,141). The largest which is a town and not a city is Framingham (pop. 66,910). The smallest which is a city and not a town is North Adams (pop. 14,681). The smallest overall is the town of Gosnold (pop. 86).
The largest municipality by land area is the town of Plymouth (96 square miles), the smallest the town of Nahant (1.24 square miles).
Rhode Island contains 8 incorporated cities and 31 incorporated towns. Collectively, these 39 municipalities cover the entire state; there is no unincorporated territory.
The largest municipality in Rhode Island, by population, is the city of Providence (pop. 173,618). The largest which is a town and not a city is Coventry (pop. 33,668). The smallest which is a city and not a town is Central Falls (pop. 18,928). The smallest overall is the town of New Shoreham (pop. 1,010).
The largest municipality by land area is Coventry (59 square miles), the smallest Central Falls (1.21 square miles).
Put into terms that are equivalent to the other New England states, Connecticut contains 19 incorporated cities and 150 incorporated towns. Collectively, these 169 municipalities cover the entire state; there is no unincorporated territory. (As discussed in Section 2.2.3 of this article, the relationship between towns and cities in Connecticut is different from the other New England states, at least on paper; thus, technically, all 169 of the above municipalities are really towns, with 19 overlaid by a coextensive city of the same name).
Connecticut is one of two New England states to have any type of incorporated general-purpose municipality below the town level, namely incorporated boroughs. There are about 10 in the state. They were once somewhat more numerous, and many of those that remain are very small. Connecticut also has one remaining city that is within, but not coextensive with, its parent town (Groton).
The largest municipality in Connecticut, by population, is the city of Bridgeport (pop. 139,529). The largest which is a town and not a city is West Hartford (pop. 63,589). The smallest which is a city and not a town, only including cities which are coextensive with their towns, is Derby (pop. 12,391); the city-within-a-town of Groton is however smaller (pop. 10,010). The smallest town is Union (pop. 693).
The largest municipality by land area is the town of New Milford (61 square miles). The smallest town-level municipality is Derby (4.98 square miles).
New Hampshire contains 13 incorporated cities and 221 incorporated towns. Collectively, these 234 municipalities cover the vast majority of, but not all of, the state's territory. There are some unincorporated areas in the sparsely populated northern region of the state. Most of the unincorporated areas are in Coos County, the state's northernmost county. Carroll and Grafton counties also contain smaller amounts of unincorporated territory. The remaining seven counties in the state are entirely incorporated. Fewer than 250 of the state's residents live in unincorporated areas.
The largest municipality in New Hampshire, by population, is the city of Manchester (pop. 107,006). The largest which is a town and not a city is Derry (pop. 34,021). The smallest which is a city and not a town is Franklin (pop. 8,405). The smallest incorporated municipality overall is the town of Hart's Location (pop. 37), which, despite its name, is an incorporated town.
The largest municipality by land area is the town of Pittsburg (282 square miles), the smallest the town of New Castle (0.83 square miles).
Vermont contains 9 incorporated cities and 237 incorporated towns. Collectively, these 246 municipalities cover the vast majority of, but not all of, the state's territory. There are some unincorporated areas in the sparsely populated mountainous regions of the state. Most of the unincorporated areas are in Essex County, in the northeastern part of the state. Bennington, Windham and Chittenden counties also contain smaller amounts of unincorporated territory. The remaining ten counties in the state are entirely incorporated. Fewer than 100 of the state's residents live in unincorporated areas.
Vermont is one of two New England states to have any type of incorporated general-purpose municipality below the town level, namely incorporated villages. There are about 40 in the state. There were once nearly double that number, and most of those that remain are very small.
The largest municipality in Vermont, by population, is the city of Burlington (pop. 38,889). The largest which is a town and not a city is Essex (pop. 18,626). The smallest which is a city and not a town is Vergennes (pop. 2,741). The smallest incorporated town is Granby (pop. 86).
The largest municipality by land area is the town of Chittenden (73 square miles). The smallest town-level municipality is the city of Winooksi (1.43 square miles).
Maine contains 22 incorporated cities and 433 incorporated towns. There are also 34 plantations. Collectively, these 489 municipalities cover much of, but certainly not all of, the state's territory. Only four of Maine's sixteen counties are entirely incorporated, although a few others are nearly so, and most of the incorporated areas are in very sparsely populated regions. Only about 1% of the state's population lives in unincorporated areas.
The largest municipality in Maine, by population, is the city of Portland (pop. 64,249). The largest which is a town and not a city is Brunswick (pop. 21,172). The smallest which is a city and not a town is Eastport (pop. 1,640). The smallest town is Frye Island, a resort town which reported no year-round population in the 2000 Census; one plantation, Glenwood, also reported a permanent population of zero. The smallest town aside from Frye Island is Centerville (pop. 26).
The largest municipality by land area is the town of Allagash (128 square miles), the smallest Monhegan Plantation (0.86 square miles).