Friday, June 21, 2013

The Secessionists

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 21, 2013.

Exeter used to be much larger. When Reverend John Wheelwright first organized the town in 1638, he wasn’t too certain where the actual boundaries were, so he drafted two separate deeds to sign with the native Squamscotts. Over the course of the next 150 years, the town shrank to its current size as portions of town petitioned to secede.

Back in Wheelwright’s day, everyone in town had to pay taxes to both the town and the parish. There was only one church with only one meeting house. Whether you subscribed to the particular denomination or not, you still had to pay for the church, the minister and the minister’s upkeep. This was no small requirement considering the town church often functioned as the town government. However, they were required to attend church services – a difficulty if you happen to live on the outskirts of town. Schlepping in for Sunday services in the dead of winter could be a huge project in an era before there were halfway decent roads.

Newmarket was the first part of Exeter to request a separation. The meeting house was simply too far away for most people and it had become a problem. It was only eight miles away, but that was quite a trek by horse cart. In 1727, they petitioned the town of Exeter to be allowed to form their own parish. Exeter approved the separation – but continued to charge taxes for municipal expenses until 1737, when the Provincial Legislature granted Newmarket complete town privileges.

Of course, there were two parts of Newmarket in 1727. There was the Newmarket we know today on the Lamprey River and the portion known as ‘Newfields’ on the Squamscott River. These separate parts of town had separate post offices, the Newmarket branch and the Newfields branch, which was called ‘South Newmarket.’ When the two towns separated in 1849, Newfields, for simplicity sake, called itself ‘South Newmarket.’ It continued to be called South Newmarket for the next 26 years. All the men who served in the Civil War from the town are listed as being from South Newmarket. Finally, in 1895, the town officially changed its name to Newfields after the will of Dr. John Brodhead gifted the town $10,000.00 to buy books for a public library – but only if it changed its name officially to Newfields.

Far in the northwest corner of Exeter was a heavily wooded area. To encourage settlement, the town gave away woodlots to anyone willing to move there. In 1741, the people in this part of town voted to ask Exeter to let them form into their own town. Named for Epping Woods in England, Epping – the self-described ‘center of the universe’- was granted township rights in early 1742. Theirs was a peaceful and uncomplicated separation. The same cannot be said for Brentwood and Fremont.

Brentwood asked to leave Exeter at about the same time as Epping. Like the other towns, the difficulty of getting to the Exeter meetinghouse and the requirement to pay Exeter taxes were cited as reasons to become independent. Exeter had no real objections to allowing Brentwood its freedom, and it was granted separation in June of 1742. But within the town of Brentwood there was discontent. The new town was still too large – at least it was according to the people who lived in the western part of town. They repeatedly cranked about the new Brentwood meeting house being too far away and in 1744 declared themselves to be a separate town – Keeneborough.

But Keeneborough was never legally incorporated as a town. Brentwood continued to assess taxes on the residents, who appealed to the Governor and the Provincial Council in 1748. The fight was then thrown to the local minister, Nathaniel Trask, who managed to calm everyone down and reunite the two squabbling factions. The illegal charter was thrown out in 1750 and Keeneborough ceased to exist – if it had ever existed in the first place.

But the people of the defunct Keeneborough could not be kept quiet. In 1757 they again petitioned to separate from Brentwood and again were denied. In 1763 they tried to join the town of Chester, when this was refused; they tried to join Epping, which wisely refused to get involved in the dispute. Finally, in 1764, Brentwood decided the recalcitrant part of town was too much trouble to keep and snapped the leash free. The new town named itself ‘Poplin’ for reasons that are unclear. Even within the new boundaries, there were still some rebellious folks. In 1765 the northern part of Poplin tried, unsuccessfully, to join with Epping.

The request was again denied. Epping was happy being Epping and didn’t need a cousin Oliver to mix things up. Poplin patched up its internal differences and unified to become a town. Except no one really liked the name ‘Poplin.’ In 1853, they almost changed their name to ‘Lindon’ but thought better of it. Finally, the following year, riding high on the exploits of John C. Fremont – a western adventurer who had no ties to Poplin or New Hampshire – the townsfolk voted to change the name to ‘Fremont’ and thus it has been ever since.

Photo Caption: June 30, 1938 – Couriers on horseback are dispatched from Exeter to the towns of Newmarket, Epping, Brentwood, Newfields and Fremont inviting them to participate in Exeter’s 300th Anniversary. All these towns were once part of Exeter.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Mast Tree Riots of 1734

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, June 7, 2013.

Lumber was so important to Exeter’s early residents that it was used in place of money. It was common for debts to be paid in barrel staves. So it’s no wonder that people considered trees the most valuable asset in town, considering they grew here for free and were, in the words of one historical society volunteer, “like thousand dollar bills sprouting from the ground.”

To the British government, New England’s towering pine trees were perfect for masts on his majesty’s naval vessels. In 1705, an Act was passed reserving the largest trees for the King’s Navy. A Surveyor General was appointed to locate any trees measuring larger than 24 inches at one foot from the base. These trees were then marked with three strokes of a hatchet that produced a pattern called the broad arrow. Locals were not allowed to cut these huge trees, the work was done by a local contractor who would find a crew to cut the tree, trim it and haul it to the nearest port. The contractor was also in charge of producing or improving long straight roadways to transport the trees. Exeter, like many towns, had a road that was called the “Mast Way” (later called “Lane’s End” and “Katy’s Lane,” today the old Mast Way is Park Street). 

New Englanders resented the act and most would at some point just get fed up and cut the tree down. The boards cut from it would be milled down to less than 24” in width; the owner made a small fortune and no one was the wiser. At least, that’s how things went for nearly 40 years. No one asked a lot of questions.

But there’s always that one guy – probably the same one who used to ask the teacher if there was any homework – who couldn’t shake the feeling that someone somewhere was getting away with something. That man, in 1734, was the Lieutenant Governor David Dunbar. Dunbar was also the Surveyor General and he was convinced (probably rightly) that the people of Exeter were cheating on the 24 inch rule. He trudged out to the Copyhold Saw-mill in a part of Exeter that would later become Brentwood. While he was on the road, the local lumbermen caught wind of his plans and greeted him with shouts and gunfire to scare him off. Dunbar made a hasty retreat, fearing for his life.

More convinced than ever, he returned to Portsmouth and hired a motley gang of ten men to sail up the Squamscott to do his dirty work. They arrived on the evening of April 23rd, checked into Simon Gilman’s tavern on Water Street and began drinking the night away. Loosened up with ale, the men bragged about their errand. Gilman then told them that the local men had taken up a collection and hired some Indians to murder Dunbar and two of his associates as soon as they left in the morning for the Black Rocks mill. Gilman was bluffing, but they didn’t know that.

Meanwhile, the local men were meeting at Gidding’s Tavern over on the Mast Way. Dressing unconvincingly as “Indians,” they made their way to Simon Gilman’s tavern and attacked the Surveyor General’s frightened and intoxicated men. According to his deposition taken the following day, James Pitman swore under oath that, “about thirty men broke into the room and put out their candles and did then and there beat us and dragged us about and at length got us to the head of the chamber stairs and pulled us down one over another headlong ‘till they got us to the door and pulled us out then with a club did knock him down upon the ground giving him several blows with which was in great danger of his life having received several wounds and lost a great deal of blood.” Joseph Cross testified to Justice of the Peace John Penhallow, “that he was knocked down with a club, otherwise abused, and his life threatened; that he got away and hid behind a fence until morning.” William Stiggins and William Tarrat stated, “that hearing the cry of murder they got out of the house and mixed with the crowd, escaping thus from injury.” Benjamin Dockum ran as fast as he could and hid under the wharf for the night. Joseph Miller told of being “pulled out of the house and after that they took him by the arms and legs and dragged him to the bank where there was a pile of boards over which they threw him and down the bank about fifteen foot, by which he received a great hurt in his back, where he lay ‘till next morning being afraid to be seen again least he should be murdered, but being hard of hearing could not understand their discourse afterwards.”

The only one to escape entirely was a man named ‘Negro Peter’ who said he was forewarned and kept out of the way. The Surveyor General’s men never made it to the Copyhold mill or the Black Rocks mill further up the river in what is Fremont today. The accounts of the Mast Tree Riot may be somewhat exaggerated – most likely so – but who could blame the men who wanted to make it abundantly clear that they had reason to avoid setting foot in Exeter ever again. Dunbar must have been furious, but he also was well aware of the neighborliness of annoyed Exeter lumbermen.

The Reverend Samuel Dudley

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, ​​​May 24, 2013.

In Exeter, as in most of New England in the 1600s, the most important man in town was the minister. The Reverend John Wheelwright had organized Exeter in 1638, but had been forced to leave when the townsmen voted to align themselves with the Massachusetts Bay Colony just five years later. Some of Wheelwright’s followers left with him, but many remained and quietly absorbed newcomers who arrived after Wheelwright’s departure. Although the town was able to govern itself with elders and selectmen, not having a spiritual leader weighed heavily on the inhabitants.

Wheelwright had hoped that his friend Thomas Rashleigh would accept the job, but Rashleigh refused for his own reasons. A substitute, the Reverend Hatevil Nutter of Dover, was asked to fill-in while the town searched for a new permanent minister. It was a time when money was in short supply, and so the Rev. Nutter was paid not with cash but with service. He owned a tract of land on the Lamprey River and it needed fencing. Every year, the townsmen of Exeter were required to donate time and materials to enclose the property. After five years, the job was done, the Reverend Nutter signed the town book acknowledging the work was done and his services were no longer needed. Fortunately, by that time, June of 1650, the search committee had located a new preacher when the Reverend Samuel Dudley accepted the call to come to Exeter.

It had been difficult finding someone to serve the town. There were few trained ministers available and Exeter had little to offer. It was still a fledgling community; the only resources in town were trees and fish. Several times, the committee had made offers to likely candidates, only to see the deal fall through. To attract Dudley, they had to make his commitment worth the privations he would have to endure. In exchange for his services, Mr. Dudley was to receive Wheelwright’s house, garden and cow-house – all of which needed some renovations before he could move in. He would also receive £40 a year as pay. The particulars are written into a contract that was transcribed into the town records, “it is further agreed upon that the old cow-house, which was Mr. Wheelwright’s, shall by the town be fixed up fit for the settling of cattle in, and that the aforesaid pay of £40 a year is to be made in good pay every half year, in corn and English commodities at a price current, as they go generally in the country at the time or times of payment.”

There was very little actual money circulating in the colonies during this time and commerce was done with a barter system similar to the Rev. Dudley’s contract. To pay the minister his due, townsmen were taxed based on the number of pipe staves, hogshead staves or bolts that they produced. These were finished pieces of saleable lumber that the people used as currency. The tax rate, as listed in the town records, was, “for every thousand of pipe staves he makes, two shillings, which shall be for the maintenance of the ministry; and for every thousand of hogshead staves, one shilling sixpence; and for every thousand of bolts sold before they be made into staves, four shillings.” All the lumber had to be delivered to the wharf twice annually and would be shipped down the river to Portsmouth or Boston to be exchanged for “English commodities.” The type of goods that were collected was not listed, but one can imagine Mr. Dudley received bolts of cloth, tea and rum for his efforts. Some of these he would no doubt trade around town in exchange for other goods. It was a complicated system – how much was one yard of cloth worth? Perhaps two or three chickens?

Dudley came to the town well-recommended from Massachusetts. He was the son of Governor Thomas Dudley and, although not university trained, had studied hard under his father’s tutelage and was considered well-qualified to preach. His first wife, Mary, had been the daughter of Governor John Winthrop. After Mary’s death in Salisbury, Dudley had married Mary Byley of Salisbury. She was his wife when he arrived in Exeter in 1650. After her death, he married a third time, to Elizabeth Smith of Exeter. The succession of wives bore him eighteen children, a sure sign of God’s grace to the people of that era.

Quite often during his tenure, the town was incapable of paying him the promised £40. To keep him in town, he was granted land and water rights. At the time of his death, his personal inventory showed him to be a man of means and great commercial instincts. 

Dudley remained in Exeter and served as minister for thirty-three years. Charles Bell, author of the “History of Exeter, New Hampshire,” comments that, “there was no visible sign of failure of the powers, physical or mental, of Mr. Dudley, as he drew on to old age. When he was sixty-nine, he was appointed upon a committee for the equal distribution of the of the town lands, a duty which no feeble man would have been selected to perform.” He died in Exeter in 1683 and was buried, according to tradition, in the small cemetery on Green Street.

May Exeter History Minute -- Exeter the Seaport

Did you know that Exeter, New Hampshire, was a seaport? The town was founded around two rivers -- the fresh water Exeter River and the salt water Squamscott -- and the rivers served as the major transportation route for many years, as well as a source of economic prosperity. Tune into our May episode of the Exeter History Minute -- click here to view -- to learn more about Exeter the seaport. This episode is brought to you by Citizens Bank.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute

April's Exeter History Minute -- Shoe in the Wall

Did you know that historians are detectives? We're constantly solving mysteries (even if most of them are small and do not involve murders). While many go unsolved every day, people are always coming to the historical society or approaching Barbara on the street to ask questions about the little historical mysteries of life. Such as... "We found this shoe in our wall while we were remodeling -- what does it mean?" Tune into our April Exeter History Minute -- click here to view -- to hear more about this particular historical mystery. (And then you may wish to consult Northampton Museums.) This segment is brought to you by Service Credit Union.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website,

March's Exeter History Minute -- the Wheelwright Deed

On April 3, 1638, Rev. John Wheelwright signed a deed with the Squamscott tribesmen, effectively creating the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire. Were you aware, however, that the deed left the town for a number of years, only to find its way back 300 years later? Tune into our March episode of the Exeter History Minute -- click here -- to learn more about the Wheelwright Deed! This episode is brought to you by Donahue, Tucker & Ciandella, LLC.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute