Wednesday, January 23, 2013

January's Exeter History Minute -- Exeter's Governors

The election of Maggie Hassan as the 81st governor of New Hampshire means that Exeter can now boast having been home to four heads of our state. In this episode of the History Minute, we focus on the three Exeter men who held the post prior to Governor Hassan. We hope you enjoy our eighth Exeter History Minute -- click here to view -- which was generously sponsored by Commonwealth Dynamics, Inc.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Settlement of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 18, 2013.


The earliest years of Exeter’s existence as a town must have been difficult. The Reverend John Wheelwright arrived here in March of 1638 traveling through deep snow. He’d been expelled the previous November from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for unorthodox preaching and wintered over in the wilderness of New Hampshire, most likely with Edward Hilton in the Dover area.

Wheelwright intended to stay and proposed creating a settlement at the falls of the Squamscott – a river and region so-named because of the seasonal Native People who lived there when warm weather approached. A deal was brokered with the Squamscotts and two deeds drawn up granting the English rights of ownership to the land while retaining the fishing, hunting and cultivation rights for the Natives. The agreement seemed to suit everyone involved and soon after, more Englishmen and their families arrived from Massachusetts to live in the new community.

New Hampshire, at that time, had no centralized government and for the first year of its existence, Exeter had no real government either. The people must have been far too busy building shelters, clearing land and getting in crops to worry about governance. By the next year, however, they decided to get organized. The first order of business was to apportion the land. A year’s worth of exploration had, no doubt, given them some familiarity with the landscape.

They began by giving each head of household some farmland – somewhere between 4 and 80 acres each depending on need and social status. The meadows were apportioned among those who had cattle and rules set for the use of the forests and rivers.

Relations with the Squamscotts remained fairly calm, although the two groups must have marveled at their differing ways of procuring food. The Natives came to Exeter in the Spring to fish in the river, gather berries and nuts and plant small crops such as corn and squash. Their meat – deer, pigeon, turkeys and squirrel – could be found in abundance in the dense forests that surrounded the town. Pigeons were so plentiful that it was said a flock alight could block out the sun.

The English, on the other hand, insisted on bread, beef and pork – none of which could be gathered from the environment without a great deal of effort. Grain crops required cleared land and some type of mill to produce flour. Cattle and swine had to be tended and fed. Within a few years, the townspeople assigned one person to tend the cattle each day. They were gathered in the center of town each morning and taken to the woods to forage. In the evenings, they were returned to their homes.

Pigs, however, were more problematic. They weren’t fed regular meals but were set loose each day to find their own food. As they rooted around for eatables, they sometimes destroyed local gardens. At a town meeting held in 1641 an Exeter goodman was required to “allow the Indians one bushel of corne for ye labor wch was spent by ym in replantying of yt corne of yrs wch was spoyld by his swine.” Loose pigs eventually led to strict laws regarding fences and the job of “inspector of fences” became an important task.

Everyone in town was granted the right to fish on the river, providing they did not infringe or destroy the Native fishing weirs. In 1644, Christopher Lawson was granted the right to construct a weir, which was a way of trapping fish, across the river. He was supposed to ensure that small boats and canoes could still get through, but it must not have worked out because the next year his grant was revoked and the rights of the river were extended back to all townsfolk.

Rights to the forests were also controlled by the town government. Within the first year the central part of the village was largely deforested and harvesting lumber was restricted to one half-mile outside of town. Since food production was low, lumber became the chief source of income for most residents.

Most early records indicate that lumber finished into barrel staves and boards became the currency used in town instead of cash. Most of the local economy functioned on a barter system – including the payment of taxes, which were argued over as much as they are today.

In this manner of inventing rules as they were needed and regulating behavior regarding resources, the small community held together during the early years. When food was scarce, the council ordered a general search of all homes and surplus food was divided among those who needed it – with the understanding that market price would be paid in exchange. The town thus avoided any of the ‘starving times’ experienced in earlier settlements like Plymouth or Jamestown. The laws changed within several decades after the Natives left and sawmills created a booming lumber industry, but the Town of Exeter began with seemingly humble gentlemen’s agreements.


The image above from the town records:

This entry in the Exeter Town Records is from April 9th, 1640. Reading early records can be difficult due to the style of handwriting, spelling variations and calendar differences – this entry begins: “An ordered & inacted law. It is inacted for a law constituted & made & consented unto by the whole assemblye at the Cort sollomly meet togeather in Exeter this 9 day of the 2 moneth Ano. 1640” The first month of the year was March, which explains why the entry was written in April – the second month of the year.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Governors of Exeter

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 4, 2013.

With the inauguration of Maggie Hassan, Exeter can now claim to have four governors from the town. It’s not the most governors from a single town in New Hampshire, but it is an impressive record. New Hampshire and Vermont are the only states that still have a two-year term for governors, and for the first 100 years New Hampshire held a gubernatorial election once a year, so there’s a fairly large pool of governors in our state. Since 1776, New Hampshire has had 81 governors while neighboring states Connecticut and Massachusetts have had 68 and 65 respectively.

The first governor elected from Exeter was John Taylor Gilman. He holds the distinction of being the only Exeter governor who was born and raised here. From a notable family, Gilman was born in 1753 and was a youthful 21 when hostilities broke out at Lexington and Concord in 1775. He quickly mustered together a militia and headed to Cambridge to support the Massachusetts minutemen in case the hostilities spread. None did, so Gilman returned to Exeter. The remainder of his participation in the Revolution was as a civilian. Gilman’s father, Col. Nicholas Gilman, was elected to the post of state treasurer. Working out of the family home on Water Street (now the Ladd-Gilman House – home of the American Independence Museum), Nicholas Gilman depended on his son to assist him with the complex financial work.

When the Declaration of Independence arrived from Philadelphia on July 16, 1776, it was John Taylor Gilman who read the document to the collected townsfolk. The copy he read from was one of the famed Dunlap Broadsides – perhaps the one later found in the attic of the Ladd-Gilman house.

After the war, John Taylor Gilman became the state treasurer at the death of his father in 1783. He retained the job until 1792. In 1794, he was elected governor and would be elected 14 more times before his retirement in 1816. He served an unprecedented 11 straight years – the longest run in New Hampshire history. John Lynch holds second place with a mere 8 years, and he only had to stand for four elections.

Jeremiah Smith became Exeter’s second governor in 1809. Originally from Peterborough, Smith was more of a lawyer and jurist than politician. Smith had served during the Revolutionary War and found his legal studies were interrupted due to military problems around Harvard College, where he was attending school. He finished his studies at Queens College (now Rutgers) in New Jersey. He read law in Peterborough after the war and quickly rose in his profession. Moving to Exeter in the 1790s, he served in the state legislature and was appointed US Attorney for New Hampshire and worked as a probate judge. He would serve as Chief Justice of the NH Supreme Judicial Court from 1802 until 1809.

Just before finishing his term with the NH Supreme Court, Smith purchased a mansion on Park Street overlooking the old militia grounds, which now serve as the Park Street commons – home to Rec Department baseball games and the public skating rink. The house has changed hands many times and was moved just up the road many years back, but it still stands.

Smith served just one year as governor before returning to his chosen profession of judge and lawyer. His first wife and a son and daughter died within a three year time span in his later years. Many wondered if he would recover from such a blow, but a late in life marriage and the birth of his son, Jeremiah Smith Jr., when he was 80 years old seemed to bring him back to his old equilibrium. He moved, in his last year, to his wife’s hometown of Dover, where he died in 1842. Like John Taylor Gilman, he was buried in the Winter Street Cemetery.

Charles Bell, elected in 1881, served as governor for two years. Born in Chester, Bell, like Smith, viewed himself as a lawyer. His father, John Bell, had been governor when Charles was a boy. Bell served in both the New Hampshire House of Representatives and Senate, serving for a year as Speaker of the House.

At the time of his retirement, he decided to spend his time writing history. Turning first to his adopted town of Exeter, he wrote a history of Phillips Exeter Academy, which he had attended while preparing for Harvard. He also wrote about Exeter’s involvement in the Revolution, Exeter’s Wheelwright Deed and a history of the New Hampshire Bench and Bar. His magnum opus, though, has to be his broad “History of Exeter, New Hampshire,” which encompasses the history of the town from 1638 to 1888. This book has proved invaluable to researchers and is used nearly daily at the Exeter Historical Society.

Maggie Hassan now brings the town’s total to four governors. We would do well to remember this when encountering our fellow townspeople. Any one of the children skating on the rink at Park Street, within view of Governor Jeremiah Smith’s house, might one day be standing in the statehouse in Concord swearing to uphold the constitution of the State of New Hampshire.