Molly Haven Will Be Remembered at the Exeter Historical Society

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, July 7, 2017.

The collections of the Exeter Historical Society currently live in the old library building owned by the town. It’s an old building, erected in 1894, and as such it frequently needs upgrades. This summer, we’re being fitted with an accessibility lift. On a searingly hot day this June, a team of students from Exeter High School’s senior class arrived to serve out their ‘community service’ day as part of graduation week. We removed cardboard boxes, partially used art supplies, left-overs from various town festivals, broken furniture – the general detritus that accumulates in an organization dedicated to collecting things. Things that didn’t go straight to the dumpster were moved to other locations in the building. Several of the sturdier kids were tasked with moving bricks and architectural fragments to the second floor archives. It was then that we found two large, flat, heavy pieces encased in bubble wrap. Each was hastily labeled with old masking tape: “Molly Haven gravestone 1784.”

There are rules for archives. Every item, or at least every collection of items, has a number affixed and recorded in the accession log. Our accession log is now 13 volumes long and, for items received since 2000, also recorded in a computer database. The bubble wrapped packets did contain the headstone and footstone of Molly Haven, but there was no other documentation attached – no accession number we could refer to to find out why we received the items or where they came from. Just “In memory of Miss Molly Haven, daughter of John Haven, Esq. & Anne, his wife, who departed this life in hopes of a better April 2nd, AD 1784, aged 18 years.” The inscription on her stone was the only information provided. Even Peter Smith, who has been with the Historical Society since the 1970s, had no idea why the gravestones were in the archives.

Some quick genealogical research told us a bit about Molly Haven. She was born July 14, 1767, to John and Anne Haven in Framingham, Massachusetts. Her parents later moved to Greenland and Lancaster, New Hampshire. There was no death listing for Molly in either Massachusetts or New Hampshire, so we couldn’t be sure the gravestone even belonged in Exeter. The puzzle was tossed to a volunteer in Greenland, Mark Willis. He confirmed the family lived, for a time, in Greenland. John Haven graduated from Harvard in 1757, and sometime in the late 1760s was recruited to serve as a schoolteacher in Greenland. As the nation inched closer to war with Great Britain, Haven became involved in town affairs – serving as selectman in 1771 and 1774, and clashing with fellow church members in a typically New England way when the minister threatened to resign. He joined the militia and committee of safety. After the war, he and some other Greenlanders became settlers in Lancaster, NH, where his death is recorded in 1813.

While Mark was filling in the Greenland side of the story, Jillian Price spent hours paging through the Exeter Historical Society accession log. In an entry from July of 1969, she spotted: “2 gravestones found in ‘Lynch’ house, corner of Court & Elliot St. PEA.” The curator at that time was Edward Echols, also the archivist at Phillips Exeter Academy. The house that Echols called the “Lynch” house is 31 Elliot Street, until recently the home of Phillips Exeter Academy principal Tom Hassan and his wife, our former governor and current senator, Maggie Hassan. The house was built around 1865, by Dearborn T. Blake, a carpenter. It was owned for many years by Thomas Smith, an Irish immigrant who became a prosperous businessman and served as town postmaster. The Smith Block on Water Street was built by Thomas Smith after he inherited the location from his uncle. Phillips Exeter Academy purchased the house in 1964. We were curious, did the Haven family live in Exeter during and shortly after the Revolution? Were they living, perhaps, on the land that would eventually become 31 Elliot Street? Perhaps Molly had been buried on her parents’ land and the gravestone was hastily placed in Dearborn Blake’s house while he was building it.

Records at the Rockingham County Registry of Deeds confirmed that John Haven purchased land and a house in Exeter, but it was nowhere near Elliot Street. Deeds from the 1700s can be hard to decipher with land boundaries described as, “2 rods west of the standing oak tree, which arises west of the land formerly owned by N. Gilman, his heirs, currently that of John Bon Jovi,” or whatever. Haven’s land, purchased in 1782, is described as being located, “on the highway running over Kimmins Brook so called to Epping.” Kimmins Brook runs under the quad near Merrill Hall and flows into the Squamscott River through a culvert near the Academy boathouse. What we today call Main Street was once the ‘highway to Epping.’ Good to know where the Havens were living when Molly died, but it doesn’t give us any answer as to why her gravestone was found inside a different building on the other side of town. The Haven Family genealogy does, by the way, list Molly – although she’s incorrectly called Polly – but it simply ends her story with, ‘died young.’

We may never know why Molly’s gravestone traveled around town. At the time of her death, the graveyard at the Congregational Church was rarely used – most burials were at the Winter Street Cemetery. The gravestone her parents so tenderly commissioned appears to have snapped at the base and perhaps it was too damaged to be replaced. Molly’s family left the area around 1800. Gravestones are monuments. They are designed to remember people who are gone. It was fitting that a group of 18 year-olds rediscovered our link to another 18 year-old. They walk the same ground. They are all part of Exeter’s story.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Image: Gravestone of Molly Haven found in the archives of the Exeter Historical Society on June 12, 2017. Molly’s death is unrecorded in town or state records, but this stone indicates she died in 1784 and deed research places her family in Exeter at the time.


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