Early Exeter History 1638-1887

Written by Edward Chase Jr.

From Exeter, New Hampshire: 1888-1988, by Nancy Carnegie Merrill
Published by Peter E. Randall, Portsmouth, NH, 1988

Exeter is a small town in southeastern New Hampshire centered around the falls where the fresh-water Exeter River meets the salty, tidal Squamscott. The location of an early settlement at the fall line is probably no coincidence because the natural resources found there suited the needs of the early settlers so admirably. The falls provided water power, which the English settlers were quick to utilize; the river furnished a relatively easy mode of transportation, which remained an important factor in the economy of Exeter until the mid-nineteenth century, and to a gradually diminishing extent until the last coal barge left the McReel Docks in the 1930's and the Exeter Manufacturing Company shut down its water-powered generator in the 1950's. The river was bordered with salt marshes, which supplied readily available fodder to keep the settlers' cattle alive; moreover, the Exeter area was favored with a significant acreage of natural meadow. These features, when added to the great stands of timber nearby, supplied much that a new settlement needed to take root and prosper.

The area had another attraction for a band of exiles hounded into the wilderness by the Massachusetts General Court in the late 1630's: it was without any kind of central government. It lay within the bounds of grants given by the Plymouth Company to John Mason in 1622 and 1629. Mason, however, had died; his grandson and heir, Robert Tufton Mason, was a minor in 1638 and could not pursue his claims. The English government was too preoccupied with the troubles that eventually resulted in the Civil War to listen to complaints by Mason's advisors. As a result, the area and the earlier settlements, such as Portsmouth and Dover, were without any central government.

Although there were a few scattered settlers in the area that became Exeter before the Reverend John Wheelwright arrived, the title of Founder belongs to him because he brought a number of settlers with him and provided an organized government. The kind of people Wheelwright and his followers were and the religious beliefs that drove them were central to their reasons for coming to Exeter and to their ability to make a success of the new settlement.

Wheelwright and those who came to Exeter with him from the Massachusetts Bay Colony were English Puritans who had left England to escape religious persecution and who, from necessity or choice, had left Massachusetts after Wheelwright was exiled. In England they had been members of the middle and lower middle class, small landowners, merchants, and craftsmen. In other words, they came from the stratum of English society that was the backbone of the Puritan movement, which was eventually to overthrow the monarchy and make Oliver Cromwell the head of an English republic. They had preferred to give up their relatively comfortable and secure lives in England for the life of hardship and insecurity in an unknown land rather than to keep quiet in the face of church authority. They also made Exeter the only New Hampshire town settled for reasons of religion.

Wheelwright, his second wife, and his five children had arrived in Boston on May 23, 1636, to find the colony in a state of near crisis. The religious teaching of Anne Hutchinson (Wheelwright's sister-in-law), combined with political and economic disputes, had split Massachusetts into a Boston faction and a country faction. Mrs. Hutchinson and her Boston supporters welcomed Wheelwright as one of their own and helped him find a parish. He therefore became the clergyman most closely identified with Anne Hutchinson and so was the natural target of former Gov. John Winthrop, who led the country party and who was assembling his forces to return to political power.

Wheelwright, who seemed to have been oblivious to his danger, played into Winthrop's hands with his Fast Day sermon of January 19, 1637. The General Court had proclaimed a fast day to reconcile the opposing factions in the colony. Wheelwright, however, preached an inflammatory sermon that cast scorn on the teachings of most Massachusetts ministers. In March the Massachusetts General Court tried him and declared him guilty of sedition and contempt. On November 7, 1637, it disenfranchised him and told him to be gone by the end of two weeks. Wheelwright's supporters were given harsh penalties by the court, and Mrs. Hutchinson was also banished. Wheelwright had to go into exile in a bitterly cold winter, which had begun in early November.

We have no description of Wheelwright's feelings; no firsthand information of how he managed the move-where he got the money for transportation, the chattels and livestock he would need in a wilderness settlement; no mention of the arduous trip, except one line in his book, Mercurius Americanus - "I confess it was marvelous he got thither at that time, when they expelled him, by reason of the deep snow in which he might have perished." We can speculate that he chose the Exeter area because there was no church established there to dispute his authority and because, as mentioned earlier, there was no central government in the area. We can guess that he used the months between his trial in March and his banishment in November to make some plans, because he must have realized, at least by May 1637, when Winthrop was reelected governor, that he was going to have to move.

Independent Republic: 1638 - 43

Our only information about Wheelwright's earliest activities in the Exeter area comes by inference from the two deeds, dated April 3, 1638, that he obtained from the local Indians. From them we learn that he was sufficiently acquainted with the Piscataqua region to have made friends with Darby Field, Edward Hilton, and Edward Colcord, who were already there; to have chosen the area near the falls as the spot to settle; and to have negotiated with Wehanownowit, Sagamore of the Piscatoquake, for the deeds. These two deeds gave to Wheelwright and his fellow settlers such rights as the Sagamore could bestow (which in English law were none at all) to an area thirty by thirty miles. Both deeds ran thirty miles inland from the ocean, but while one set the southern boundary at the Merrimac River, the other set it three miles north of the river.

There about thirty-five heads of family, estimated at perhaps 175 souls in all, proceeded to erect a settlement, which survived and grew into present-day Exeter. Aside from the few Europeans who had been in the area before Wheelwright, most were either Wheelwright supporters from Massachusetts or friends, neighbors, or relatives of his or the Hutchinsons who had arrived in Boston in early July 1637 and had been excluded by the Alien Act (an act of the Massachusetts General Court designed specifically to exclude newly arrived friends of Wheelwright and Anne Hutchinson).

The first settlers accomplished a great deal in their first five years in Exeter, despite the enormous difficulties they faced, with no outside financial backing and Massachusetts' continuing animus against them. Wheelwright organized a church sometime in 1638, one would expect immediately after arriving. He wrote the Exeter Combination (it is considered to be in his own hand), which on July 4, 1639, thirty-five freemen of Exeter signed. That document declared the settlers' intention of establishing their own government. The government consisted of three elders, the chief of them called "ruler", who had judicial and executive functions. The whole body of freemen chose the elders and served as a legislative body, with their enactments subject to the approval of the ruler. The government thus set up endured for five years. It never had recognized jurisdiction over the whole of the area covered in the Indian Deed, but it did control the area of the present-day towns of Exeter, Newmarket, Newfields, Brentwood, Epping and Fremont.

In the winter of 1639 Exeter parceled out to its inhabitants its salt marshes, natural meadows, and upland lots for planting. The government functioned: it passed regulations controlling lumbering and the pasturage of swine; in 1640 it authorized Thomas Wilson to operate a grist mill; it ordered the owner of swine that had damaged and Indian's corn fields to make restitution in kind; it made provisions for a "band of soldiers"; and it passed a number of other regulations, which give us some idea of life in earliest Exeter. We know little about how the town looked but can assume that some of the settlers built substantial houses because there were two carpenters among the first settlers, and because we know that at least two of their houses were in use many years later. Most of the first settlers, including Wheelwright, lived on the west side of the river, but a few lived on the east side. The settlers raised cattle and swine; they made barrel staves and shakes entirely with had tools; they did some planting; and they exploited the abundant fish in the rivers.

Under Massachusetts Jurisdiction: 1643-80

In 1643 Exeter twice petitioned the Massachusetts Bay Colony to take Exeter under its jurisdiction. The second petition was accepted in September; thus Exeter joined Dover and Portsmouth, which had already accepted Massachusetts' jurisdiction under favorable terms. (Hampton had been part of Massachusetts since its founding in September 1638.) No doubt the pressure of being alone on the frontier and the influence of new families that had settled in Exeter since its founding overcame the opposition of Wheelwright and others who were under the ban of Massachusetts. Wheelwright and a number of his followers went into exile once again, this time to Wells, Maine. The remainder of Wheelwright's life was long and eventful. Massachusetts lifted its sentence of banishment against him in 1644; he accepted a call to the Hampton Church in 1647, remaining there until going to England in 1657. There he was warmly received by his college classmate Oliver Cromwell and his friend from Boston days, Sir Harry Vane. He returned from England to the pulpit of the Salisbury, Massachusetts Church in 1662, where he remained until he died at about eighty-seven in 1679.

The change from independence to Massachusetts jurisdiction did not greatly alter the day-to-day government of the town. The assembled freemen still acted as the legislature and chose three men, now called "townsmen" rather than elders, to serve as the town's executive and judiciary. (The town records are not consistent on the term and after 1660 usually used the present-day designation of "selectmen.") Massachusetts did require, however, that major legal cases be tried in Massachusetts courts and that Exeter submit to general laws and regulations that pertained to the colony as a whole, such as those requiring towns to maintain trained bands (militia units) and watch-houses (fortified places) and those regulating fishing rights.

The loss of Wheelwright and the prominent citizens who went with him was of great consequence to the town. The town's growth and economy both seem to have slowed after they left. Perhaps the best indication of the town's difficulties was its inability for seven years to replace Wheelwright with a permanent minister. Wheelwright appears to have arranged for a replacement, Thomas Rashleigh, but he stayed only about a year. Several attempts to secure a minister for the town failed. Wheelwright, who was free to return in 1644, refused the town's invitation. The cause of these failures remains unclear, but not having a minister must have caused grievous worry to the religious-minded townspeople. Exeter historian Charles H. Bell, with good reason, dates the beginning of the town's return to growth and prosperity to the arrival of Edward Gilman Jr., in 1647 and the Reverend Mr. Samuel Dudley in 1650.

Edward Gilman Jr., was welcomed as a citizen with a grant of land and the right to establish a sawmill, the first in Exeter. His father and his brothers, John and Moses, followed him. Although Edward Jr., was lost at sea in 1653, the remaining Gilmans prospered as lumbermen, shipbuilders, and merchants. They served in prominent positions in the town, colonial government, and militia. John, in particular, with ninety-four grandchildren, played no small part in repopulating the town, which had declined in number with the departure of some of its more prominent residents to Wells with Wheelwright. Whether prompted by the example of the Gilmans or not, other men began to seek and receive rights to erect sawmills, until most available sites were occupied.

In early Exeter, lumber and the industries dependent upon it, such as shipbuilding, were the basis of the economy. Not for some time, was agriculture, on land that had been reclaimed from the forest, important to the economy or even indeed a sure source of subsistence for the townspeople themselves. Fish were abundant and an important source of food for the local inhabitants, but the river, unlike the ocean, could not supply enough fish for a major export trade. Town records show that the town's herds of swine increased greatly in number over the years. Beef and milk herds, however, could have increased only very slowly because herds had to be built up from the few animals that survived the long, grueling voyage across the Atlantic in little ships ill-suited to the health of man or beast, and because seventeenth-century farmers had not developed adequate ways of feeding cattle over the winter. The money obtained from the sale of the increased amount of lumber and lumber products consequent to the growth of the sawmill industry would eventually give impetus to the general economy of the town. Town records, however, show that prosperity came only slowly.

In 1650 Samuel Dudley accepted Exeter's invitation to be its minister. He was a vigorous and able man who soon made himself popular in the town. His importance to the town went beyond his ministry. He was the son of Governor Thomas Dudley of Massachusetts and the son-in-law of John Winthrop, thereby giving Exeter some influence where it counted. He also contributed to the town's economy with his sawmills and other business activities and to its population with his numerous progeny.

The town records of 1643-80 show the town constructing a twenty-by-twenty-foot meeting house, which recent research indicates was Exeter's first meeting house, not its second as some writers have concluded. They show the town trying to force reluctant taxpayers to pay their taxes, especially those supporting the minister; settling boundaries with its neighbors; legislating to control lumbering activities; dividing land among the inhabitants; maintaining a trained band; appointing jury members trying, through laws and fines, to force inhabitants to keep their cattle and swine from straying into planted areas; and struggling to maintain bridges and roads. The records also show that the town magistrates settled a surprising number of litigations and judged an equally surprising number of crimes. Massachusetts records show that Exeter maintained a force of sixty soldiers under the command of Lt. John Gilman, indicating that Exeter's population had grown from about 175 in 1639 to about 300 in 1669.

Exeter probably had several garrison houses by the end of this period. Exeter had been presented at the Ipswich court on January 30, 1647, for the lack of a watch-house, but there is no further reference to that lack in court records. A deed of 1667 refers to High Street above the falls as Fort Hill. The Hiltons had a garrison in what is now Newfields; in 1664 the town built a watch-house on the back of the meetinghouse; town records of 1696 mention the great fort (near the present Congregational Church); and both the Gilman Garrison House at the falls and the Sewall Garrison on the Park Street Common were built before 1690.

The restoration of the Stuarts to the throne of England in 1660 and the outbreak of King Philip's War in Massachusetts in 1675 had far-reaching effects on the lives of Exeter's inhabitants. The Indian war, which broke out in Massachussetts in fierce bloody battles and massacres, ended there with the death of King Philip in 1676. It continued until 1678 in New Hampshire and Maine. Not much happened in Exeter; there were alarms and some ambushes of isolated travelers, such as John Robinson, who was the first Exeter resident killed by Indians. No doubt there was much disturbance of the normal routines of farming and lumbering. Farther to the north, in Dover and the Maine settlements, much fiercer Indian raids and equally fierce retaliation by the settlers, which sowed seeds of bitter hatred, took place. The goodwill that had existed between the Indians and the settlers in New Hampshire vanished forever.

Province of New Hampshire, Dominion of New England, Massachusetts Again: 1680-92

By the late 1670's Charles II was free enough from problems in England and Europe to begin to implement his colonial policies. Thereafter the New England colonies, which had been saved from direct royal interference by events in England, were bound closer and closer to the London government and exposed to the consequences of England's policies on the Continent. Charles II created the Royal Provinces of New Hampshire, effective January 1, 1680, partly to weaken Massachusetts and partly to help Robert Tufton Mason, Mason's heir, assert his claim to land in New Hampshire, which had been granted to his grandfather, John Mason.

At first the change in government was felt in Exeter mainly because Mason's heir was able to reassert his land claims. The English courts and the king agreed that Mason had never had a valid claim to rule in New Hampshire, but had upheld his rights to the land granted to him. His heir was directed to pursue them in the New Hampshire courts. He got nowhere while the New Hampshire government was controlled by local landowners, as it was until 1682. Then Mason persuaded the Royal Government to send Edward Cranfield to New Hampshire as governor, after he had mortgaged the potential revenues from his land claims to Cranfield. At the same time the new governor used the broad powers granted to him by the Royal Charter to pack the local courts and seems to have thereafter won all the suits brought against those in possession of lands claimed by Mason. The landowners who lost their cases (sixteen of them in Exeter alone) were supposed to pay a quit rent of six shillings per pound of revenue from the land (at a time when four shillings was considered exorbitant) or be foreclosed. However, Cranfield was never able to collect a penny in rent and was never able to find buyers for the foreclosed property.

In 1683, Governor Cranfield dissolved the Provincial Assembly (Exeter had two members and twenty qualified voters), and some rash Exeter and Hampton men, led by Edward Gove of Hampton, tried and failed to raise a revolt against him. Next, Cranfield suspended three councilors, including John Gilman of Exeter, and tried to raise money through an illegal tax. His attempts to collect the tax met with resistance throughout the province. In Exeter Constable John Folsom refused to cooperate, threatening the provost marshal of the province, who tried to collect the tax, with red-hot spits and scalding water if he tried to collect at his house. Two Gilman wives let the marshal know that they too would greet him with hot water, and a crowd hustled both him and his deputy from house to house until they left empty-handed.

Governor Cranfield, discouraged by his failure to recoup his finances, left for England in 1685. He was followed as governor in quick succession by Walter Barefoote and Joseph Dudley. In 1686, however, James II, Charle's successor, included New Hampshire in the Dominion of New England. The Dominion collapsed in 1689 with the news that James had been replaced by his daughter Mary II and her husband William III. For a brief time New Hampshire had no central government; then it voluntarily became part of Massachusetts again; and finally William and Mary established it as a separate province once again in 1692.

During this turbulent period, Exeter continued to grow. By 1680 the little twenty-by-twenty church had been enlarged by three galleries. the beloved Samuel Dudley died in 1683 and could not be replaced with a permanent minister until 1694. Not much else is known about events in Exeter because the town records between 1682 and December 1689 are missing. Those records that remain for the eighties and early nineties are primarily concerned with land allotments and the same activities of the town government as reflected in earlier years.

Royal Province: 1692-1775

William and Mary ascended the English throne in 1689, but they did not re-establish the Royal Province of New Hampshire until 1692. William, however, was quick to bring England into the anti-French alliance he had put together as Prince of Orange. Consequently the English colonies were for the first time embroiled in English wars against the French. The long series of wars - King William's, Queen Anne's, King George's, and finally the French and Indian War (as they called it in the colonies)-stretched on for seventy-three years of raids, massacres, pitched battles, and amphibious expeditions. New England contributed heavily in men and money and suffered terribly, some frontier areas being totally depopulated. Yet New Hampshire and the other colonies grew in wealth, population, and self-confidence.

Exeter was not attacked directly in force in King William's War, as were Dover and Durham, but isolated Exeter men were killed in ambush, and Exeter had to maintain a substantial number of men to protect itself and to assist other towns. The disruption to normal life and the fear of attack, which lasted until the European peace of 1697, must have been very wearing to all the people of Exeter. Peace did not last long. Once again events in Europe brought blood and fire to the New Hampshire frontier. Queen Anne's War (known in Europe as the War of the Spanish Succession) lasted from 1702 to 1713. This time the Indian raids were even fiercer than before and Exeter suffered much more heavily, although not as much as settlements farther east in New Hampshire and in the more exposed Maine settlements.

For eleven years garrisons had to be kept on alert and militia companies raised to go to the relief of other towns or to pursue the Indians into the wilderness. Colonel Winthrop Hilton was Exeter's most notable Indian fighter. The Indians revenged themselves for his successes when, no July 22, 1710, they killed him and two others in an ambush. A number of Exeter people were killed in ambushes at other times, and some were captured and taken to Canada. (The French encouraged their Indian allies to bring English captives to Canada, where they might be converted to Roman Catholicism.) Some of these captives died enroute, some were ransomed by relatives, and others made a new life in the French territories. One of the most interesting of them was Esther, great-granddaughter of John Wheelwright, who was taken captive in Wells in 1703 and ultimately became Mother Superior of the Ursuline Convent in Quebec.

The end of Queen Anne's War in 1713 was followed by a period of uneasy peace with the Indians until 1722, when Indian raids struck Dover and Oyster River again. Exeter suffered its last Indian raid in August 1723. The Rollins family at Lamprey River had neglected to go to a garrison house for the night. The husband and one child were killed; the wife and two children were carried off to Canada. By then, however, the settlers in New Hampshire were beginning to gain a distinct advantage over the Indians. The ₤100 bounty offered by New Hampshire and Massachusetts for an Indian scalp, regardless of age or sex, made Indian hunting profitable. (As an illustration of bounty inflation, Hannah Dustin had been paid only five pounds a scalp by Massachusetts in 1697, and the Exeter minister's salary in 1713 was eighty pounds a year.)

By 1725 the great majority of New Hampshire Indians had fled their traditional homes for St. Francis in Quebec. For Exeter's citizens, the withdrawal of the Indians and the growth of frontier settlements between Exeter and Canada meant that the next two English-French wars did not bring the fighting directly to Exeter. Neither King George's War, from 1744 to 1748, nor the last great war, the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years War), from 1754 t o1763, were fought in the Exeter area.

Exeter, however, had continually to provide soldiers for expeditions in northern New Hampshire and such major undertakings as the capture of the great French fort at Louisburg on Cape Breton Island, the 1746 expedition against Canada, and the Crown Point expeditions of 1756 and 1757. It was in the course of the 1757 expedition that Fort William Henry (featured in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans) was surrendered to the French. A New Hampshire regiment, with a number of Exeter men, were in the garrison. We do not know how many Exeter men served at any one time. There were at least eighty-four on the first Crown Point expedition, and others were under arms at other places at the same time. New Hampshire raised regiments in 1756, 1757, and 1758, with Exeter men in all of them. Obviously a large proportion of Exeter's able-bodied male population was away from home at any one time, and a good many never returned.

Nevertheless, during these war years Exeter grew from a frontier village of scarcely more than 300 people to a prosperous town of about 1,700, secure behind a barrier of villages farther north. (According to the New Hampshire census of 1775, Exeter had a population of 1,741, not including Newmarket, Epping, and Brentwood, which by then had separated from Exeter.) The old meetinghouse proved too small by 1696. It was replaced by a new one near the present-day Congregational Church. A still larger one was required by 1731. Located near the previous church, it was sixty by forty-five feet, with two galleries and a steeple and bell. The allotment of desirable pews In the 1696 meetinghouse had caused great dissension in the town. There is no record of such disputes over pews in the 1731 house. Forty-one pews sold at prices ranging from ₤11 to ₤21. (The steeple had cost ₤115 to build.) The lumber from the old meetinghouse was used to construct a forty-by-twenty-five-foot combined townhouse and courthouse building, thus making Exeter one of the earlier small towns to provide a building distinct from the meetinghouse for town functions. The townhouse, across the street from new meetinghouse, was flanked by stocks and a whipping post. In 1707 the town had voted to erect a schoolhouse of thirty by twenty feet near the new meetinghouse. From that time onwards it appears that Exeter maintained one or more elementary schools and a grammar school.

The town meeting-selectmen form of government has remained constant throughout Exeter's history. The executive lost its judicial function when Exeter became part of Massachusetts in 1643, but since then the only significant change has been the very recent addition of a town manager to assist the selectmen. (Curiously, the town has never been incorporated and has no charter.) The principal town officers have remained the same: three or five selectmen, a town clerk, a tax collector (until 1986), a treasurer, a moderator, and supervisors of the checklist. The town constables were elected and, despite the impressive rod of office supplied them by the town, most men tried to avoid the office because it involved the onerous and sometimes dangerous task of collecting taxes. In the eighteenth century a five pound fine was levied for refusing the office.

Increases in population and wealth brought some other important political divisions. In the eighteenth century, as in the seventeenth, all town taxpayers were taxed to support the minister and build and repair meetinghouses. As population centers grew in outlying parts of Exeter, their inhabitants naturally resented paying for a minister when they could rarely, if ever, attend the services or receive a visit from the minister. New parishes could be set off from older ones only by an affirmative vote by the old parish, which never was happy to lose a source of revenue, or by approval of the provincial assembly. Despite the difficulties put in their way, Newmarket (including Newfields) in 1727, Epping in 1741, and Brentwood in 1742 all received permission to form separate parishes and become towns as well. Fremont (Poplin) was set off from Brentwood in 1764, and South Newmarket (now Newfields) from Newmarket in 1849.

Other problems also afflicted the town. The provincial government had met the heavy cost of wars between 1689 and 1763 by two issues of paper money in 1709 (old tenor) and 1741 (new tenor). This paper currency rapidly depreciated in value, causing inflation and other impediments to commerce in an economy that had never had enough currency. For instance, when Exeter had engaged John Odlin as minister in 1705, his salary had been set at 70 pounds a year. By 1766 his son Woodbridge's yearly salary was 1,500 pounds, old tenor. In 1767 it was set at 100 pounds specie.

The Exeter church itself was split into two inimical parishes. The religious movement inspired by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield and labeled the Great Awakening had reached Exeter in the late 1730's, filling with religious enthusiasm one-third of the parish members, among them many of the richest and most prominent families in town. These "new lights" were not satisfied with the staid conservative religious service provided by the Odlins, father and son. So in 1743 they formed a new parish, erecting a sizable meetinghouse on the site of the present Dow House at 75 Front Street, although they had to pay their taxes to support the first parish until the State Assembly authorized the new parish in 1755.

During this period from 1692 to 1775, the people of Exeter were always ready to resist direct interference to their affairs by royal authority. In 1734 the King's Surveyor General, David Dunbar, tried to reclaim boards that had been illegally sawed from mst trees claimed by the king for the Royal Navy. His men were roughly treated by a group of Exeter men dressed as Indians. Exeter also actively supported every colonial protest against Parliament's attempt to levy taxes on the colonies. There were demonstrations against the stamp tax in 1765. In 1770, after the Boston Massacre, the town voted to boycott imported goods, such as tea, on which Parliament had imposed duties, and to encourage local manufacturing.

In 1771 the town built the powder house (whether in anticipation of the war to come we do not know). In January 1774 a special meeting of the citizens of Exeter passed a series of resolutions that in effect declared their readiness to fight for their rights against the London government's interference, to set up a Committee of Correspondence to keep in tough with other such committees in the colonies, and to make sure that no tea dealers in town purchased any more tea (Parliament having repealed all duties except the one on tea).

All thirteen colonies reacted with intense opposition to the "Five Intolerable Acts" passed by Parliament in 1774 to punish Boston for the Tea Party. A partial text of the acts reached New Hampshire in May 1774. On May 28 the Provincial Assembly appointed a new Committee of Correspondence, whereupon Gov. John Wentworth dissolved the assembly, believing that the committee would then have no legal existence. The committee did not agree and called an extra-legal session of the assembly. The governor would not permit it to meet in the Portsmouth assembly rooms. As a result, the First Provincial Congress of New Hampshire met in Exeter on July 21, 1774. It sent Nathaniel Folsom of Exeter and John Sullivan of Durham to represent the province at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. A Second Provincial Congress met in Exeter in January 1775. (Just prior to that meeting, New Hampshire men had taken the first military action against the English government in December 1774 when they forcibly removed the powder and cannon from Fort William and Mary in New Castle.)

The news of the Battle at Lexington and Concord brought swift reaction from New Hampshire. On April 20, Exeter sent Capt. James Hackett with 108 men to join the New Hampshire contingent , which soon totaled 2,000 men. On April 21 the Third Provincial Congress met in Exeter, and on May 27 the Fourth Provincial Congress met there. That body, on May 17, 1775, created the New Hampshire Committee of Safety, which became the de facto executive of New Hampshire until mid 1784. The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on June 17, 1775; Governor Wentworth fled from Fort William and Mary on August 23, 1775; and at that point New Hampshire was without a legally constituted government.

The Fourth Provincial Congress, meeting in Exeter, asked advice from the Continental Congress on setting up a new government. Acting on that advice, it drafted the first written state constitution, which the Fifth Provincial Congress meeting in Exeter on January 5, 1776, adopted. This New Hampshire constitution, which lasted until 1784, established a council and house of representatives, but no executive. A joint committee of the two houses drafted a declaration of independence from Great Britain, which was adopted on June 11, 1776. Exeter, therefore, has the honor of being the site of the adoption of both the first state constitution and the first declaration of independence from Great Britain.

The town in which these stirring events were taking place was a busy lumbering and shipbuilding center of 1,741 people. (At that time, Portsmouth's population was 4,590, Brentwood's was 1,100, Epping's was 1,569, Newmarket's was 1,289.) The Squamscott river was lined with wharves and lumberyards; there were sawmills or gristmills at every source of water power; but there were as yet no other kinds of mills. There were two meetinghouses, a townhouse, a schoolhouse, and over two hundred residential houses. The houses were clustered on lower High Street, on Water Street as far as present-day Park Street, and along Front Street, thinning out beyond the present-day academy grounds. Spring and Center Streets and Governor's Lane were there, as were Main Street, Cass Street, Carpenter's Lane (now Green Street), and another cluster of houses around the Park Street Common. There were several taverns, and they must have been very busy when the Provincial Congress, sometimes with as many as 133 members, was in session in Exeter. The town had made its last division of public lands in 1740.

Revolution and Confederation: 1776-88

The years from 1774 through February 1788 were the years of Exeter's glory. Events of national and international importance took place there. As previously described, the first written state constitution and the first declaration of independence from Great Britain had been created in Exeter. The state government continued to meet in the old townhouse (sometimes in the meetinghouse) throughout the war and until 1782, after which most sessions were held in Concord. (Concord was officially declared the state capital in 1818.) The Committee of Safety, which functioned as the state's executive when the state legislature was not in session, met in Exeter. All of New Hampshire's considerable military endeavors during the Revolution were managed from Exeter. Exeter's Nicholas Gilman, Sr., was the State Treasurer in the difficult years of 1776-83 when insufficient revenues and depreciating paper money required great skill on the part of the treasurer to enable the state to meet its heavy military expenses. The younger Nicholas Gilman was one of New Hampshire's representatives at the Constitutional Convention and was one of the influential politicians whose political maneuverings made New Hampshire the crucial ninth state to ratify the Constitution in June 1788.

Exeter, like the rest of New Hampshire, furnished many men and officers to the State Militia and the Continental Army. In addition to the dislocation caused by the absence of men in the armies, Exeter suffered considerable economic hardship from the war. the thriving lumber and shipbuilding businesses were severely depressed by fear of British sea power, and the paper money inflation ruined many residents, rich and poor alike.

By 1781 the paper currency had depreciated so drastically that the General Court reestablished gold and silver as the only legal tender. The shortage of specie, however, was so great that many people, especially farmers, clamored for a reissue of paper currency. In 1786 a mob from farming communities marched on the General Court, then meeting in Exeter, to compel the issue of paper money. They were met with firmness by the legislators and the chief citizens of Exeter and forced to disperse the next day.

The war had some beneficial effects on Exeter's industries. It encouraged diversification from an economy based mainly on lumber and the products derived from it to a more broadly based industry, which was to characterize Exeter throughout the nineteenth century. A powder mill was constructed at King's Fall (near Kingston Road) in 1776, where it operated until the end of the war, when it was converted into a slitting mill for making nails. In 1777, Richard Jordan built a paper mill the falls above King's Fall; it was bought by Eliphalet Hale in 1787. In 1776 the Tory Robert Fowle published what was possibly Exeter's first newspaper.

In April 1781 John Phillips founded Phillips Exeter Academy with an endowment of about $60,000. The school, which opened in May 1783, was fortunate in attracting to its earliest classes a number of talented young men - Lewis Cass, Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and George Bancroft, to name but a few. Thereby, the academy almost from its beginning became well known and has since been an important element in the town of Exeter.

County Seat and Manufacturing Town: 1789-1887

After the Constitutional Convention that met in Exeter in February 1788 adjourned to Concord, few events of statewide or national importance took place in Exeter. Nevertheless, Exeter did not sink into an obscurity commensurate with its small population. The financial genius of some of its sons, the industrial achievements of others, and the eminence of Phillips Exeter Academy kept it from becoming just another mill town. According to the U.S. Census of 1790, Exeter had 1,722 inhabitants, nineteen fewer than in 1775. By 1830 its population had risen only to 2,759. While New Hampshire's population had increased more than three times between 1775 and 1830, Exeter's had not quite doubled.

Exeter, however, did continue to grow in the nineteenth century. Many inland towns that had surpassed Exeter in population after 1763 when the frontier became safe, declined. These towns had prospered on farming, but farmers began to move west in ever greater numbers after 1830. The future belonged to manufacturing towns. Although Exeter's supply of water power was not sufficient for it to become a major manufacturing center like Nashua or Manchester, the number of new enterprises established in Exeter during the nineteenth century was sufficient to keep Exeter prosperous and growing.

The paper mills at King's Fall remained in operation until 1870. Powder-making was revived in a large way in 1838 by Oliver M. Whipple at the site of the first powder mills. It continued despite fires and explosions until after 1850. In 1817 at the two dam sites between great bridge and String Bridge, there were a fulling mill , two oil mills (linseed oil), a sawmill, a gristmill, and a woolen mill. In 1824 Dr. William Perry built a mill at the upper dam to manufacture starch from potatoes. He had perfected a method of making sizing from the starch and sold large quantities to the Lowell cotton mills until his process was stolen. The Exeter Manufacturing Company, for a long time Exeter's major industry, began its operations in 1830, using waterpower from the upper falls. It manufactured cotton sheeting in a brick mill containing 5,000 spindles. In 1876 it built another building adjacent to the first one, adding auxiliary steam power to use when the river was low.

The river, so important in the early economic life of the town, began an inexorable decline in importance when shipping and shipbuilding nearly ceased during the Revolution. After the peace of 1783, shipbuilding and shipping on the river revived somewhat, but they never reached prewar levels. Samuel Tenney wrote in 1795 that four or five ships of various tonnages were built in Exeter in a year and the same number of Exeter-owned ships sailed I foreign commerce. President Jefferson's embargo and the War of 1812 put an end to the revival. A schooner was launched in 1836, but after that Exeter ceased to have a regular shipbuilding industry. The river also declined in importance as a highway of commerce after the railroads arrived in the 1840's. However, some products, principally coal, continued to come up the river until the twentieth century.

A variety of other industries independent of waterpower also were created in Exeter between 1788 and 1888. These included a pottery works, a duck (sailcloth) factory, tanneries, a saddlery works, carriage manufacturers, and a hat factory, to name only a few. More substantial industries were the brickyards, the Brass Works, the Exeter Machine Works, and the Rockingham Machine Company. The Exeter Boot and Shoe Company, established in 1884, was the first of the shoe factories, which were to become an important element of Exeter industry in the early twentieth century.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Exeter became a thriving publishing center. The firms of Henry A. Ranlet, his partner and successor, Charles Norris, the J. and B. Williams Company, and others published many fine editions of all kinds of books, from some of the earliest music published in this country to nineteenth-century novels. Some of these publishers also produced short-lived newspapers. Exeter's first lasting newspaper, The Exeter News-Letter, was established in 1831 and is still being published.

Exeter had no banks until 1803, when the Exeter bank was chartered. After that, Exeter usually had two or three in operation at any one time, under varying names and charters. (the Exeter Savings Bank went into receivership in 1873 when its cashier, N. Appleton Shute, absconded after having embezzled a large part of the bank's funds.) In the 1830's Exeter also became a center of mutual insurance funds. By 1887, however, only two such companies remained in operation.

During the period of industrial growth and diversification described above, The United States engaged in two international wars and the Civil War. The first two, the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, were unpopular in Exeter. Exeter men were in the militia units sent to guard Portsmouth in 1812 against British attacks that never came. Like most New Englanders, Exeter citizens were more concerned about their reviving commerce with England and their shipbuilding interests than the British insults to the United States' national pride that aroused the rest of the country. In his History of Exeter, Bell does not even mention the Mexican War, perhaps because to most northerners it was a southern slaveholders' war and perhaps also because it brought fame to a New Hampshire Democrat, Franklin Pierce. Exeter men, however, volunteered freely for the Union Army in the Civil War.

In the fifty years between 1830 and 1880, Exeter's population increased by 881 to 3,640, making it the eleventh largest town in New Hampshire. Many of the farming communities that had had a larger population in 1790 had declined, while Exeter had grown steadily, if slowly. It was surpassed by those towns and cities where greater waterpower resources had given greater impetus to manufacturing. (Portsmouth with its port, was an exception to this rule.) Exeter had lost its eminence as state capital, but it remained the Rockingham County seat. A new courthouse-townhouse was built in 1791 where the bandstand now is; it was moved to the corner of Court and South Streets in 1834, was destroyed by fire in 1841, and replaced by a new building which still exists in truncated and much-altered form. The present brick town hall was built in 1855. It also served as the courthouse until 1893. A county records building was built in 1826 on Front Street, later the site of the 1894 public library.

By 1887 Exeter had acquired some of the amenities expected in a modern town, but was still essentially a village. Streets were not yet paved; Water Street still retained many of the old wooden buildings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; the town had one steam-operated fire engine (the other engines were pumped by hand). Yet some people had piped-in water since 1801, when Benjamin Clark Gilman's company began bringing spring water in underground wooden pipes to some houses. The Exeter Water Works, ancestor of Exeter's present town-owned facilities, instituted a modern system intended to provide for the whole town in 1886. The town started a poor farm for its indigents in 1817, established a police force in 1823, made its first appropriation for a public library in 1853, put in gas lights in 1863 (the Exeter Gas Lighting Company had gone into operation a few years earlier), and began upgrading its gravel sidewalks with paving in 1871.

The town itself, in its center, had taken on a shape and appearance not much different from what they are today. Most of the town lay in an area bounded by the river, Park Street, the railroad tracks, and Court Street as far as Pine. There was a small concentration around the Park Street Common and another across Great Bridge bounded by High Street, as far as Buzell Avenue, thence to Prospect Avenue and down to the Exeter Manufacturing Company on Chestnut Street.

The town government in 1887 had changed not at all from the town meeting-selectmen type. Many of Exeter's 1887 problems are still with us, such as the cost of new town buildings, of maintaining roads, and of buying new fire engines. One concern that arose frequently throughout the nineteenth century has probably vanished forever. In 1812 and 1838 town meeting passed measures to encourage temperance; in 1842 it voted to restrict the sale of spirituous liquors to one "apothecary" and then only for medicinal purposes and for "art".

After 1800 a number of new churches had come to Exeter to dispute the monopoly of the First and Second Parishes. There were the Baptists in 1800, the Universalists in 1810, the Christian Society from around 1830 to about 1860, the Methodists in 1830, the Advent Society in 1842, the Roman Catholics in 1853, the Unitarians in 1854, and the Episcopalians in 1865.

There were changes in the schools also. In 1847, town meeting voted to add a high school to the elementary schools and the grammar school. William Robinson had left money to found Robinson Female Seminary in 1865. When it opened in 1867, it gave Exeter the rare if not unique distinction of separating the sexes in school from the fifth through the twelfth grades. The Phillips Exeter Academy had grown from about 40 pupils during its first twenty years to 320 in 1887. It still had only two dormitories, and most students still boarded in town.

The people in Exeter, who in 1887 were preparing to celebrate the 250th anniversary of their town's founding, were rightfully proud of the town's past. They could look back fondly on the heroic achievements of the founders, who had established a successful wilderness settlement without having the backing of the Royal Government or English merchants, which other early settlements had enjoyed. They could justifiably claim the two Wheelwright Indian deeds and the Exeter Combination as uncommon achievements of the founder. They could say that their ancestors had done perhaps more than their share in fighting the French and Indians and defending the province's rights against British encroachments. They could glory in the conspicuous part Exeter and its citizens had played in the Revolution and in founding the nation. They perhaps were aware of the decline of Exeter's importance on the political scene, but they could take some comfort in that secret political meeting Amos Tuck had called at Blake's Hotel (the Squamscott Hotel/Gorham Hall) in Exeter on October 12, 1853. At that meeting Tuck had suggested that a group of antislavery splinter parties unite under a new name: the Republican Party. Horace Greeley published the facts about the meeting months before the Ripon, Wisconsin, meeting, the one often credited with naming the new party; thus, Exeter can claim that the Republican party was named here. The town certainly has given the party its undying loyalty ever since.

One suspects that Exeter citizens of 1887 were somewhat smug about their town. They certainly regarded it as an attractive and healthful place to live, with fine institutions, substantial buildings, and a prosperous future of growth ahead. They were not far wrong; but how would they have regarded the four times larger, bustling, traffic-ridden, and ever-growing town, the emergence of which will be described in the chapters to come?