This year, 13 New Hampshire towns are celebrating their 250th anniversaries. As part of a new series called “250 Years In The Making: Stories From 13 New Hampshire Towns," NHPR’s Keith Shields will travel to each of these places, learn more about their founding and find the unique stories buried within their borders. But before we do, we begin with a look back two and a half centuries to the year 1763.
New Hampshire history professor Stuart Wallace, makes a pretty bold claim.
1763 was one of the most important years in New Hampshire history.
Wallace says in the early 1760s, a handful of very important events were coming together that opened the floodgates for New Hampshire’s settlement.
That was the year that the French and Indian War officially ended. And what’s significant about the year is that for the first time, the frontiers of places like New Hampshire were relatively safe because the French weren’t there anymore.
Before then, the frontier land where present day towns like Plymouth and Sandwich, Woodstock and Thornton are was considered too dangerous to settle with the French and Indian War going on. But when the war ended with the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, this land became open and attractive.
The wars are interesting in that they introduced new land to the people who had been fighting in the war and seen land that looked promising. And so proprietors quickly jumped on this land, they heard rumors that it was available along river valleys, and that it was good land for settlement.
Plus, there were many others who wanted to come to New Hampshire from south of the border. By then Massachusetts and Connecticut were pretty much divided up, and the people were looking for new areas to settle. At that time, the north was one of the only available places to go
New Hampshire offered at this time some decent transportation, and so people moved up the Connecticut, up the Pemigewasett, up the Baker river valley. And the land was considered to be fairly good. And nobody was there to tell them that eventually the Ohio country or that land in Illinois or Indiana would be good. That would be two generations away.
One man, who capitalized on this opportunity, was Benning Wentworth. He became the first Royal Governor of the colony of New Hampshire in 1741. That year, the north-south border between the Granite State and Massachusetts had been finalized. But by the 1760s, the western line, the one between New York and New Hampshire, which at that time extended through Vermont and all of the way to the Connecticut River, was still hotly debated. With the end of the French and Indian War, border disputes between the two colonies fired up once again and Wentworth took action.
Retired Dartmouth history professor Jere Daniell says New Hampshire is aggressive, and "what it does is it begins to, at Benning Wentworth’s urging, grant townships as fast as they can, to provide legal priority, the common law system says you find a legal basis, the one that comes first is called precedent."
And so Benning Wentworth began granting towns in both New Hampshire and in present day Vermont.
But Wentworth also had political ambition behind his actions. By 1763, a new king ruled England, George III. With a new ruler in charge, Wentworth worried about how much longer he would have his job. So Daniell says, he turned to the frontier as an opportunity for political legacy.
"Benning Wentworth who’s a real shrewd dude, knew he was probably on his last legs as governor. He had been there for a long time and he bought a lot of political support through these town grants. So you get a lot of people who are getting this stuff for not much. And so for Wentworth himself, has a double purpose. One, that’s land which he thinks is part of New Hampshire, at least hopes it will legally end up a part of New Hampshire , he can bolster his own stuff locally and if he gets chucked out, then he’s got a legacy, that he’s been a good governor, tried to aggrandize, good for New Hampshire."
To this day, the 1760s still marks the decade of highest growth in New Hampshire history. At that time the granting of a town was a three part process. The first had to do with the actual grant, which was pretty much just a real estate venture. A group of proprietors would receive a plot of land, by the provincial government, generally about six miles by six miles.
The reason for that size is because of the experiences of the original four colonies, a century earlier. They learned that the most effective and functional size for a town grant was one in which everyone could get to the center of the town, to the church, or to the village in a couple of hours.
Charters were inexpensive; some were given away almost for free, others cost the equivalent of about five weeks ordinary pay. But once the charter was written, Stuart Wallace says, the work began and the proprietors needed to settle the town in a certain amount of time.
"They had to build roads into it, they had to settle people on the land, they had to have it surveyed, they had to set aside a lot for a church, usually they had to set aside a lot for the church of England, which they didn’t belong to. There were stipulations on how they had to settle the land. If they failed to do that, they would lose their grant."
Those who were successful in settling could finally have their town incorporated.
But this unique process of granting, settling and incorporating towns complicates things when it comes to when a town celebrates its anniversary.
Historians debate whether it’s during the granting, or settling or incorporating process that a town officially begins its first day as that town … but for this series, we go to the towns themselves and if they’re planning to celebrate their sestercentennial, then we will be paying a visit… and our first stop will be New Boston.