A Brief History of the Town

On April 21, 1721, 101 residents of seacoast towns from Boston to Portsmouth petitioned Gov. Samuel Shute, then governor of the Province of New Hampshire, and the British king for a tract of land ten miles square northwest of Exeter. The purpose of this petition was to establish a town, a procedure quite foreign to us today; and the name of this town, according to the petition, was to be New Boston. At a meeting of the governor and Council in Portsmouth, their request was granted; the name of the town, however, was to be Nottingham. The charter itself was formally issued on May 10, 1722, as were the charters of Barrington and Chester and, by May of 1723, a total of 132 persons had signed on as “proprietors” and had the right to draw “rights” or lots of land. The requirements followed the standards typical of those days with dwellings to be built, land to be cleared and a town center, or square, to be constructed, all within a specified time.
With the land largely forested and maps few and often inaccurate, charters often overlapped or left strips of land or irregular tracts in between them. One of the first priorities of the town proprietors was to establish the town boundaries. The result of this survey was a large and irregular tract of land extending north and west considerably further than had been originally expected. The town “center” having already been chosen (now Nottingham Square), it was obvious that they were well off the mark of having the “center” at or near the geographical center of the township. This would eventually result in two large tracts of Nottingham being lopped off and rechartered as the towns of Northwood and Deerfield. In 1766, a petition calling for a separate township and citing the long distances to the church and meeting house in the “center” of town was granted to the residents in the southwest tract, enabling them to set themselves off as the Town of Deerfield. This was followed by the settlers in a tract known as “the North Woods” to cite similar reasons and to establish the Town of Northwood in 1773.
The first owners of proprietors of land in the town were mainly speculators and few built on their “rights”, but the names of some figured in town history through sales to relatives or to people with the same names. One fact hard to realize is that where a “right” was found to extend into one of Nottingham’s 14 lakes and ponds, the proprietor had the right to request land equal to that, which was covered by water. There was little interest in “waterfront” property and during the early years of the town it was not considered to have any particular value.
The first drawings of lots on March 31, 1724 resulted in 134 home lots of 10 acres each. These lots were located from Nottingham Square on Fish Street (now Rte 156) toward Raymond, north on North Street (now Rte 156) toward Rte 152, east on King Street (now Ledge Farm Road) and west of Bow Street (now Deerfield Road) toward the area now known as Deerfield. Home lots on the Square were given to the Governor, the Lieutenant governor, and one each allotted to the church, the school and a meetinghouse. As a token payment, an ear of Indian corn was to be paid to the Governor or his agents on the 20th of December and all trees suitable for ship masts were to be regarded as royal property.
A garrison, or blockhouse, was voted on at a special meeting on October 18, 1726, “as much alarm was felt in view of the hostility of the Indians in many parts of the country.” The garrison was to be 60’ x 30’ x 10’ high with one end to be roughly floored and partitioned off to serve as a meetinghouse. A dual-purpose structure, one might regard it as an early ‘community center’. At the time the garrison was built, there were most probably at least a score of widely scattered farms in the area.
It appears that the next meeting of the proprietors, on October 12, 1727, was held in the new garrison. At that meeting a decision was made to build a sawmill on the ‘Tuckaway River’. A committee was selected to “gitt the mill built with all possible speed, not to exceed one hundred Pounds”.
In 1729 the need for a minister was addressed. Each proprietor was to pay twenty shillings to hire one for the year and a contract was let to “lay a flore and fit one End of the block house for a minister to preach in.” it was also voted that year to have a grist mill built on the North River, “upon the South Branch near Bow Street”.
The honor of being the first settlers must be accorded to the Nealleys, Kelseys, Deans and Cilleys. Most of the early residents of the town came from Durham, Dover, Madbury, Exeter, Hampton and the “Newbury” towns in Massachusetts. An example of the growth of the town was indicated by the census of September 6, 1775 as follows: males under 16, 268; males from 16 to 20 not in the Army, 165; males over 50, 26, persons in the Army, 22; all females, 502, and Negroes and slaves for life, 16, for a total of 999. It should be noted that the slaves in the area were not all Negroes, as it is recorded that there were Indians in bondage and even a scattering of whites that were never able to buy or earn their freedom.
Much of the land in the town was too rocky for the planting of crops and livestock was grown in much of these areas. Usually, enough land was cleared so that most of a family’s provisions could be raised as well as winter food for the livestock. Also, lumbering was a means of employment and livelihood. Very large amounts of charcoal were produced for sale in the seacoast towns. Charcoal is the result of the incomplete burning (or, charring) of wood. Early methods included stacking hardwood logs, covering them with earth and setting them on fire. So much charcoal was produced for so many years in the area along the Summer Street of the 1700’s that it became known as Smoke Street, as it is known today. The charcoal was used as the fuel in the furnaces for making iron and for heating and cooking in city fireplaces. A narrow strip of land, known as the “two mile streak” (and also known as New Portsmouth) was developed for the purpose of building furnaces and making iron. The strip ran roughly along the Nottingham/Barrington line and its iron furnaces required large amounts of charcoal.
Water power stored behind many small dams in the town allowed the building of mills for sawing lumber, grinding grain and ‘fulling’, a process of cleansing and working up a nap on rough, woolen homespun cloth. The first fulling mill was known as the Gebig Mill, on the upper reaches of the North River; it was also a lumber and gristmill. The first grain (grist) mill privileges went to Shem Drown, in 1729. The mill was to be built on the South Branch of the North River. A second was to be built by Richard Dolloff of Exeter on the Stugy (Stingy) River in 1732. The Dolloff Dam Road branches off of Rte 156 near the Raymond town line. At one time, records indicate that there were seventeen water-powered mills in operation in the town.
The year 1732 also saw the survey and laying out of the remaining “undivided” lots in the Third Division of the town. The lots were laid out in “ranges”, divided by “range roads”, a term we still use today. With a survey in hand, assignment of lots could begin. Often two lots were assigned to each proprietor, one lot being a ten acre “home lot” close to the Square and then an out-lying 100 acre parcel several miles away.
Once a lot, or lots, were assigned, the proprietors were obliged to meet the homestead requirements (i.e., acres cleared, structures built, etc.), or considered the sale of his holdings to someone more inclined to face the rigors of frontier life. To carve out a farm in the wilderness would seem to have been enough of a challenge, but another strong deterrent existed in the area – Indians. It was 1747, during the French and Indian wars, that the following letter was sent from Nottingham to Governor Wentworth, then governor of the Province of New Hampshire. The letter requested military assistance to guard against Indian attacks during ‘this Time of War’. Some of the more descriptive passages follow.
‘Our settlements are remote one from another in a mountainous and broken country our Fields are generally encompassed about with Trees and Bushes which continually expose us to the Danger of being surprised by the Enemy while about our Daily Labour our common Roads and High Ways are no less dangerous to pass: We Lie open to a wide wilderness which surrounds us on all sides by which means the Enemy may come undiscovered very near our Garrisons which we have hardly men enough to Defend…’
The letter went on to state that some families had already left their homesteads and that others would soon follow unless help was on the way. A request was made for
‘Forty or Fifty men to be sent up early in the Spring…and that such Stores as may be needful for them may be conveyed up by sleading.’
Add to all these hardships the harsh winters, late springs, dry summers and early falls and it is a wonder that the town grew at all. But grown it did, however slowly, and there were even more hardships to come in the form of a revolutionary war against the English.
In the town of Nottingham, the tensions caused by the English control over the ‘colonies’ were strongly evident in the ‘mast’ tree Acts. With England’s need of naval stores far outstripping her own resources, the giant white pines of the Province of New Hampshire were decreed to be royal property. At first, in the years prior to Nottingham’s charter, the forests close at hand along the Piscataqua River provided the material for masts. But the early settlers were also harvesting the trees for their own uses and producing lumber for export to Boston and beyond. The English, well aware of the steadily decreasing numbers of mast-size white pines, decreed that all such trees over 24
In the town of Nottingham, the tensions caused by the English control over the ‘colonies’ were strongly evident in the ‘mast’ tree Acts. With England’s need of naval stores far outstripping her own resources, the giant white pines of the Province of New Hampshire were decreed to be royal property. At first, in the years prior to Nottingham’s charter, the forests close at hand along the Piscataqua River provided the material for masts. But the early settlers were also harvesting the trees for their own uses and producing lumber for export to Boston and beyond. The English, well aware of the steadily decreasing numbers of mast-size white pines, decreed that all such trees over 24 inches in diameter were to be marked and reserved for the King. A Surveyor-General, appointed by the Governor, had the thankless responsibility of watching over the royal trees. Our ‘Mast Roads’ are the reminders of the extraordinary efforts that went into the felling of these huge giants and the transport of them to the seacoast. But all this work and the reserving of the largest trees for the King only added to the general unease and anger directed toward the English.
The port towns of Portsmouth, Boston and the like felt the yoke of the royal government most severely with taxes on imported goods, taxes on all published documents, requirements to house British troops, and similar burdensome regulations. There had been a clash between armed soldiers of the King and an angry mob in Boston as early as 1770, and the celebrated Boston Tea Party had occurred in 1773.
In October of 1774, a committee was formed to measure public interest in raising support for the ‘Industrious Poor Sufferers of the Town of Boston’. At the same time, the town voted to purchase ‘Two hundred weight of Good Gunpowder, lead, flints and ten good Firelocks, as Town Stock.’ The preparations for armed conflict against England had begun.
In Portsmouth, in December of the same year, a revolutionary group known as the Committee of Safety and the sons of Liberty plotted a raid on Fort William and Mary in New Castle. One historical account regards this attack as “the first overt act against England”. Led by a Capt. Pickering of Portsmouth, a force of two to three hundred colonists carried out the raid, among them several from Nottingham, in particular, Joseph Cilley and Henry Dearborn. The spoils included more than 100 barrels of gunpowder, sixteen cannon, various small arms, and other royal stores. One account has it that eight barrels of the gunpowder was brought to Nottingham and hidden in the Bartlett, Cilley and Dearborn houses on the square.
There was also a committee in the town to ‘inspect into any Person that doth not strictly adhere to the Several resolves of the Continental Congress’. Members of this committee were Joseph Cilley, Jr, Benjamin Butler, Joseph Morrill, Joseph Hodgdon and Vowel Leathers. In January of 1775, Cilley and Butler were designated to represent the town at a meeting in Exeter ‘to chose delegates to represent this Province in a Continental Congress proposed to be held in Philadelphia in May next’. Exeter had become the colonists’ ‘capital’ of the Province of New Hampshire.
The Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775 with the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, and raged in many battles up and down the coast, the rivers, lakes and inland transportation routes for the next six years. Nottingham was well represented, as was the entire province, as companies and regiments were formed and marched off to fight the British. By the war’s end, several generals, colonels, majors, captains and a large number of ‘minute men’, who carried the brunt of the many battles and skirmishes, hailed from the town. It is recorded that a total of 12,497 men from New Hampshire fought at one time or other in the six year conflict.
It is food for thought to consider that any and all of the colonists who took up arms against the British would, had the war gone to the English, have been tried for treason and put to death.
The last quarter of the 1700’s saw further developments in the town. School districts were established, eventually thirteen in number, with sessions being held in private homes until schoolhouses could be built. The mills along the streams and rivers were larger and operated improved machinery, turning out finished lumber, clapboards and handles. The farms, self-sufficient as far as food was concerned, also often had a small home industry for shoe making, weaving or a cooperage, for the making of barrels.
Transportation toward the end of the century was still difficult and only as fast as the horse and rider could manage. Roads were repaired by local residents hired by the town. Depending on the condition of the road and the weather, a trip to a nearby town could be measured in days, or perhaps, delayed indefinitely. Prior to the first bridge across the Piscataqua in Newington, the freight routes to and from Portsmouth rounded Great Bay and branched away to the north and west. Nottingham was on routes connecting nearby towns as well as being a stop for ox and horse teams enroute to further points in all directions. Considering that three or four miles an hour was the average speed for a team of oxen and twenty to thirty miles was a ‘good’ day, there had to be numerous watering holes for both man and beast along the way.
The first New Hampshire Turnpike running between Portsmouth and Concord was incorporated in 1796. In 1794, a bridge had been completed across Little Bay from Fox Point in Newington to the south bank of the Bellamy River at Dover Point by way of Goat Island – a major engineering feat in its day. The turnpike, then, would run thirty-six miles through Durham, Lee, Barrington, Nottingham, Northwood, Epsom, Chichester, Pembroke and into Concord. Shares were sold to the public, and the money thus raised was used to build the road. Such roads were toll roads; the term ‘turnpike’ refers to a barrier set across the highway, to be opened only after the required tolls were paid. Tollgates were set up at every mile! A typical charge for a horse and rider was one cent.
The 1800’s opened on the continued development of the town. Although slow by today’s standards, the roads improved, farms were enlarged and the center of town provided additional services. The expansion of the various mills was limited by the amount of water that could be stored; waterpower was still the only energy source and would remain so for another half century. The size and volume of the streams kept the industries in Nottingham on a small scale.
Pawtuckaway Lake came about because of the industrial expansion in Newmarket. The following is quoted from a Mr. Crompton’s ‘Historical Commentary’.
Prior to 1825, the area was mostly brooks, which at high water ran into low places, such as that which we now call Pawtuckaway Basin and formed what was known as Pawtuckaway Pond. The run-off from this pond went into the North River. Of the brooks that ran into this area, one was Back Creek and another was the brook that ran between Round Pond and Pawtuckaway. Also Mountain Brook at the southern end of the area formed small pools in low places as it ran into what was called Pawtuckaway River, or as some called it – Stingy River. Both the North River and the Stingy River then ran into the lamprey, which furnished water power for the Newmarket Manufacturing Company, a textile mill.
Around 1825, the company must have decided that the water supply was not enough for their needs. They came to the area and started to purchase land for a dam. Not knowing just how much land would be needed, they purchased some flooding rights. The dams were completed about 1836, creating two artificial ponds, called Dolloff Pond and Pawtuckaway Pond, and flooding about 800 acres. The dam at the south was called Dolloff Dam and the one to the north was called Drowne’s. A dike had to be built at what is now the entrance to Seaman’s Point. It was called Gove’s dike, named for the Gove family that owned the property at the time. Other small dikes had to be built to stop the flooding or run-off of water onto land not purchased. And thus was created Pawtuckaway Lake.
With the end of the Revolutionary War only some thirty years past, it was with mixed feeling that the young nation declared war on Great Britain in 1812. The declaration had come about from various trade restrictions by both England and France and concerns that the British were arming and supporting the Indians in the northwest through supply routes in Canada. Various trade embargoes and sanctions had been tried in the years up to the final hour, but none had brought about an acceptable result. New England deeply involved in the shipping trade and in shipbuilding, had been particularly hard hit by the trade restrictions.
Henry Deaborn of Nottingham was the senior Major General of the Army at the time. The state militia was called up, it being the ‘reserve’ force in 1812, and units were activated to defend Portsmouth and to fight the British in the Lake Champlain, Lake Erie and Miagara Frontier areas. The presence of the militia at Fort McClary and Fort Constitution played a major role in the British decision not to attack Portsmouth. As an interesting side note, there was so much diverse reaction to the war, that the state of Massachusetts refused to activate its militia, and Fort McClary, located in what was then part of the Massachusetts territory, was manned by New Hampshire militiamen. The war came to an indecisive end with the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium in 1814.
Nottingham in 1860 had a population of about 1200 and a broad variety of industries. There were two shoe shops employing 33 workers, sixteen water-powered mills grinding grains, sawing logs and turning out shingles, clapboards and dimension lumber. A turning mill, operated by Daniel Garland, produced wooden bobbins for the growing textile industry in the river towns. In the tanning trade, a mill operated by John Hill used a steam boiler as well as waterpower and produced various grades of leather for harnesses, belting, shoes and gloves. Two stores existed, a Peoples Union and a Protective union, the first also serving as a garment-manufacturing establishment.
Steam power became more evident when the first portable steam engine to be brought into the town was put into operation at a sawmill near the Nottingham-Barrington line. The introduction of this new and unique power source was a major attraction for the town and its neighbors. The railroads were spreading north and westward as well and would run along what is now Rte 125, but not before a massive and destructive conflict split and consumed the states – it would be known as the Civil War.
The war began in April of 1861 and raged until May of 1865. More lives were lost to battles and disease than in any other war in our history. New Hampshire sent some 35,000 men. There were eighteen regiments of infantry, one of cavalry, one of heavy artillery and several smaller units from the state. Sources vary widely in numbers killed and wounded and those who died of disease, but the towns and villages across the state all suffered and would see many years pass before their numbers would reach pre-war levels. The war had also concentrated industry in the large river and seacoast towns. Small mills and farms were gradually abandoned and the opening of the ‘west’ would call away many men and their families. The population of Nottingham steadily declined through the late 1800’s and into the 1900’s to reach a low of about 500 in 1930.


Compiled by the Nottingham Historical Society for inclusion in "1722 – 1997 Nottingham's Old Homes" (A commemorative publication on the occasion of the 275th anniversary of the town.)

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