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Town History Guide, New Hampshire Almanac

This Guide was prepared for use of the site historians and researchers in the "After the Revolution" project. Its value as a research tool for New Hampshire history has led us to reproduce it as part of this volume in a shortened version-Eds.

New Hampshire: The State That Made Us A Nation
A Guide to Research in the History of
New Hampshire Towns, 1780-1800

By Karen Bowden with Quentin Blaine and Stephen Marini,
with special thanks to Frank Mevers

Framing Questions
Using Primary Sources
Public Records
Church Records
Contemporary Printed Sources
Private Papers
Useful Addresses


This guide is intended for those who wish to participate in an effort to reassess and, in some cases, examine for the first time the local experience of the difficult years in which the new nation struggled with the consequences of the Revolution and the responsibility of self-government. It encourages research in primary sources-documents which were created during the years in question, 1780-1800. These include town warrants, tax records, deeds, wills, court, and church records, letters and diaries, newspapers and broadsides.

Researching the years after the Revolution can be a considerable challenge and requires a good deal of detective work. Records may be scattered over the state and beyond, and some may have been destroyed. A search for a particular kind of record may result in the discovery of the unexpected. This guide has been prepared to assist researchers in identifying and locating pertinent documents and in beginning to interpret them. We hope that use of the guide will result in new insight into the history of the crucial years after the Revolution and into the process of historical research itself.

Framing Questions

Although the focus of a study may shift in the review and interpretation of evidence, it is useful to start with a focus: a particular set or kind of evidence, and event or person to set in context, a delimited topic or question. This project, for example, is looking at several questions, but a new and part-time researcher might choose only one question or cluster of questions:

  • What is the history of the town prior to the dates of this study? When was it settled? Where did the parents originate? Where did settlers come from? Did they retain ties to their places of origin? What influence did these ties have on the life of the town?
  • How did citizens make their living?
  • How did the population, topography and townscape, economy, social structure, religious life, and political, life change in the period?
  • How did the town govern itself? Was debate characterized by consensus or division? What local, state, and national concerns occupied the town?
  • How did the town respond to ratification? Is there evidence of dissent? What can be learned about individuals or groups which took different positions in the debate?
  • Did the new Constitution have an effect on the town as reflected in its politics, economics, or culture?

Using Primary Sources

"After the Revolution" emphasizes research in primary and contemporary sources (i.e., written and other evidence from the period itself) to provide answers to these questions. In examining a document there are several factors and questions to keep in mind.

The documents as artifact: Is the document hand-written or printed? Is it part of a set of documents? Was it intended to be part of a set or to stand alone? Is it plain or does it have any special markings? The researcher might also ask why this document still exists: was it written to be preserved? Is its existence today just a fortunate accident? If it is a copy, who made the copy and why?

Who wrote the document? Even the most apparently objective documents are subject to the perceptions, thoroughness and abilities of the recorder or author. What was his or her relation to the event? Did the author have an interest in the outcome? What does the language reveal about the recorder or author? To what degree is the language conventional (i.e., as in the conventions of wills, deeds, and parliamentary reports?)?

  • When was the document written?
  • For whom was the document written? Who was the intended audience? one person? a group? the general public? history?
  • Why was the document written? Does it purport simply to record or describe? Was it meant to persuade?

Public Records

Clerks’ records include warrants and results of town meetings, agendas and minutes of selectmen’s meetings, and correspondence. Sometimes the clerk kept vital statistics-records of births, marriages, and deaths. Not all towns have complete records for this period and rarely do such records include actual minutes of debate. A review of even spare records, however, can indicate issues of local concern during a given period. Voting results, examined over time, can suggest patterns of conflict and consensus.

Tax records were kept by the tax collector and usually list heads of household and their enumerated properties. They can serve as an indication of the comparative worth of property owners in the community, and of the gains and losses they suffered over time. Used in conjunction with wills, deeds, inventories (and even surviving buildings and artifacts), tax records can provide insight into the economy of families and communities. Again, for this period such records have not always survived or survived intact.

Proprietors’ records are the often voluminous accounts of the sale and distribution of land by those who originally bought or were granted the land for the town. Given the project's focus on the period 1780-1800, these records will be of particular use for the study of towns established in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Kept by the proprietors and their representatives, these records can provide insight into the economic and social circumstances of settlement.

Other town records vary. Occasionally constable's records and early school records survive. Towns were required to establish schools under provincial and early state law; but many, as Jeremy Belknap complained, did so half-heartedly or not at all. Many town records include reference to debates over compliance with school laws, and, although rare, records kept by schoolmasters are worth pursuing.

Finding Town Records: Town records for the period are sometimes found in the office of the town or city clerk. Occasionally early records have been sent for safe keeping to the public library or to the local historical society. Many early town records were microfilmed and indexed in the 1930s and are available on microfilm at the State Library. Some of the records are sometimes included in the records of the town; some are among the provincial records or the Masonian records at the State Archives; some are to be found among the private papers of the proprietors. The New Hampshire Historical Society has a large collection of private papers which includes proprietors’ records.

County Records

Deeds establish ownership and describe property. They sometimes indicate the circumstances of property transfer, and they can occasionally provide clues to the topography and ownership patterns in a given neighborhood or district.

Probate records consist of wills and inventories. Wills reveal patterns of bequest and inheritance. Wills can suggest the kinds of possessions which individuals and families thought to be of significance and value and, along with inventories, indicate how wealth was held. Although some men of humble means and some women left wills, the majority were left by men of property.

By law, the widow of a man dying without a will received at least a third of household goods and a life estate in a third of real estate until her remarriage or death. The property was otherwise divided among the children, if such distribution could be carried out "without division or spoiling." If the court determined that an estate should not be divided, it was offered to the eldest male, on the condition that siblings be paid for their shares. Wills sometimes reiterated these principles, but they were often written because the testator wanted a different disposition of his or her estate than the law provided. Wills sometimes provided a life interest in the whole estate for widows; and, throughout the eighteenth century, they reflect an interest in keeping the estate together. Such divergences from intestate law can suggest circumstances within families or communities which bear further examination.

Inventories are listings of the nature and value of real and personal property filed shortly after a person’s death. They were required of all estates by law, but they were not always done. Inventories are more likely to have been completed for estates of the wealthy and are even more "biased" in this way than wills. Nonetheless they do reflect something of a socioeconomic range and do give a more detailed account than wills of property, goods, and chattels.

Court records. Both the statutes in question and the judgments rendered can suggest the prevailing understanding of law and morality and areas of conflict in families and communities. Many surviving court records are spare, listing only the plaintiff, the defendant, and the disposition of the case. Where fuller records-depositions, for example-exist, they can provide insight into individual events both ordinary and extraordinary.

Legal proceedings took place at several levels. Justices of the peace settled minor disputes at the local level. At the county level, the Inferior Court of Common Pleas adjudicated probate and civil cases, and the Court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace heard criminal cases. The Superior Court of Judicature met twice a year in each country to consider appeals for all types of cases. The General Court and the Governor and Executive Council constituted the final courts of appeal.

Finding County Records: Deeds and probate records for the period 1623-1771 have been indexed and can be found at the State Archives and on microfilm at the New Hampshire Historical Society. Probate records are also abstracted in the New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers, volumes 31-40.

Since counties were established in 1769, land and probate records have been kept at the county levels, indexed by name. Because county boundaries have changed over the years, researchers must first determine what county the town was in at the date in quesiton. Belknap and Coos Counties, which have microfilm of deeds (but not of probate records) dating from the early 1770s.

Inferior and superior court records dating after 1772 are kept at the office of the county clerk of court, with the exception of Rockingham, Strafford, Hillsborough, Merrimack, and Sullivan County records, which are kept at the State Archives.

Militia records

Militia records include membership and muster rolls, regulations, list of univorms, stores, and equipment for individual militia units around the state.

Finding Militia Records: Most extant militia records are at the State Archives while some are at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

State Records

Legislative Journals, kept by the clerks of the House and Senate, include records of attendance and remuneration, of issues debated, and of votes taken. They can provide an account of matters of local concern which were brought before the state government and indicate the role of individuals and communities in statewide debates.

Records of the President (or Governor) and Council can shed light on local questions in much the saw way that legisaltive records do.

Town Inventories were submitted to the state for tax purposes annually. They record the number of polls (voting and taxable citizens) and several different categories of property including: livestock; cultivates, pasture, and wild acreage; vehicles; and buildings. Studied comparatively and over time, town inventories can indicate seasonal cycles in agriculture and commerce and patterns of growth and decline within towns.

Petitions from towns, individuals, and groups to the General Court and/or the Governor and Council provide a variety of information about people, places, and events.

Maps. Two important collections of town maps can be found in the State Archives. Masonian maps were drawn between the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth to establish town boundaries and, in some cases, the bounds of private holdings. They must be interpreted with care because they bear differing relations to actual ownership. Read in conjunction with other maps and other records, they can provide insight into patterns of town development.

Town plans, drawn by legislative direction and submitted to Secretary of State Philip Carrigain between 1802 and 1806, were used by Carrigain to compile his 1816 map of New Hampshire, the first to show the boundaries of each town. These "1805 Maps" vary in accuracy and detail but can be of value and interest if carefully checked against other records.

Finding State Records: Abstracts of the legislative journals and of the records of the Governor and Council are printed and indexed in New Hampshire State and Provincial Papers and some local petitions are included in the volumes devoted to town records. This forty-volume collection, also known as Documents and Records Relating to New Hampshire, was published between 1867 and 1942 and includes a range of public and private documents. The Laws of New Hampshire, 1679-1835, compiled between 1904 and 1922, are well indexed and record action on matters private as well as public.

Both the New Hampshire Historical Society and the Special Collections division of the Baker Library at Dartmouth College have significant collections of town plans and maps and of state maps which often contain revealing detail about town development.

Because of the incomplete nature of such printed material, however, research is best pursued in the collection of state records in the State Archives where originals of all materials noted here are kept. There is a printed Guide to the State Archives that should be widely available in the state. In seeking and using these and other primary source materials, researcher should not be hesitant about asking assistance of staff personnel at the various repositories. Primary sources are seldom as readily catalogued or as easily accessible as secondary sources.

Church Records

by Stephen Marini

Before the Revolution, New Hampshire religion was dominated by Congregationalism, the faith of the colony’s Puritan founders. Virtually every new Hampshire town contained at least one organized Congregationalist parish, its minister supported by public tax monies. Present in far fewer numbers were Quakers, Anglicans, and Presbyterians. The Society of Friends-as Quakers called themselves-organized a modest network of meetings in the Piscataqua and Connecticut Valleys. Anglicans-members of the Church of England-were concentrated in Portsmouth and other centers of royal power, while the Presbyterians were concentrated in the Scots-Irish settlements in the Londonderry areas.

During the after the Revolution, revivals in the hill country produced new sects that soon challenged the dominance of the Congregationalists. Several of these were indigenous to New Hampshire: the Freewill Baptists were organized by Benjamin Randel at New Durham in 1780; the same year Caleb Rich founded a distinctive form of Universalism at Richmond; and in 1803 Elias Smith formed the first congregation of the Christian Connection at Portsmouth. The Shakers, though not native to New Hampshire, gathered substantial numbers of converts to their charismatic, celibate, and communitarian Societies at Canterbury and Enfield. Methodism did not arrive in New Hampshire until 1790, but John Wesley’s movement grew steadily in the state thereafter. The largest dissenting community, however, was the Separate-Baptists, pioneered in New Hampshire during the Revolution by the itinerancy of Chaplain Hezekiah Smith of Haverhill and consolidated around the leadership of his highly successful convert, Dr. Samuel Shepherd of Brentwood. By 1800 the Separate-Baptists had organized several associations of churches in New Hampshire and approached institutional parity with the Congregationalists in the hill country.

All these communions kept records of widely variant quality and quantity. These records reflect not only the divergent social and cultural status of the different churches, but also their political attitudes and ideological orientations as well. The nature and availability of church records will differ from town to town, but some general guidelines for research can be drawn.

Congregationalist Church Records

Given the predominance of Congregationalism during the early period, the first records to seek are those of the Congregationalist parishes in town. These will likely be the most extensive records available on the religious life of the community. Congregationalist records typically contain several documents:

Church covenants state the beliefs and practices of the parish and were signed by all members in full standing. Some covenants are quite brief and simply constructed; others are lengthy and contain extensive doctrinal and moral stipulations. Where the latter circumstance exits, the parish can be more precisely classified as to its theological and cultural character.

Vital statistics were kept by the pastor, who, as the legally established minister, baptised infants born in the community and buried citizens who maintained membership in the parish.

Membership lists. When combined with tax, probate, and election records, church membership lists can establish correlations between religious belief, socioeconomic status, and political activity. Note especially that Congregationalist lists often distinguished between two levels of membership: "full covenant" and "halfway." The former were people who had made a public testimony of their religious experience and were admitted by vote of the other full convenant members to partake in communion; the latter were those who agreed only to abide by the doctrinal teachings and moral discipline of the church, but made no personal profession of faith. These "halfway" members were not admitted to communion, but their children could be baptized into parish membership. Normally, congregationalist membership lists include only full covenant members; halfway members can be determined by examining vital statistics lists. Full members were normally congruent with the local political and cultural elite and therefore the full and halfway distinction is a valuable indicator for historians.

Pew rentals and economic records. Whenever a parish built a new meetinghouse or repaired an old one, funds were raised either by assissment or by rental of pews. Lists of these arrangements provide a picture of relative economic and social status in the town: the wealthiest families usually rented the most prominent and expensive pews; the rest of the community arranged itself according to income and religious commitment. Comparison with tax inventories will reveal the relative economic commitment to the parish of these renters.

Deliberations and decisions. The body of church records books contain votes of the parish on significant matters ranging from salary and support arrangements with ministers to the discipline of rebellious members to the construction and financing of the meetinghouse and parsonage. They therefore contain important economic, social, and even political information, since local religious disputes often correlated closely with local political or economic issues. The matter of ministerial support was especially sensitive, because salary settlements affected tax rates and often became the occasion for schismatic and dissenting citizens to press their political claim for religious toleration.

Records of the Dissenters

Records of the other denominations will also contain the same kinds of information, but with much less regularity and extensiveness. It is important, however, to obtain at least some documentation from these dissenting communions to gain a sense of the nature of religious division at the local level and its impact on important political questions of the day. Unfortunately, each denomination had its own form of organization and record-keeping. Presbyterians, for example, called their local governing body the Session (a board of elected Elders who made decisions for the parish), while Quakers termed the local authority the Monthly Meeting. All denominations, however, faced basically the same sorts of decisions at the local level as the Congregationalists (though Baptists and Quakers did not pay their ministers). The particular form of records is ultimately less important than the kind of information one can find in them; but in any case the researcher may have to clarify the language of the records in order to use them fully.

Ministerial Manuscripts and Imprints

Especially for Congregationalists, the theological persuasion of the local minister is an important key to understanding the ideological quality of the parish. Many Congregationalist ministers published sermons; virtually all of them wrote their sermons in notebooks. The most accurate biographical and bibliographical material on Congregationalist ministers is to be found in Sibley’s Graduates of Harvard College, edited by Clifford Shipton; and Franklin Bowditch Dexter’s Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College. For other denominations, consult William Buell Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, and the volumes of the American Church History Series (New York, 1885-1906). For manuscript sources, see section on "Private Papers" below.

Records of Denominational Organizations

Almost all local churches participated in some form of regional organizations: Congregationalist ministerial associations, Separate-Baptist associations, Freewill Baptist Quarterly and Yearly Meetings, Quaker Quarterly and Yearly Meetings, Presbyterian Presbyteries and Synods, Methodist Conferences. In some cases, e.g. Separate-Baptist associations and Methodist conferences, deliberations, membership and ministerial lists, and policy decisions with social and political implications were published. In other cases these records remain in manuscript form. The Early American Imprint Series (see "Contemporary Printed Sources") is the best source of the former; denominational libraries and historical societies listed in "Useful Addresses" offer the best possibility for finding the latter.

Finding Church Records. This is often a matter of detective work, especially if the church has gone out of existence or combined with another. The first step is to check local and county histories to establish the religious history of the community. If the denomination still exists in the town, the current church is a likely source of manuscript records. It is quite common, however, for churches to deposit their early records with the local or state hisorical society or archives or with the denominational agencies listed in "Useful Addresses." Sometimes church records are mixed in with towns and will be found on microfilm in the State Library or the State Archives in original format. In any case do not assume that if there are no records on deposit locally they therefore do not exist at all. In religious documentation perhaps more than any other reserach area, resort to "outside sources" like denominational libraries is a standard procedure. Assume that some religious documentation exists and consult as many different sources of information as possible to find it.

Contemporary Printed Sources

During the period a number of presses were established around the state. By 1800 there were printers working in Portsmouth, Exeter, Walpole, Concord, Dover, Keene, and Hanover.


Newspapers are not always as revealing about state and local matters as we might like them to be but they do indicate the editors’ and correspondents’ concerns, in particular their political concerns. Like all of the other sources discussed here, newspapers are best interpreted in relation to each other and to other records. Consider not only the paper’s coverage of news and opinion but its cultural pages, advertisements, and public announcements.

For towns without local papers try to determine what papers might have been available. Keep in mind that Massachusetts and even Connecticut papers may have had wider distribution in some parts of New Hampshire that papers published within the state. The Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, for example, was published in Massachusetts for distribution both there and in communities along the Merrimack. Listed below are some of the newspapers printed or circulated in New Hampshire in the period:

American Herald (Boston), 1787-1788.
Columbia Informer (Keene), 1793-1794.
Concord Herald, 1790-1794.
Courier of New Hampshire (Concord), 1794-1805.
Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet (Newburyport), 1784-1794.
Exeter Chronicle, 1794
Farmer’s Journal [also Museum] (Walpole), 1794-1804.
Freeman’s Oracle (Exeter), 1793-1794.
Mirrour (Concord), 1792-1799.
New Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth), 1756-1795.
New Hampshire Gazeteer (Exeter), 1789-1793.
New Hampshire Journal (Walpole), 1793-1794.
New Hampshire Mercury (Portsmouth), 1784-1788.
New Hampshire Recorder (Keene), 1787-1791.
New Hampshire Spy (Portsmouth), 1786-1788.
Oracle of the Day (Portsmouth), 1789-1793.
Political And Sentimental Repository (Dover), 1790-1792.


Broadsides are announcements printed on one side and intended to be posted. State and local governments often used broadsides to announce laws, elections, meetings, and celebrations. They were also used by businesses to advertise merchandise or to announce relocation. Because they were posted, they had the potential of reaching a large number of people.

Other New Hampshire Imprints

Books and pamphlets printed in New Hampshire in the period can give a sense of the interests of printers and audiences in the state.

Finding Printed Sources: There are three major sources for printed materials: The New Hampshire Historical Society has significant collections of broadsides and some newspapers, books, and pamphlets; special Collections at Dimond Library of the University of New Hampshire has a collection of New Hampshire imprints; and Baker Library at Dartmouth College has a large collection of printed material from the Hanover area and a significant collection of New Hampshire newspapers of the period.

Printed materials can also be found in the collections of libraries and historical societies around the state. In addition, a number of newspapers are available on Readex microprint and microfilm. Early American Newspaper Series. The Dimond and Baker Libraries have some but not all New Hampshire newspapers in the series. Both also have the Early American Imprint Series, Microfilms of a wide range of materials printed in America between 1643 and 1800 and indexed in Charles Evans’ American Bibliography. The bibliography lists printed by location in the appendix to each of its chronologically arranged volumes, but it is indexed only by author and title. A useful and manageable guide available at the New Hampshire Historical Society is A Checklist of New Hampshire Imprints, 1756-1790 by Caroline Whittemore.

Private Papers


Although they must be read as subjective and must be compared with other records and accounts, letters provide valuable glimpses of public and private events.


Diaries from the period are more often terse "account books" than detailed descriptions of private observations or feelings. Even the tersest, however, can reveal patterns of daily and seasonal activity, the workings of both cash and barter economies, and private and public events which warranted notice.

Business and Professional Records

In addition to diaries and letters which bear on life within particular occupations and professions, bills, accounts, and logs can reflect on the economy and on day-to-day patterns of activity.

Finding Private Papers: The New Hampshire Historical Society is a major depository for private papers and has indexed letters and diaries by name and letters by subject. The Baker Library at Dartmouth College has a large collection of materials pertaining to the College itself and to the Hanover area. Many libraries and historical societies around the state also have private materials, and occasionally they have been incorporated into town records. Some papers, of course, remain in private hands.

Useful Addresses


New Hampshire Historical Society, 30 Park Street, Concord, NH 03301

New Hampshire Division of Records Management and Archives, 71 South Fruit Street, Concord, NH 03301

New Hampshire Division of Historic Resources, 15 South Fruit Street, Concord, NH 03301

New Hampshire State Library, 20 Park Street, Concord, NH 03301

Special Collections, Baker Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755

Special Collections, Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824

American Antiquarian Society, 185 Salisbury Street, Worcester, MA 01609

Northeast Document Conservation Center, School Street, Andover, MA 01801

Denominational Libaries

Congregational Library, 14 Beacon Street, Boston, MA

New England Baptist Collection, Trask Library, Andover Newton Theological School, 210 Herrick Road, Newton, MA

New England Methodist Historical Collection, Boston University School of Theology

Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, Andover Harvard Theological Library, 45 Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA

Friends Historical Society, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA

Disciples Historical Society [Christian Connection], Nashville, TN

Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, PA

Shaker Village, Canterbury, NH

Episcopal Divinity School, 99 Brattle Street Cambridge, MA

The New Hampshire Almanac is compiled by the New Hampshire State Library from state statutes and other sources as noted.

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