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New Hampshire History in Brief

R. Stuart Wallace
Former Director, Division of Historical Resources

The land now called New Hampshire has been inhabited for approximately 12,000 years. For centuries, bands of prehistoric Native American Indians migrated on a seasonal basis along New Hampshire's rivers and lake shores, variously fishing, hunting, gathering wild nuts and berries, and planting crops. Having no written language, these early inhabitants are known today primarily through archaeological investigations.

European interest in New Hampshire dates from the 1500s, when French and English ships explored the coast of North America. By approximately 1600, Englishmen were fishing off the New England coast seasonally, using the Isles of Shoals for temporary shelter and to dry their catch.

New Hampshire's first permanent European settlement began in 1623. In the wake of native populations, largely decimated by European diseases, English traders and fishermen settled at Odiorne Point in present-day Rye, and on Dover Point. By 1640, New Hampshire's Seacoast was divided among four towns or "plantations," Dover, Portsmouth, Exeter, and Hampton. Inhabitants of these towns, along with settlers in southern Maine, chose to be part of Massachusetts for much of the 1600s, but in 1680, New Hampshire became a separate province.

Throughout the 1600s, people in New Hampshire made their living through a combination of fishing, farming, cutting and sawing timber, shipbuilding, and coastal trade. By the first quarter of the 1700s, the provincial capital of Portsmouth had become a thriving commercial port, exporting timber products and importing everything from food to European finery. As the population grew, the original four towns subdivided into towns of smaller area.

The growing English presence in North America, compounded by the long-standing animosity between England and France, led to a series of wars along the American frontier throughout the late 1600s and the 1700s. Native American Indian tribes living in the Merrimack Valley tried at first to remain neutral, but by the 1680s, most had sided with the French. Beginning in 1689, New Hampshire's English settlements were periodically attacked. The situation worsened in the 1720s, when English settlers pushed out from the seacoast area and started the "second tier" towns of Rochester, Nottingham, Barrington, and Chester. In addition, Scotch-Irish farmers from Northern Ireland began the prosperous settlement of Londonderry in 1719, and in doing so, joined with farmers from Massachusetts in settling the Merrimack Valley and beyond. By the 1740s, if not somewhat earlier, New Hampshire's Indian population had been forced out of the province entirely.

By the time of the American Revolution, New Hampshire was a divided province. The economic and social life of the Seacoast revolved around sawmills, shipyards, merchant's warehouses, and established village and town centers. Wealthy merchants built substantial homes, furnished them with the finest luxuries, and invested their capital in trade and land speculation. At the other end of the social scale, there developed a permanent class of day laborers, mariners, indentured servants, and even slaves.

In the central and western parts of the province, however, the inhabitants were farmers. Many, if not most, had come from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Northern Ireland, and their ties to Portsmouth were weak. They spread themselves over the countryside, clearing small lots and building simple one- and two-story farmhouses. Their towns were punctuated with a few sawmills and gristmills, a number of taverns, a meetinghouse, and perhaps a store or public school. During the War for Independence, farm towns in the Connecticut Valley became so disenchanted with provincial leaders in the Seacoast area that they attempted to secede. Only by agreeing to hold several legislative sessions in the Merrimack Valley, and particularly in the town of Concord, did New Hampshire keep itself from breaking apart.

New Hampshire's sectionalism was intensified by its mountainous terrain. The state's major rivers run from north to south, which dictated that most roads, and later railroads, would lead to Boston, rather than Portsmouth. New Hampshire's economic and social ties to Boston also meant that its residents were more sensitive to events in Boston. When Revolutionary politics closed the port of Boston, New Hampshire sent food. When news came of Lexington and Concord, New Hampshire towns sent troops. The once-loyal British subjects of New Hampshire became the first in America to draft a separate state constitution, and they were the first to instruct their delegates attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to vote for independence.

Throughout the 1800s, the Seacoast declined as a commercial center. As economic activity slowed in Portsmouth, towns like Dover, Newmarket, and Somersworth prospered by turning to textile manufacturing. It was the Merrimack Valley, however, that took over as the social, political, and economic center of the state. Manchester and Nashua became major textile manufacturing centers, while Concord's central location and diversified economy made it well-suited to serve as the new state capital. At first, textile mills around the state hired local youths to operate their machinery, but by 1850, mill owners had begun to supplement the local work force with immigrant labor, making a special effort to recruit the French-speaking farmers of Quebec.

Although New Hampshire emerged as a major manufacturing state in the late 1800s, it did so at the expense of the traditional family hill farm. New Hampshire hill farms could not compete with farms in the Midwest, and the farm population not only declined in the second half of the century; it literally moved downhill, leaving behind a maze of stone walls and cellar holes. The population that remained in New Hampshire's farm towns became increasingly concentrated in one or more village centers, usually marked by a few stores, a district school, a church, an inn or hotel, and perhaps surrounded by a small number of dairy farms.

In spite of these agricultural reverses, however, New Hampshire's rural areas were not without options. In the late 1800s, New Hampshire's North Country turned to commercial logging. Logging railroads were built into once-inaccessible forests. Other forests sent their logs to mills in Groveton, Berlin, and Massachusetts via log drives down the Connecticut and Androscoggin Rivers. Meanwhile, urban areas around Boston and Portland needed daily shipments of perishable foods. By 1870, New Hampshire's railroad network was largely complete, and farmers near the various rail depots found a ready market for dairy and poultry products, as well as fresh fruit.

Happily for New Hampshire, the same railroads that brought produce to Boston and Portland also brought tourists from those urban centers. New Hampshire's natural splendors attracted artists, poets and writers, scientists, and a host of curious sightseers throughout the 1800s. By the last quarter of the century, investors were building grand hotels along coastal areas and in the majestic White Mountains. Tourists came from all over the United States and Europe. While some joined in the lavish social life of the hotels, others chose to "rough it" in rustic fishing camps or to build their own summer home, a term which takes in everything from humble cottages to large and elegant estates. In time, "summer people" began buying up New Hampshire's old hill farms for summer homes.

At the beginning of this century, New Hampshire was a leading producer of textiles, machinery, wood products, and paper. Its manufacturing towns and cities were populated not only by native-born Americans and immigrants from Canada, but also by workers from virtually every European country, giving New Hampshire's population a percentage of foreign-born persons that was above the national average. Meanwhile, as New Hampshire hill farms struggled, tourism was providing some relief for rural areas.

By the end of the First World War, however, New Hampshire's old textile mills were proving to be as uncompetitive as the old hill farms. Newer cotton mills in the South spelled decline and eventual doom for New Hampshire's mills. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, New Hampshire's mill towns were as economically depressed as its farm towns, and the growth of the state's population slowed markedly. Manufacturing centers responded by attracting new industries, in particular the manufacture of shoes and electronics, while rural towns took advantage of the growing popularity of the automobile to attract larger numbers of tourists and summer home buyers. The growing national interest in antiques and handcrafts meant that Americans increasingly wanted to buy a piece of the Granite State and take it home to Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. Starting in the 1930s, other visitors came to New Hampshire slopes each winter in a demonstration of America's fascination with Alpine skiing.

In spite of a brief economic resurgence during the Second World War, the economic trends of the period between the wars continued throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s. Efforts were made at all levels to encourage growth and attract new businesses to the state. By the 1960s, these efforts had begun to pay off. The urban sprawl of Boston spilled over into southern New Hampshire, aided by the new interstate highway system, encouraged by a favorable tax structure and good living conditions. In a fairly short time, New Hampshire was transformed from a slow-growing state of seemingly inexhaustible natural and man-made resources into the fastest growing state in the Northeast - and one whose natural and man-made resources are threatened in a variety of ways. The introduction of high-tech industries, the continued growth of tourism, and the proliferation of service industry jobs has made New Hampshire a state of high average wages and very low unemployment. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, New Hampshire has worked hard in its attempts to reap the benefits of a healthy economy while protecting its resources and preserving the best of what gives the Granite State its distinctive character.

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