Era 2: Colonization and Settlement – 1623 to 1763
Keene, New Hampshire: 1700 – 1763
Compiled by Tom Sullivan
During the early 1700’s the Keene area of Cheshire County was mainly considered swampland. Mt. Monadnock was recognized as the region’s most distinguishing landmark. Its features were prominent enough to have been used as a navigational aid to ships, especially those in Boston Harbor.
Mt. Monadnock is 3,718 feet high. The first EuroAmerican scouting parties to reach the mountain’s base were in 1704 and 1706. On July 31, 1725, Captain Samuel Willard led the first party to the summit.
From Mt. Monadnock on a clear day you can see Mt. Washington, 104 miles to the north, and the Presidential Center in Boston, approximately 60 miles to the east.
Governor Jonathan Belcher of Massachusetts recommended to the Massachusetts Legislature that seven new townships be developed, including two on the Ashuelot River above Northfield, Massachusetts. Each township was to be six miles square.
The Massachusetts Legislature voted to establish seven new townships. They were to be known as, Lebanon (Maine), Winchester, Chesterfield, Rindge, Athol (Massachusetts), Lower Ashuelot (Swanzey), and Upper Ashuelot (Keene).
The Royal Governor approved the plan for the new townships. Surveys were organized with Nathaniel Dwight hired to map the low-lying land of Upper and Lower Ashuelot. William Chandler was part of the Dwight party that helped survey the land.
Nathaniel Dwight and his party drew up a plan for the new townships in the fall of 1733. The plan was not, however, what the Massachusetts Legislature had requested. Yet considering the low-lying nature of the land it was considered suitable. The building plan for Upper Ashuelot called for 54 house lots of 8 acres each, with 27 lots on either side of a principle road or street.
Persons wishing to become a proprietor in the new township of Upper Ashuelot met in Ephriam Jones’ Tavern in Concord, Massachusetts. Captain Samuel Sady moderated the meeting and the discussions about the area’s dangers. After a lengthy discussion a plan was agreed upon. The agreement included paying five pounds for one lot, occupying the land within three years, build a meetinghouse, and help clear land for neighboring towns. Before the meeting was adjourned, the future proprietors drew lots in the new township.
In late summer seven men started for Upper Ashuelot, which included Captain Samuel Sady, Jeremiah Hall, Elisha Root, Nathaniel Rockwood, Josiah Fisher, William Puffer, and Daniel Hoar. None of the new settlers had ever visited the area, so Deacon Ebenezer Alexander of Northfield guided them. There were no roads, so Alexander followed Indian trails. The last twenty miles they were guided by blazes marked on trees.
The party arrived late in the evening. Once there, they held a meeting to fulfill the requirements of their agreement. They decided how the lots would be laid-out, as well as the most convenient route to travel from Upper Ashuelot to the lower townships. With their work completed, they returned to Massachusetts.
Proprietors of Upper Ashuelot voted to offer 100 acres of “good land” and twenty-five pounds to any person or persons who would build a sawmill and saw boards for the proprietors. John Corbet and Jesse Root agreed to build such a mill. A committee was named to layout the land. The mill was to be completed by July 1, 1736 and located on Beaver Brook. Additional needs of the early settlers were the establishment of a gristmill, plans for a proposed meetinghouse, and roads to neighboring towns.
The establishment of the first permanent settlement in Upper Ashuelot began. Some of the proprietors came to clear their land and erected temporary huts to shelter them from the weather. In the summer of 1736 at least one house was erected, Nathan Blake’s home, which was located at the corner of Main and Winchester Streets.
The new settlers held a meeting at Nathan Blake’s house. The proprietors voted to build a meetinghouse, a gristmill, and to widen Town Street (Main Street) from four to eight rods in width.
The land was divided among the proprietor’s in lots of one hundred acres.
Nathan Blake, Seth Heaton, and William Smeed chose to spend the winter in the Upper Ashuelot valley. Using a pair of oxen and horses, these men continued to draw logs to the sawmill. By February their supplies were exhausted. Heaton left to go to Northfield for more supplies. He stopped in Winchester, but no one was able to help him. In Northfield he was able to get some supplies. But due to a severe snowstorm, he was unable to return to Upper Ashuelot. Heaton instead went to Wrentham, Massachusetts. Having heard nothing from Heaton, Blake and Smeed gave their oxen an ample supply of hay and left the Upper Ashuelot valley on snowshoes for Massachusetts.
In early spring Blake, Smeed, and Heaton returned to Upper Ashuelot to discover that the oxen were still alive, and were soon joined by forty other proprietors. They traveled on foot and horseback to the new settlement and brought with them supplies, tools, and domestic animals. They made plans to build a meetinghouse, which was to be 40 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 20 feet high.
The proprietors voted to hire a gospel minister and chose a search committee.
Jacob Bacon was selected as the township’s new minister.
The Reverend Bacon was ordained and the first church was organized with 19 male members. This is the oldest continuous organization in Keene, known today as the United Church of Christ.
During the year the proprietors constructed a fort. It measured 90 feet square and built with hewn logs. The interior of the fort included twenty barracks of one room each, two ovens, and two wells. There were loopholes above the barracks to fire their muskets from and two watchtowers. One tower was located on the southeast corner of the fort and the other on the western side. For greater safety pickets surrounded the whole fort.
The proprietors voted to finish the meetinghouse. The exterior was to be covered with good sawed clapboards (well planed), good window frames (well glazed), and doors (well encased). The inside was to be finished with fine craftsmanship. Rows of seats were built, along with a pulpit, pew, table, and deacon’s bench. The meetinghouse was built on Lower Town Street (Main Street) and is marked by a stone marker.
The new community experienced its first flood, known as Andrew’s Flood.
The proprietors also agreed on finding a blacksmith. They procured an anvil, bellows, vice, sledge hammer, and tongs for the blacksmith. The blacksmith had to agree to do the work of the proprietors first, before any other work was to be done.
1744 – 1748
England at war against France and Spain over commercial domination of trade and resources in the Atlantic basin. Known as King George’s War, Western Abenaki and other Eastern Indians side with the French. As an English community on the edge of the frontier, the Upper Ashuelot proprietors were fearful of French and Indian attacks caused by the war. The proprietors did not perform their usual labors or go far from the fort during this time without carrying arms or being accompanied by a guard.
1744 – October 1745
Many died in the new town because of a throat distemper.
Josiah Fisher was killed and scalped by Indians while driving his cow to pasture. (A marker of this event is located on Lamson and Federal Streets.)
Indian raid on Upper Ashuelot. Ephriam Dorman left the fort in search of his cow. He saw several Indians lying in the underbrush waiting to attack. He gave the alarm. Two Indians attacked Dorman, but he escaped and reached the fort safely. Two residents of the town were killed and one captured. Several homes were set on fire.
Nathan Blake was the person who was captured and was taken to Canada. In Canada he earned the respect of many Indians. He was sent to Quebec and then to an Indian village. When the chief of the village died, Blake became the chief and the husband of the chief’s widow. The other Indians became jealous, so Blake gave himself up to French officials. His Indian wife followed him and begged him to return to the village. Blake declared that if forced to return to the village “he was determined to overturn the canoe and drown her.” Blake returned to Upper Ashuelot in 1749 and lived to be 99. He was mourned by many, including his second wife, whom he married when he was 94 years of age.
Settlers abandoned Upper Ashuelot and returned to Massachusetts. Farming was impossible and protection difficult. Once the settlers left the Indians burned all the buildings except for the mill at Beaver Brook and the house in which the miller had resided.
Peace was declared between England and France. The conflict between the settlers and the Indians continued until 1749 at which time a peace treaty was established.
Upper Ashuelot proprietors return and began to rebuild their homes and village. The oldest home in Keene was built by Seth Heaton on Marlboro Street at this time.
The settlers appealed to Governor Benning Wentworth to declare Upper Ashuelot a town.
Keene received a charter from Governor Benning Wentworth with these provisions:
1. Upper Ashuelot be renamed Keene after his friend Sir Benjamin Keene.
2. A tract of land be claimed for himself.
3. Fees for his services and the services of his assistants would be collected.
Voters held their first town meeting in the rebuilt fort. Officers were chosen and surveys ordered.
The Reverend Ezra Carpenter was chosen as the first minister of Keene. He also brought the first slave to Keene.
French and Indian War, or Seven Years’ War began between England and France. Western Abenaki side with the French. As a result of the war Keene forms its own militia. At this time New Hampshire settlements were becoming more able to protect themselves.
Fort No.4 at Charlestown was attacked. Keene quickly finished rebuilding its own fort. It enclosed a smaller number of buildings than the original.
The fort in Keene was attacked, but the enemy forces were beaten off.
A new meetinghouse was completed, which also served as a courthouse and town hall (East of the present Soldier’s Monument). It was the first building in the vicinity of Central Square.
The town voted to build a house for six soldiers.
The first merchant, Ichabod Fisher, traveled to Wrentham, Massachusetts once a year to replenish his stock of calico, ribbons, pins, and other such basic necessities. His store was located on Poverty Lane, which is now School Street.
Captain Isaac Wyman opened his tavern on Main Street.
Among town officers chosen for this year was a clerk of the market and “rief.” It was the duty of the clerk to enforce the laws against killing deer in the spring.
French and Indian War ends with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Peace and safety again returned to the New Hampshire frontier after many years of hostilities, encouraging many new settlers to locate in Keene.
Tom Sullivan teaches elementary school in Keene.