(rough draft coming soon Jan 2020)
A deed of land signed April 3rd, 1638, by John Wheelwright and others established Exeter, named after Exeter located in Devon, England. It originally also included Newmarket, Newfields, Brentwood, Epping, and Freemont. The fresh waster Exeter River meets the salty Squamscott river which flows into Great Bay, which flows into the Piscataqua.
The land was purchased by Wheelwright from “Wehanownowitt, sagamore of Puschataquake.” (13) Members of the Squamscott domain, they were a sub-group of the Penacook, who were a member of the Wabanaki Nation.
John Wheelwright was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony and without about 175 people in tow, settled just north of the boundry, the Merrimack river. Wheelright was sharing “dissident religious views” of his sister-in-law Anne Hutchinson.
“It was without any kind of central government. It lay within the bounds of grants given by the Plymouth Company to John Mason in 1622 and 1629. Mason, however, had died; his grandson and heir, Robert Tufton Mason, was a minor in 1638 and could not pursue his claims. The English government was too preoccupied with the troubles that eventually resulted in the Civil War to listen to complaints by Mason’s advisors. As a result, the area and the earlier settlements, such as Portsmouth and Dover, were without any central government….They also made Exeter the only New Hampshire town settled for reasons of religion.” (15)
Thomas Wilson established the first grist mill on the eastern side of the island in the lower falls. This mill was established within the first season of settling in Exeter, and his son Humphrey assumed control of the mill in 1643, when Thomas died. (14)
In 1647, Edward Gilman, Jr. established the first sawmill, and by 1651 Gilman had his own 50-ton sloop with which to conduct his burgeoning business in lumber, staves and masts. Although he was lost at sea in 1653 while traveling to England to purchase equipment for his mills, his family later became prominent as lumbermen, shipbuilders, merchants and statesmen. (14)
The Gilman Garrison House, a National Historic Landmark, and the American Independence Museum were both former homes of the Gilman family. The Gilman family also donated the land on which Phillips Exeter Academy stands, including the Academy’s original Yard, the oldest part of campus. The Gilmans of Exeter also furnished America with one of its founding fathers, Nicholas Gilman, and the state of New Hampshire with treasurers, a governor, representatives to the General Assembly and judges to the General Court.
The first settlers accomplished a great deal in their first five years in Exeter, despite the enormous difficulties they faced, with no outside financial backing and Massachusetts’ continuing animus against them. Wheelwright organized a church sometime in 1638, one would expect immediately after arriving. He wrote the Exeter Combination (it is considered to be in his own hand), which on July 4, 1639, thirty-five freemen of Exeter signed. That document declared the settlers’ intention of establishing their own government. (15)
In the winter of 1639 Exeter parceled out to its inhabitants its salt marshes, natural meadows, and upland lots for planting. The government functioned: it passed regulations controlling lumbering and the pasturage of swine; in 1640 it authorized Thomas Wilson to operate a grist mill; it ordered the owner of swine that had damaged and Indian’s corn fields to make restitution in kind; it made provisions for a “band of soldiers”; and it passed a number of other regulations, which give us some idea of life in earliest Exeter. We know little about how the town looked but can assume that some of the settlers built substantial houses because there were two carpenters among the first settlers, and because we know that at least two of their houses were in use many years later. Most of the first settlers, including Wheelwright, lived on the west side of the river, but a few lived on the east side. The settlers raised cattle and swine; they made barrel staves and shakes entirely with had tools; they did some planting; and they exploited the abundant fish in the rivers.(15)
In 1643 Exeter twice petitioned the Massachusetts Bay Colony to take Exeter under its jurisdiction. The second petition was accepted in September; thus Exeter joined Dover and Portsmouth, which had already accepted Massachusetts’ jurisdiction under favorable terms. (Hampton had been part of Massachusetts since its founding in September 1638.) No doubt the pressure of being alone on the frontier and the influence of new families that had settled in Exeter since its founding overcame the opposition of Wheelwright and others who were under the ban of Massachusetts. Wheelwright and a number of his followers went into exile once again, this time to Wells, Maine. The remainder of Wheelwright’s life was long and eventful. Massachusetts lifted its sentence of banishment against him in 1644; he accepted a call to the Hampton Church in 1647, remaining there until going to England in 1657. There he was warmly received by his college classmate Oliver Cromwell and his friend from Boston days, Sir Harry Vane. He returned from England to the pulpit of the Salisbury, Massachusetts Church in 1662, where he remained until he died at about eighty-seven in 1679.
People of note:
COLCORD, EDWARD, 1615—1682. He was born in England. It is stated that he came over when he was 16 years old ; perhaps he did ; if so, he was drift- ing round the settlements, from Maine to Massachu- setts. The first record of him is when he was at Exeter with Rev. John Wheelwright, where he wit- nessed, if he did not participate in, the founding of that town. In his various rambles, he had been at Dover, and perhaps knew something about the head waters of the Squamscott River, and by that acquired knowledge may have assisted Mr. Wheelwright in se- lecting a place for his proposed town. It is not known where Wheelwright first met Colcord. He was at Exeter and witnessed the signing of the deed, 3 April, 1638, given to Wheelwright by — "WEHANOWNOWITT, SAGAMORE OF PUSCHAT- AQUAKE" — by which the Exeter territory was ac- quired from the Indians. Colcord did not sign the Exeter Combination agreement for good government, made 4 July, 1639 ; neither did he help organize the Church. But in October, 1640, he was at Dover and signed the Combination agreement, then drawn up and signed by the inhabitants. He appears to have resided in Dover for several years following. He was then a young man of twenty-five, and in some way had become acquainted with the laws, and law methods of that period, so that he was really the first practicing lawyer in the town of Dover. He had cases in other parts of Old Norfolk County. He re- mained in Dover until 1645, and was one of the active business men of the town. In 1642 the town gave him one of the 20-acre lots on the west side of Back River, He received other grants of land, which shows he was in good favor with the town. For a year or two he was a magistrate for the settlement of small cases. In 1645 Mr. Colcord appears in the history of Hampton as a resident of that town, and there was his home nearly all the rest of his turbulent life, engaged in conducting lawsuits for others, or in defending him- self against attacks from others. He died at his home there, 10 February, 1681-2.
OILMAN, JOHN, 1624-1708. He was born in England and came to Exeter in 1649. He immediately became prominent in the affairs of the town. He was in partnership with his brother Edward engaged in the saw mill and lumber business, until his brother was lost at sea in 1653 ; he then inherited a large share of his brother's property and carried on the business alone and did much in developing the resources of the town. He was chosen selectman more than one half of the years between 1650 and 1680. He was repeatedly elected Commissioner to end small cases. He served on important committees for the town. The town gave him grants of land, and the special right of a grist mill. For two years he was Associate Judge in the Court of old Norfolk County. He was one of the first Councillors when New Hampshire was made a province separate from Massachusetts. In 1682 he was ap- pointed Judge of the Court of Common Pleas. In 1693, he was Speaker of the House of the Assembly. The thing that is to his lasting memory is the log house, built in 1650, that was a garrison in Indian war times, and is now standing and well preserved. When Daniel Webster attended school at Exeter Academy he had a room in that house. This room is carefully pointed out to visitors. John Oilman m. 30 June Elizabeth Tre- worthy. He died 24 July 1708; she died 8 September 1719.