(rough Draft, Coming Soon, Aug 2020)
Situated beside Great Bay at the mouth of the Oyster River, Durham was originally called Shankhassick by the Native Americans and Oyster River Plantation by English settlers. It started to become occupied in 1635 as inhabitants of Dover Neck began to trickle into the area. The town name “Durham” was suggested by the Rev. Hugh Adams, as claimed by him in an address to the General Assembly in 1738. Two of the earliest settlers of Dover were William and Edward Hilton, the direct descendants of Sir William de Hilton, Lord of Hilton Castle in or near Durham County, England, but there is nothing to prove that Durham was named in their honor. (I’m still investigating this).
Captain Thomas Wiggins, agent for the proprietors of the Laconia Company, brought a crew of people to Dover Neck, or at least by 1633 the area was quite populated. He desinged to build a city on Dover Neck and allocated lands around Little Bay and Great Bay for farming. Presumably he allocated the lands and organized some form of local government.
These settlers on Hilton Point/Dover Neck began to migrate to this area and clear forests for agriculture by 1640. The early settlers received the best/largest lots and their families prospered as people moved here permanently.
In the 1600s, before people had a major effect on the river, Great Bay, into which the Oyster River flows, was a port where sturdy oceangoing ships could anchor at a place called Durham Landing. But as time passed, settlers built dams and cleared the forests for farmland. As forests diminished, soil usually held in place by tree roots started to wash into the river, causing its waters to fill with silt. By the 1800s, oceangoing ships were unable to reach Durham Landing except at extremely high tides.
The Oyster River Plantation became caught between a land dispute between Exeter and Dover. If you look at the map, Dover claimed the land all the way to the Lamprey River, and the people of Exeter claimed the land to the Oyster River.
The Oyster River community was one of the three original Dover settlements, which also included Newington, Hilton Point and the current Durham town center. The population of this settlement is said to have peaked at around 300 people in the mid 17th century.
The population was reduced in 1694 after a Native American raid, commonly known as the Oyster River Massacre or the Raid on Oyster River. In total around 94 inhabitants were either killed or taken hostage by the Native Americans under French command.
Additional notes from the author:
BURNHAM, ROBERT, 1614—1691. He was born in England and came over in the ship "Angel Gabriel," which was wrecked at Pemaquid, on the coast of Maine, 15 August, 1635, but the passengers all escaped, and later came up the coast, stopping where each one might fancy. Mr. Burnham at first tried his fortune at Ipswich, Mass. He was at Boston in 1644, and pros- pered in business there until 1654. He was a carpenter by trade and assisted in building houses there, and part of the time he was boss of the business. He came to Oyster River in 1654, and at first engaged in work at his trade. In 1656 he purchased 200 acres of land from the heirs of Ambrose Gibbons, who died that year, hav- ing given the farm to his grandson, Samuel Sherburne. When Mr. Burnham took possession, he built a house for himself, on a steep hill, on the south side of the river, about one mile below Durham Falls. This craggy and precipitous eminence was, and is, approach- able on only one side, so in the Indian wars it had to be defended at a very small space, in case of an attack. There was just room enough on top for the house and the palisade that enclosed the yard. The Indians never disturbed Mr. Burnham ; they saw it was useless to try to capture or burn this garrison. The house long ago disappeared, but the cellar with its stone wall is per- fect, showing that Mr. Burnham was not only a good carpenter, but also a good stone mason ; he knew how to build a stone wall that would stand against the frosts of untold winters. There is a smaller cellar entirely sep- arate, but near the house cellar, which may have been used for storage purposes, especially for powder in time of war. The Burnham records of the 18th cen- tury speak of the "Cellar" — and the "Cellarhouse." At one end of the garrison-cellar is a depression where stood the barn and other out-buildings. In their old records, the "little barn" is mentioned. The house was capacious; built of large, white oak timbers, covered with wide boards and clapboarded, so that it was very strong and warm to withstand the weather. When it was taken down in the 19th century, the woodwork was perfectly sound, and much of it was used in build- ing the present farm buildings of the Burnham family, which are located by the roadside, on the level ground west of the hill. Near the foot of the hill is a never- failing spring of water. From the early records, it seems quite certain that Ambrose Gibbons was settled on that land as early as 1640 ; of course he had a house and out-buildings, but it is not reasonable to suppose that he built the house that Mr. Burnham had for his dwelling in Indian war times.