By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
Picture this idyllic New England scene: old, well-kept, whitewashed homes. Stately elm trees bursting with fall foliage or summer’s greenery on streets and scenic backroads. All this and much more describes rural Gilmanton, NH, a town that has known a long and fascinating history.
Whether a blessing or a curse, most people know Gilmanton as the setting for Grace Metalious’ widely read novel “Peyton Place”. Tourists find it odd that this tranquil village so steeped in history was said to be the setting that gave Metalious the inspiration for Peyton Place, a book which reached best-seller status.
The town that was to become Gilmanton was incorporated in 1727; Colonial Governor John Wentworth signed a charter on May 20.
At that time, the Lakes Region as a whole was unsettled country, full of wild animals, thick forests and sometimes unfriendly (and who can blame them, given the track record of some white settlers to live peacefully with the native people) Native Americans. Still, as with all land in the new country, men were eager to stake a claim and reach for a better life.
In the case of Gilmanton, the land was granted as pay for 24 members of the Gilman family and 153 other men who fought in defense of the colonies.
The conditions of the charter were: proprietors must build 70 dwelling houses and house a family in each within three years of charter. Also, they must clear three acres of ground for planting; each proprietor must pay his portion of town charges; a meetinghouse must be built for religious worship within four years. The members had to build a house for a minister and another for a school. All these conditions were to be met, if the peace with the Indians lasted the first three years of settlement.
If any settler defaulted on those conditions, he would lose his share of land.
As to why the town was named Gilmanton, the name Gilman appears time and time again in early records, and the family, originally from Exeter (indeed, most of the proprietors were from the seacoast/Exeter area), had fought valiantly during war times.
Because of the fear of Indian attacks, the original conditions were not met, and it wasn’t until 1749 and 1750 that settlers came to town to pick out lots and work the land. Even then, these men did not stay long for many reasons.
Over and over again, through the years to follow, the settling of Gilmanton was a stop and start affair, due largely to the dangers of warring Indian parties. Town meetings for Gilmanton were held in the safety of Exeter, where most proprietors still lived.
If Governor Wentworth had given much thought to the land grants, he would surely have chosen a more populated area to gift land to these proprietors. While they may have fought valiantly in war times, most Exeter residents hailed originally from Massachusetts, or England. Massachusetts was already more populated, with such cities as Boston offering a taste of the fineries of life in England. The grant of land in Gilmanton may have been very unsuitable for the Exeter men.
In 1730 a committee of proprietors petitioned the Governor to allow longer time to settle the town. In 1731 Edward Gilman and others traveled to Gilmanton and marked out boundaries.
They didn’t stay long, as the French and Indian wars were about to begin. The entire Lakes Region, and Gilmanton, was a very dangerous place for English settlers to be. The French and Indian war parties used nearby Lake Winnipesaukee as a rendezvous for scouting parties, and any smoke seen at likely settlements was an easy target for attack.
By October 1748, a peace treaty was signed and the French and Indian war parties retreated to Canada. At that time, the Gilmanton proprietors could resume settlement.
Another snag in their plans happened around this time, when the deed of John Tufton Mason of Hampshire County, England (it is said New Hampshire gets its name from Mason’s home county) was brought forth. Mason held huge amounts of land in New England, and mostly in New Hampshire. He had transferred his claim of the Gilmanton area land to friends in Portsmouth. This could be a real problem for everyone, it was felt. Once again, the proprietors refused to till the land and settle in Gilmanton, when the land might not really belong to them.
The dispute was settled in 1752, and all seemed well for settlement of Gilmanton.
Once again, plans were shelved when the old French and Indian wars resumed. The wars were mostly about who owned what land. Unlike the previous war, the English decided to become aggressive to end the fighting. They staged attacks on unsuspecting French forts, and among the soldiers who fought bravely were men from Gilmanton and Exeter.
After much bloodshed, the war was finished and life could return to a sense of normalcy.
Progress in settling the new town finally took hold. By the summer of 1761, proprietors had selected, cleared and begun building on their land. Among the first to live year round in Gilmanton were the Mudgett brothers, John and Benjamin. After building houses, they brought their wives to Gilmanton.
According to “The History of Gilmanton” by Daniel Lancaster, Benjamin Mudgett and his wife Hannah traveled on snowshoes in deep snow and under very cold conditions, to arrive in Gilmanton from Epsom. They arrived at their new home on December 26, 1761, after snowshoeing a remarkable distance from Epsom in a short period of timey. Hannah was the first white female settler in Gilmanton. Soon John Mudgett arrived with his wife, and a friend, Orlando Weed followed with his wife.
Hannah Mudgett lived in Gilmanton until there were about 5,000 settlers. How different it must have seemed in comparison to her first winter in the wilderness of Gilmanton! She lived her last years with a son in Meredith and died at the remarkable age of 95. Her son Samuel was the first male child born in the Gilmanton area.
In 1762 more families arrived and by 1767, 45 families lived in Gilmanton. Soon town meetings were held there instead of in Exeter. A physician arrived in 1768 and a minister also about this time.
The town was growing, new and interesting people settled and built homes in the town. Years sped by, progress marked many areas of the town.
The town saw settlers and citizens come and go, and with them, their hopes, dreams, and their good and bad deeds.
The town that had struggled so many years to see settlement was on its way.