John Sinkler, one of the earliest Sinclairs in the United States, settled in Exeter, New Hampshire, after a period of indentured servitude in the lumber camps of the Northeast. He settled in Exeter shortly after its founding. This history of the town of Exeter, New Hampshire, was prepared by James L. Garrin, State Architectural Historian for the State of New Hampshire, to whom all copyright is reserved.
Exeter on the Squamscott
Exeter was settled in 1638 as one of the first four townships of New Hampshire. The town’s founder, the Reverend John Wheelwright, purchased territory for the settlement from local Indian sagamores, and in doing so acquired one of the most favorable sites for a village in the coastal region of New Hampshire. The ample waterpower and forest resources of the area, the natural fertility of much of the soil, and the enterprise of the settlers and their progeny earned Exeter a place of distinction during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Exeter’s combination of industry, commerce, farming, and learning gave the community a personality that was unique in the region. A short walk through today’s Exeter reveals buildings that reflect the town’s former history and prosperity. Exeter’s retention of so many of its early landmarks has made the town a leader in the historic preservation movement in the twentieth century.
Unlike most New Hampshire towns, Exeter has never been officially incorporated or chartered by outside authority. The town started its existence by adopting a "combination," or plan of government, in 1639. Exeter was also unusual in building a special town and court house for public meetings; most New Hampshire towns conducted civic affairs in taverns and in the same meetinghouses they used for religious services.
In 1774 Royal Governor John Wentworth dissolved the provincial assembly or house of representatives, which met in Portsmouth, in an attempt to prevent the election of delegates to a continental congress. Thereafter, a series of provincial congresses began to meet in the Exeter town house, which effectively became the seat of New Hampshire’s government; the Fourth Provincial Congress ordered the provincial records to be confiscated from royal officials and brought to Exeter for safety in July 1775. New Hampshire’s first constitution was adopted in the Exeter town house on January 5,1776, and here in 1788 the first of New Hampshire’s conventions was held for ratification of the United States Constitution. While most buildings associated with Exeter’s period as state capital have vanished, the Ladd-GilmanHouse on Governors Lane, home of state treasurer Nicholas Gilman, Sr., retains a room used as the treasury.
Exeter was unusual among the first New Hampshire towns in having been established because of religious rather than commercial motivations. The town’s founder, John Wheelwright, was an exile from Puritan Massachusetts. Wheelwright was tried and convicted of sedition in 1637. He and his sister-in-law, Anne Hutchinson, had begun to attract widespread attention in Boston through sermons opposing religious and political positions that were held by John Winthrop and the Massachusetts church hierarchy.
Wheelwright and a number of followers chose the falls of the Squamscott River, where tidewater meets fresh, as the site of a new home beyond the jurisdiction of Massachusetts. Wheelwright established a church soon after he and his followers arrived at the Squamscott. This remained Exeter’s only church for more than a century. Beginning in the 1730s, however, some members of the church felt the influence of the Great Awakening. This evangelical movement, led by the English cleric George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards of Massachusetts, introduced New Light preaching, which sought to move listeners to an emotional response that many regarded as a sign of divine grace. The result was the organization of Exeter’s Second Church. Members built their meetinghouse where a dwelling now stands at 75 Front Street, near the Phillips Church.
Another wave of religious enthusiasm swept over New England near the turn of the next century. Sometimes called the Second Great Awakening, this movement gave birth to several new denominations, including Universalist and Christian churches, and strengthened Baptist, Methodist, and other churches that had previously languished in New Hampshire. Although Baptists in Exeter managed to build their own meetinghouse as early as 1805, growth of other churches was slowed by laws that taxed residents of each New Hampshire town to support the minister of the "Orthodox" church of that community. In Exeter the First and Second Parish churches were the tax supported churches until passage of the "Toleration Act" in 1819 freed citizens to support the church of their choice. Freedom from the old church tax allowed Universalists to build their own meetinghouse in 1831, and Methodists followed in 1834. Later buildings belonging to the Baptist and Methodist churches are seen along Front Street near the fourth meetinghouse of the First Church, built in 1799.
Beginning with the arrival of a schoolmaster among the first settlers, Exeter has shown an unusually strong commitment to education. In I847 the town became one of the first in New Hampshire to adopt graded public schools and a high school after state law authorized these innovations.
Long before this, however, Exeter had been chosen as the site of one of two eminent private academies for young men founded by philanthropist John Phillips. Phillips arrived in Exeter in 1741 and grew rich as a merchant. In 1783, twelve years before his death, he organized and endowed Phillips Exeter Academy, overseeing construction of the small first building, now on Tan Lane. Phillips’s initial gift of $60,000 was the largest endowment ever provided for an academy in the United States up to that time, and the institution has remained one of the country’s most distinguished private secondary schools.
Exeter had two comparable private schools for young women. The first, Exeter Female Academy, was founded in 1826 and survived until 1864. The second, Robinson Female Seminary, was established in 1865 under the will of Exeter native William Robinson, and by September 1869 had 241 students. Its imposing building, at within a sixteen-acre tract landscaped in a natural garden style, opened in 1869. Male and female education at the high school remained separated in Exeter until I955. In 1961 the old seminary building, then empty, was destroyed by fire; only the gateposts remain to mark the school’s site.
Exeter’s stature as a seat of learning was reinforced by its prominence as a printing center. Since the arrival of the first printing press about 1774, the town has seldom been without one or more newspapers. Exeter earned a high reputation as a center for printing and binding books after the Revolution, beginning in 1780 with Zechariah Fowle’s publication of a book of laws of the new state of New Hampshire. Exeter’s achievements continued in 1795 with publication by Henry Ranlet of a music book printed with movable type, and in 1796 with the first New Testament published in the state. The Exeter firm of J. and B. Williams, founded in I818, later included a stereotype foundry and bindery, which enabled the partners to reduce the cost and increase the production of their volumes.
Manufacturing and Commerce
Exeter’s productivity as a publishing center was matched by an astonishing range of other manufactures. The lower falls of the Squamscott River were harnessed shortly after 1638 for a grist mill; sawmills were established at the upper falls in the late 1640s by Edward Gilman and others. Thereafter, the power of Exeter’s several streams never ceased to produce wealth for the community until the twentieth century. By 1795 the two waterfalls at the heart of the town powered four grist mills, four sawmills, two mills for pressing linseed oil from flax seed, and a fulling mill for cleaning woolen cloth. During his visit in 1789, President Washington noted that a snuff mill was in operation here. An iron slitting mill mentioned by Washington had been replaced by Simeon Folsom’s factory for producing the newly introduced machine-cut nail by 1802. In 1824 local physician William Perry began to use the upper falls to power a factory for making starch, essential in cotton manufacture, from locally grown potatoes. At various times, other waterpower sites in Exeter sustained New Hampshire’s first gunpowder factory, paper mills, chocolate mills, and a number of other grist and saw mills.
In 1803 Nicholas Gilman built a carding mill to comb wool fibers for yarn at the upper falls in the village. This beginning of mechanized textile production was followed in 1827 by the incorporation of the Exeter Manufacturing Company, which built large brick factories for the production of cotton cloth. By the early 1880s these mills contained 20,000 spindles and 452 looms and produced 4 million yards of cloth each year.
Exeter was renowned for its hand trades as well as for mechanized production. Cay deposits on the Squamscott gave rise to extensive brick making and redware pottery production. The skill of local tanners (memorialized in the name of Tan Lane in the center of town) encouraged saddle production that surpassed that of any place north of Philadelphia in 1795. Saddlery encouraged the allied trades of harness making and carriage building. Leather-working skills made the town a noted center of shoemaking from the eighteenth into the twentieth century. Exeter excelled in the manufacture of men’s hats, which were made by hand in small shops owned by four or five Exeter families. For a while in the 1790s, Exeter boasted New Hampshire’s first duck or canvas factory, where eight spinners and eight weavers made much-needed sailcloth. At about the same time, John Ward Gilman worked as a silversmith; his younger brother, Benjamin Clark Gilman, became equally skilled as a maker of clocks and surveyor’s instruments.
The broad tidal basin below the lower falls provided access for seagoing vessels to and from Exeter, and it was the means by which the town’s early production of sawn lumber was carried to market. The same section of the Squamscott River proved to be a good site for building ships as large as 500 tons; as many as twenty-two vessels are said to have been built here in a single season. Locally built vessels and others arriving from elsewhere in the British Empire made Exeter a busy port during the eighteenth century, giving rise to fortunes like that of merchant John Phillips. River traffic continued to convey bulk cargoes, especially coal, to Exeter until the 1930s. Early industries have been revived in the 1990s - a chocolate factory and leather goods factory - and the Academy remains a premier center for education. Newcomers to local business, such as an electronics plant and a toner cartridge recycling company, parallel the diversity of early enterprise on the Squamscott.