Archaic Period to European Settllement:
14,000ybp - 1600
by Terry Clark
It is common for historians to begin the stories of towns with something like this: "Keene was established in 1732 as a land grant from Massachusetts Governor Jonathan Belcher known as Upper Ashuelot."
But, more and more, we are becoming ready to acknowledge that that sort of Eurocentric thinking isn't the whole truth.
The real truth is that Keene and Cheshire County has been inhabited for at least 12,500 years. Of special interest are the Paleo-indian sites at Ash Swamp in Keene and the Whipple Site in Swanzey which boast two of the first signs of people in New Hampshire. They show that people have been at least been passing through this region since those early days after the retreat of the last major glaciation 14,000 years ago.
A lasting memento of the ice age appeared about fourteen thousand years ago. As deltas of sediment formed dams across the valley, a large, inland lake grew in front of the Connecticut River Valley ice lobe. Fed by melt streams falling from the glacier, Lake Hitchcock covered an area some 150 miles long and twelve miles wide. It stretched from southern Vermont to Rocky Hill, Connecticut. That same glacial retreat created Ashuelot Lake along the Ashuelot River Valley.1
Lake Hitchcock's existence coincided with the arrival of humans on the North American continent, and it is thought that the first peoples found their way to New England from Canada, from where a break between the Laurentide and Cordilleran Ice Sheets opened a passageway from Beringia to the Great Lakes region. Crossing the land bridge exposed by receding oceans caused by the Ice Age, early man followed mammoths and other Ice Age animals onto the North American continent.
Whether or not these early people were descendants of the Algonguin Abanaki French, Dutch and English settlers met in the 16th century is conjecture, but future mitocondrial DNA study may link the two. There is no evidence, to date, of human presence at Lake Hitchcock. The native Pocumtuck people of the region do have a creation story, however, that tells of a giant beaver killed in the middle of a lake and turned to stone. The "beaver" is a local landform, Mount Sugarloaf. The waters of Lake Hitchcock did indeed surround Mount Sugarloaf ten thousand years ago, just as the Pocumtuck creation story states.2
Ashuelot Lake had drained by the time the people of the Ash Swamp and Whipple sites, but evidence there indicate that small bands of people have had a long, rich history here. People likely cooked, camped, and worked with tools along the sandy shores of the Ashuelot River, as evidenced by tool fragments excavated from both sites and radiocarbon dating of burnt wood. But much of the history of these Paleoindians between the Archaic Period and the European invasion has been obscured by time and widespread development.3
The Ashuelot River hosts seven Indian sites - fortifications and fish wiers along the Ashuelot River in Swanzey, Winchester and Hinsdale, that show that before 1640, the southern portion of the Ashuelot River Valley was inhabited by the Squakheag, a tribe of the Western Abanaki.4 Warfare with the Iriquois of Western New York, and disease spread by early contact with European fisherman off the coast of Maine, decimated the Squakheag and further set up their fate as the English settlers entered the area in the early 1700's. After their expulsion from the borders of Massachusetts, the Squakheag moved north to the tributaries of Lake Champlain in Vermont, where they were welcomed as refugees and allied with the French in all the Colonial wars. They led excursions back into the Ashuelot Valley until the 1740's.5
1Little, Dinosaurs, Dunes and Drifting Continents, 58-61.
2George Sheldon, A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts, facsimile of 1895 edition, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield 1983, vol. 1, p. 29.
3Boston Globe, August 26, 2007
5Michael Johnson, Indian Tribes of the New England Frontier, p. 8.
Colonization and Settlement of Keene:
The community was granted as Upper Ashuelot in 1733 by Colonial Governor Jonathan Belcher to 63 settlers who paid five pounds each and whose properties were assigned by lot. Settled after 1736, it was intended to be a fort town protecting the Province of Massachusetts Bay during the French and Indian Wars. When New Hampshire separated from Massachusetts in 1741 Upper Ashuelot became part of New Hampshire.
During King George's War, the village was attacked and burned by Indians. Colonists fled to safety, but would return to rebuild in the early 1750s. It was regranted to its inhabitants in 1753 by Governor Benning Wentworth, who renamed it Keene after Sir Benjamin Keene, English minister to Spain and a West Indies trader. Located at the center of Cheshire County, it became county seat in 1769. Land was set off for Sullivan and Roxbury, although Keene would annex 154 acres from Swanzey (formerly Lower Ashuelot).
Timothy Dwight, the Yale president who chronicled his travels, called the town "...one of the prettiest in New England." Situated on an ancient lake bed surrounded by hills, the valley with fertile meadows was excellent for farming. The Ashuelot River provided water power for sawmills, gristmills and tanneries. After the railroad arrived in 1848, numerous other industries were established. Keene became a manufacturing center for wooden-ware, pails, chairs, sash, shutters, doors, pottery, glass, soap, woolen textiles, shoes, saddles, mowing machines, carriages and sleighs. It also had a brickyard and foundry. Keene was incorporated as a city in 1874, and by 1880 had a population of 6,784.
New England manufacturing declined in the 20th century, however, particularly during the Great Depression. Keene is today a center for insurance, education and tourism. The city nevertheless retains a considerable inventory of fine Victorian architecture from its flush mill town era. An example is the Keene Public Library, which occupies a Second Empire mansion built about 1869 by manufacturer Henry Colony.
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 areas 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 townships 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 proprietor's were fearful of French and Indian attacks caused by the war. The proprietor's 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. They received the charter from the governor 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 rebuilt 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 safe again returned to the New Hampshire frontier after many years of hostilities, encouraging many new settlers to locate in Keene.http://www.hsccnh.org/teacherresources.cfm
• Abenaki History
• Abenaki Legends
• Monadnock Moments In History
• American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library
• History Now: American History Online
• National Museum of American Indians
• New Hampshire History Curriculum
• New Hampshire Historical Society