One Governors Lane,
Exeter, NH 03833
Exeter’s first immigrants came in 1638 from England via Massachusetts with Reverend John Wheelwright, eventually displacing the Native American Indians of the area—Squamscott Indians, a sub-tribe of the southern New Hampshire Penacooks and an Algonquian people. A second wave of immigrants followed, mostly British in origin, many of whom established the milling industries on the river or trades connected with the shipping industry. As some of these settlers established their own wealth, they accumulated enslaved people—fifty lived in town according to census records from 1767. By 1790, only two Africans remained enslaved; others had been freed and the African and black community in town remained steady at about eighty individuals until the 1860s (about 5% of the town’s population.)
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 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 fourteen-year period as state capital have vanished, the Ladd-Gilman House, home of state treasurer Nicholas Gilman, Sr., retains a room used as the treasury.
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. 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.
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.