The first settlers in Cheshire County arrived in 1736. They were attracted to the lower Ashuelot valley, where three years earlier the Massachusetts Bay Province had created new townships. The broad Ashuelot valley was an ideal location for new plantations in the wilderness: the river was a natural route of travel, and its banks provided attractive, level stretches of open land.
What is now Cheshire County was originally claimed by Massachusetts. A century before any homes were built here, permanent settlements were begun by Massachusetts residents in the lower Connecticut, River valley. The nearest New Hampshire settlement was far to the east. Massachusetts asserted that its northern boundary line extended westward from a point near Lake Winnipesaukee. In the 1720s and 1730s, the province made over twenty township grants in the area between the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers, ten of them including land now in Cheshire County. The Province of New Hampshire held a competing claim to this territory, but was not making town grants here. New Hampshire was small: in 1730 it included less than thirty settled towns, all to the east of the Merrimack River. Massachusetts, on the other hand, was a large and populous province, with a history of western settlement.
The northernmost of the Massachusetts settlements in the Connecticut valley was at Northfield, whose origins date to 1672.
Northfield extended four miles into what are now the New Hampshire towns of Hinsdale and Winchester, and the Vermont town of Vernon. The town was laid out on both banks of the Connecticut to include the several fine meadows which lined it and the mouth of the Ashuelot River. No one is known to have lived in the northern part of Northfield during the 1600s, but it is likely that hay was cut from the Connecticut River meadow lands. Several small land grants, including islands and lots in meadows near the mouth of the Ashuelot River were made to individuals in 1685.
Northfield was the frontier town in the Connecticut valley for two generations. The town’s early history was turbulent: settlers twice abandoned it after serious Indian raids. Attacks by Indians were a major impediment to expansion of the New England frontier. These assaults were encouraged by the French, who were challenging the English for control of North America.
To protect Northfield and its other settlements, Massachusetts built Fort Dummer in 1724. This stockade was situated on the west bank of the Connecticut River, about four miles north of the mouth of the Ashuelot River. Indian raiding parties came from the north and west, and approached Northfield and other settlements via the Connecticut River. The fort’s location above the Ashuelot provided a measure of security for possible settlements along that river. The Ashuelot valley was a logical location for new towns, as its lower reaches contained broad, level sections of land, easily adaptable to cultivation. In contrast, the Connecticut valley was quite hilly for several miles above Fort Dummer.
The Ashuelot valley’s good land was known to prospective settlers in other parts of the Province. As early as 1726,a group of petitioners asked the Massachusetts legislature for a township grant at “a place called Ashawelot.” Several different groups of individuals asked for a town grant above Northfield in the 1720s and 1730s. It was soon realized that there was enough good land for more than one town in the Ashuelot valley.
Thus, in April of 1733, the first township grants in Cheshire County were made. The first was Arlington (Winchester and part of Hinsdale), followed shortly by Lower and Upper Ashuelot (Keene and Swanzey ).The 1730s were peaceful years on the New England frontier, and within three years of granting, the Ashuelot townships were settled. Although the records are not very thorough, it is known that meetings were held in the several towns, and that beginning in 1736, permanent buildings were erected in the valley. A few settlers are believed to have spent the winter of 1736-37 in Winchester, though three men who planned to winter in Keene left when their food supply ran low. Records show that many more settlers arrived in the Ashuelot valley that spring.
At the time that the Ashuelot towns were being settled, Massachusetts created two bands of towns, often referred to as “Defense Townships” because of their positions to the north and west of settled areas. One band of towns stretched along the Connecticut River for some thirty-five miles above the existing settlements. The second connected the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers in the unsettled territory above the Ashuelot valley. The creation of these towns was due as much to Massachusetts’ desire to establish its territorial claim as it was to the defense value of uninhabited towns. Only two of the “Defense Towns” were soon settled.
The defense towns on the east bank of the Connecticut were: Township No. 1(Chesterfield), Township No. 2 (Westmoreland and part of Walpole), Township No. 3 (Walpole), and Township No. 4 (Charlestown). Of the northern line of towns, two included territory now within Cheshire County. They were Township No. 8 (part of Stoddard) and Township No. 9 (Marlow and parts of Alstead and Gilsum). Townships No. 8 and 9 soon passed from history, as no settlers moved there, and there are only scant records.
The river towns, however, have a continuing history. Township No. 4 (Charlestown) was settled beginning in 1740, and No. 2 (Westmoreland) in 1741.Though outside the present limits of Cheshire County, Township No. 4 is significant to county history. It was strategically located across the Connecticut from the Black River, a main route of travel through the mountains to the west. By 1746, it had become the location of an important fort of the same name.
In the 1730s Massachusetts made one other set of township grants. These grants were made as compensation to veterans (and heirs) of a 1690 military expedition to Canada. The grants were known as the Canada Townships, and two were in Cheshire County. Sylvester-Canada (Richmond) was granted in 1735, and Rowley-Canada, southeast of Mount Monadnock, in 1738 Row1ey-Canada included land now in three towns: Jaffrey, Rindge, and Sharon. (Sylvester-Canada’s name derived from Captain Joseph Sylvester, one of the grantees; Rowley-Canada from Rowley, Massachusetts, hometown of several of the proprietors of that grant.)
The legal status of all these first Cheshire County towns was thrown into doubt in 1740. In that year a royal decree settled the long-standing New Hampshire- Massachusetts boundary dispute by agreeing to New Hampshire’s ch. As surveyed a year later, the boundary line was set at its present location. While satisfying the Provincial authorities in Portsmouth, the decision was not welcomed in these young towns. The settlers of the Ashuelot and Connecticut valleys were from Massachusetts and looked to that province for their all-important military protection. In addition the decision cast doubt on the land titles held by the settlers. No one knew if the government which had given them had any authority to do so.
These issues were important, but, fortunately, New Hampshire was slow to exert its new authority. Massachusetts continued to support Fort Dummer, and garrisoned the new Fort No. 4. These forts were vital not just to frontier towns, but to all towns to the south as well. New Hampshire made no contribution to military protection in the Connecticut valley in the first years after the boundary was drawn. Civil authority was also slow to reach Cheshire County. A dozen years would pass before the Massachusetts-granted towns would receive their New Hampshire charters.
The small population in the Connecticut valley partly explains the delay in New Hampshire’s active interest in the area. In 1741, there were only five inhabited towns above Northfield. Settlers were reluctant to come here because of the Indian threat, and, in fact, all the new towns were abandoned in 1747after a series of deadly Indian raids. Soldiers remained in the area, but the landowners did not return to their homesteads for two years.
The interval of peace which followed resettlement was one of growth for Cheshire County. Between 1749 and 1754 all of the Massachusetts towns were chartered and given new names by New Hampshire. All previously ungranted land in the county was granted as townships, and settlements began in four new towns.
An interesting feature of county history is the fact that New Hampshire’s provincial government was not the only authority making town grants at mid-century. The Province could only convey land that it had title to, and it did not own all the land. A group of private individuals, the Masonian Proprietors, held title to a vast amount of New Hampshire land which included part of Cheshire County. The western limit of the “Masonian Patent” was a line that divided the county from south to north, beginning at what is now the Richmond-Fitzwilliam border. The Masonian Proprietors could not establish town government, but could and did convey title to townsized tracts. There were seven Masonian grants in Cheshire County. These grants came to include all or large parts of eleven of our towns. The Masonian townships were all in the vicinity of Mount Monadnock, and were named for that landmark. The first three, granted in 1749and 1750, were: Monadnock No. 1 (Rindge), Monadnock No. 2 (Jaffrey), and Monadnock No. 3 (Dublin and part of Harrisville). In the spring of 1752 four additional grants were made: Monadnock No. 4 (Fitzwilliam and part of Troy) Monadnock No. 5 (Troy, Marlboro), Monadnock No. 6 (Nelson and parts of Harrisville, Sullivan and Roxbury ), Monadnock No. 7 (Stoddard), and Monadnock No. 8 (Washington, now in Sullivan County).
Shortly after the Masonian Proprietors had finished their township granting on the eastern boundary of the Patent Line, New Hampshire created three new towns on the western side of the line. These were Boyle (Gilsum and parts of Surry, Sullivan and Stoddard), Addison (Marlow and part of Stoddard), and Newtown (Alstead). These grants completed the division of Cheshire County into townships. In 1752 and 1753, New Hampshire gave charters and new names to the former Massachusetts towns. The first to be chartered was Chesterfield, the last Hinsdale.
Settlement followed slowly after the last phase of townships grants. Although Walpole, Rindge, Jaffrey and Dublin were occupied between 1749 and 1752, no other towns would be settled until 1761. Once again, the Indian threat deterred the colonists. In 1754, raids began again in the upper Connecticut valley. Like the earlier hostilities, those of the 1750s had their origins in the French-English struggle for empire. Major battles were fought in North America during the French and Indian War.
However, the incidents which occurred in the Cheshire County area were not as serious as those of the previous decade. The frontier had been pushed further inland and several more towns were established to the west in what is now Vermont, and along the Connecticut River north of Charlestown. The war in North America ended in 1760 with the English conquest of French Canada. This ended the Indian threat and brought stability to the New Hampshire frontier.
The end of war brought a rush of settlement to Cheshire County and to other parts of New Hampshire. In 1761, the first residents established themselves in Chesterfield, Fitzwilliam and Richmond. By 1764, Alstead, Surry, Marlborough, Troy and Marlow were all settled, and by the end of the decade every town had settlers. The last town to be inhabited was Stoddard, whose pioneer settlers arrived in 1768.
Two boundary matters arose in the 1760s. The first involved the lands west of the Connecticut River, claimed by both New Hampshire and New York. New Hampshire, like Massachusetts earlier in the century, was making town grants in disputed territory. Like Massachusetts it was disappointed by a royal boundary decree. King George III ruled in 1764 that the boundary between New Hampshire and New York was to be the Connecticut River. The effect on Cheshire County was quite pronounced in one town. Hinsdale, ironically, a town born of an earlier boundary ruling, was halved by the 1764 decision.
The second boundary matter was not so momentous. In 1767 a petition was sent to Portsmouth on behalf of 31 western towns asking that the towns be organized into a county. County government would permit the establishment of local courts, where deeds could be registered and wills probated. In 1771, the request was agreed to and Cheshire County was created. It was not the Cheshire County of today, however, as it included the towns now in two counties; Cheshire and Sullivan.
New Hampshire charters were given to the Masonian townships after the county was established, and four new towns were carved out of earlier town grants. Rindge was chartered in 1768, and the other six Masonian towns in the mid-70s. Surry was created in 1769 out of parts of Westmoreland and Gilsum. In 1787, Sullivan was created out of four different towns, Gilsum, Keene, Nelson and Stoddard. Roxbury was made from parts of Keene, Nelson, and Marlborough in 1812. In 1815, Troy was set off from Marlborough.
As noted earlier, the rapid growth of Cheshire County began in the 1760s after the last of the French and Indian wars. This narrative ends with a brief look at eighteenth century population trends. No data are available prior to 1767, but the county’s pre-war population was probably less than 1,000. The 1767 provincial census records more than 3,500 people in Cheshire County. All of the towns except Stoddard were then inhabited. Two-thirds of the population lived where people had first settled, and where population is concentrated now the river towns of the Connecticut and the Ashuelot. The most populous town in 1767 was Keene, with 430 people. Marlow was the smallest, with 77. Population had doubled by 1773, when the next census was taken, with the hill towns showing the greatest increases. This became a trend: the acceleration of growth in the remoter sections continued into the next century.
The 1810 census showed over 24,000 residents in the towns of Cheshire County, with more than half living in the hill towns, away from the broad river valleys. This was a reversal of the pattern of the earliest settlements. Now, we have come full circle. Many of the roads and farmsteads of the hill towns have returned to wilderness, and most of the people in Cheshire County live in the valleys, where the first settlements began.