by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr.
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
“Out with the old and in with the new” says the old New Year’s adage with much that is reasonable behind it.
It is not always wise to be rid of the old, however, and that includes old books. I almost passed on the opportunity to read from a book published in 1871 that I found in the local library titled “The Merrimack River” until I discovered that it was as much about the people and events that could somehow be connected to the river as about the river and its tributaries. The author, J.W. Meader, presents a view of New Hampshire, from his perspective, of a New Hampshire we never knew because we weren’t here.
Of the Merrimack River Meader contends “As a great natural feature, the Merrimack…surpasses all others in the harmonious blending of the useful and the beautiful…, it is from its source to its mouth, literally a vast system of mill-privileges with excellent water power, materials and conveniences for dams, and an ample and unfailing supply of water. The amount of manufacturing along this stream is not equaled by that of any other river in the world… ”.
Concerning the early settlers, the Puritans, Meader expresses the opinion that they left the old country because they were unable to persuade their countrymen to believe as they did, not because they were the victims of religious intolerance and became the religious intolerant when they settled in America. Both opinions are probably true; they were both victims and perpetrators of intolerant behavior.
Rev. John Wheelwright and his flock, who bought land from the Piscataqua River to the Merrimack River from the Indian Chief Passaconaway and his association of chiefs, after banishment by the Puritans, went “to the wilds of New Hampshire” and settled in Exeter with his followers. Here, says Meader, they established “…the first genuine democratic form of government ever established in America.”
The prominence of witchcraft in New Hampshire as well as Massachusetts in the latter half of the sixteen hundreds was viewed as a “delusion” by author Meader, though supposed witches in New Hampshire suffered the consequences, though not as severely as in the neighboring State. Meader had much to say about the life and acts of the Indians, indicating that when the white man discovered the Merrimack he found a prize, a prize with “dusky barbarians” on it in “primitive canoes”. He said “ Here on this river’s brink, civilization and barbarism met, – light and darkness, – day and night struggling for the mastery; and who could doubt the result?”
And “Civilization found this beautiful river…”. Opinions like that may sound discriminatory, but they also help us to understand the thoughts behind people’s actions and reactions. Those called “stalwart and hardy pioneers” were also the “exterminators” of the red man. But the native inhabitant of New Hampshire did not leave without a fight, even though many may not realize how perilous it was in New Hampshire, when the Indian feared extermination and the pale-face feared the death-dealing raids of the Indians. When much of the land above Concord was “unexplored and entirely unknown” by the white man the native Americans gathered around New Hampshire’s big lake and at other locations surely not realizing that in the coming days both they and the colonists would both be fighting for their survival. The not so long ago historian (1871) drew a picture in words of the white man struggling for survival in the wild country of New Hampshire inhabited by wolves, bears, wildcats, moose, and deer, along with the American Indians, who, if there were more of them and they were better organized the progress made by the colonists would “…have been greatly impeded, if not altogether stopped.”
The people of the tribes “would often swoop down upon the scattered settlements as swift, sudden, and unexpected as the hawk, …..families awoke at the dead of night to hear the fearful war-whoop, to see their homes enveloped in flames, and the deadly tomahawk and the dreaded scalping knife gleam in the light of the burning building.” But the white man fought with his own determined and savage acts of violence against the Indian. “A price was set upon his toplock the same as on the wolf, and other wild animals, only much higher, and the more daring and adventuresome among the population turned their attention to the hunting and scalping of Indians.”
The most famous of the Indian hunters was said to have been a Captain Lovewell of Dunstable, who gained particular notoriety for capturing a group of ten Indians in what is now the town of Wakefield and marching into Boston with their scalps on poles, only to lose his own life in another hunting venture.
The stories of cowboys and Indians in the western parts of the United States are probably better known to New Hampshire residents than the conflict between colonists and Indians in our own localities as immigrants from across the sea and began a new nation. In his book about the Merrimack River, Mr. Meader tells some of their stories. I should point out that book writer Meader also wrote that “…the North American Indian possesses, and often displays, in his nobler nature, those higher excellences and sublime qualities which adorn and embellish the human character.” The result of the conflicts between the Colonists and the Indians the Indian was that for the most part the Indians were “out” and the Colonists were “in”.
“ The Merrimack River” is a book about other people who came to New Hampshire, including Shakers and Quakers, Presbyterians and Catholics, and others along with information about the scenery, landscape, and wildlife of New Hampshire while including developments along the Merrimack. Books like this, though full of a writer’s biases, as are many of today’s books, should not be thrown out, because the discerning mind can glean knowledge and wisdom from them as they tell the stories of a New Hampshire we never experienced.