by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. Weirs Times Contributing Writer
The first settlers of Peterborough, New Hampshire were the Scotch-Irish who moved to colonial America from Antrim County in northern Ireland and they brought with them the way of life passed down to them from their ancestors. By necessity they were hard workers; laziness was considered a major sin. As the first to construct a town on the land they purchased, they not only had to build their houses and barns and clear the land for cultivation, they also had the responsibilities involving the community to take care of. The school and the church had to be organized and buildings built to accommodate them; moreover, besides removing rocks from the cleared land and building fences, the immigrants had to construct roads for transportation.
An article in The Granite Monthly magazine for October, 1900, portrays the first citizens of Peterborough as possessing all those characteristics we have been taught to expect from Scotsmen. The town meeting was an enjoyable time for them because they loved controversy and the arguments it spawned, even though those early town gatherings with many opinions expressed didn’t always accomplish a lot.
The story is told of an old man coming back from a meeting who was asked what they were doing. His answer was “Oh, there was George Duncan. He got up and spakit a while, and Mathew Wallace, he got up and talkit a while, and Mathew Gray, he got up and blathered awhile, and then they dismissed the meeting.”
The democratic process and the opportunities to speak about issues involving both the government of both town and the church were important to these men of Scottish heritage who could argue without letting the opposition annoy them. They loved the engagement of theological discussion and being Presbyterians, followed the teachings of John Knox, and a democratic church government, important to them as an exercise of their freedom. Their religion was taken seriously and a major priority after settling in Peterborough was to build a church building which was constructed of logs on Meeting House hill. Meetings were held before a floor was added to the building and the seats were wooden benches. There was no heating system so no meetings were held in the church building during the winter. According to Jonathan Smith the Presbyterians preferred and read the Old Testament over the New Testament though I wonder if that was more of a personal perception than the actual feeling.
To the Peterborough Scotch-Irish Presbyterians the Bible and their Christian faith were an integral part of their lives and studying the Bible and nurturing their faith were undertaken at home.
Long passages of Scripture were memorized and catechism lessons were recited by both parents and children. The Church required that prayers be offered in the homes, and prayers before meals, referred to then and now as saying Grace, were habitual for these people making a living in what was the wilderness in the 1700’s.
Their lives consisted of hard work but it was combined with determination and a love of the freedom they enjoyed, though Jonathan Smith in his commentary about these settlers claims that their doctrines were gloomy with an emphasis on death without offering much joy or hope. In their situation at the time they lived, with the difficulties they faced, it seems certain that they were well-acquainted with death; however, one of the sayings on the gravestone of a founder of the town who died at the age of eighty-seven that Smith quotes shows that they did have hope of life after death: “Draw near, my friends, and take a thought, How soon the grave may be your lot; Make sure of Christ while life remains, And death will be eternal gain.” And it would appear that the Scotch-Irish people in New Hampshire were not gloomy people, for the conclusion of the writer was that “they were better and happier than their religious creed.”
Though they worked long and with vigor the Scotch-Irish who established towns in New Hampshire were not without celebrations and social events. They were social people, even in their work because they enjoyed working together and were ready to help a neighbor with his work or gather together to replace a house that had burned down. They enjoyed participating in certain sports, particularly, boxing, wrestling, foot races, and pitching quoits. Dancing was high on the list of favorite activities and there were the Fall apple-bees, husking bees, and other evening parties enjoyed by the young people. Weddings were said to be “celebrated with the strongest demonstrations of joy”, though the custom was to invite the guests at least three days (not months) before the wedding. An invitation received only a day before the event was considered “an unpardonable affront”. Muskets were discharged on the morning the marriage took place and as the groom’s friends escorted him to the place where the marriage was to take place. “The Protestants …made a display of their warlike instruments on all public occasions.” When the Revolutionary War broke out the men of Peterborough quickly joined the cause of resisting British forces. One-fifth of the population of Peterborough, or 146 soldiers joined the colonial army. Funeral attendance was by invitation and the ceremonies were usually well-attended with intoxicating beverages served at the beginning of the service and again after the funeral address was given. The coffin was transported to the cemetery at the top of the hill by “four strong young men ” , a difficult assignment that continued until the year 1802 when the townspeople voted to buy a hearse.
Those who were the founders of Peterborough were a people of strong Christian faith with a demeanor that was “stern and dignified” , “self-reliant, always ready to assert themselves”, “blunt in speech”, but also a people who had “absorbed a large measure of the Irish humor”, were “hospitable and faithful ”, and “thoroughly Scotch.”