New Hampshire, the most northern of the 13 original colonies of New England, is nicknamed the Granite State because of its extensive granite formations and quarries. About 180 miles long and 50 miles wide, it is bounded on the north by Quebec, Canada, on the east by Maine and the Atlantic Ocean, on the south by Massachusetts, and on the west by Vermont. It is the 5th smallest by area and the 10th least populous of the 50 states. Concord is the state capital, while Manchester is the largest city.
Before Europeans arrived, the state was inhabited by various Algonquin-speaking Abenaki tribes, largely divided between the Androscoggin and Pennacook nations. Despite having a similar language, they had a very different culture and religion from other Algonquin peoples.
Many historians believe the Vikings were the first white men to visit New Hampshire’s shores. However, the earliest explorers to leave a record of having been there were Martin Pring in 1603, Samuel de Champlain in 1605, and Captain John Smith in 1614. Captain Smith, better known for his adventures at Jamestown, Virginia, explored New England, mapped the coastline, and visited the Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire. He wrote back to his countrymen saying:
“Here should be no landlords to rack us with high rents or extorted fines to consume us. Here every man may be a master of his own labor and land in a short time. The sea there is the strangest pond I ever saw. What sport doth yield a more pleasant content and less hurt or charge than angling with a hook and crossing the sweet air from isle to isle over the silent streams of a calm sea?”
John Mason, a London merchant, was the founder of New Hampshire. After serving as the governor of Newfoundland from 1615 to 1621, he and Sir Ferdinando Gorges received a patent in 1622 from the Council for New England for all the territory lying between the Merrimack and Kennebec Rivers. In 1629 they divided the grant, with Mason taking as his share, which he named New Hampshire. Though he never saw the land, he arranged for settlers to come and named the region after his home county of Hampshire.
The excellent fishing in the waters off the New Hampshire shore was the reason for establishing the first settlements. Fisherman David Thompson was one of the first to receive a land grant from John Mason in 1623 and settled at Odiorne’s Point in present-day Rye to form a fishing colony called Pannaway. He and others built salt-drying fish racks and a “factory” or stone house.
A few years later, Edward and William Hilton made the first permanent settlement at Hilton’s Point at present-day Dover. Strawbery Banke was established in 1630 by settlers from Pannaway and an expedition of the new Laconia Company, with money and aid from John Mason. In 1631, Captain Thomas Wiggin served as the first governor of the Upper Plantation, which was comprised of present-day Dover, Durham, and Stratham.
In contrast to their counterparts in other areas, who often settled for religious reasons, New Hampshire’s first settlers came strictly for commercial purposes.
Exeter was founded in 1638 by Reverend John Wheelwright, a minister who had left the Massachusetts Bay Colony after a religious conflict with the Puritan Church. Winnacunnet, or Hampton, was founded in the same year by Reverend Stephen Batchelor, who moved there from Newbury, Massachusetts, to establish a new church and colony. By 1640, the state had a total population of about 100.
In 1653, Strawbery Banke was renamed Portsmouth, after Mason’s home, and soon became the colonial capitol and a busy seaport. By that time, other areas were also doing well from trade in furs and timber. New Hampshire became a “royal province” in 1679, with John Cutt as president. The “royal province” continued until 1698, when it came under the jurisdiction of Massachusetts with Joseph Dudley as Governor, and continued under that jurisdiction until 1741.
During these years, with New Hampshire’s location on the frontier between British and French colonies in North America, it was in the line of many military conflicts, including King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, Father Rale’s War, and King George’s War. By the 1740s, most native populations had either been killed or driven out of the province’s territory.
Under King George II, New Hampshire returned to its provincial status with a governor of its own, Benning Wentworth, who was its chief magistrate from 1741 to 1766. During his term, New Hampshire was beset with Indian troubles during the French and Indian War. Wentworth also complicated New Hampshire’s territorial claims by interpreting the provincial charter to include territory west of the Connecticut River and began issuing land grants in this territory, which the Province of New York also claimed. The so-called New Hampshire Grants area became a subject of contention from the 1740s until the 1790s, when it was admitted to the United States as the state of Vermont.
Benning Wentworth died in 1770 and was succeeded by his nephew, Sir John Wentworth, the last of the royal governors. He is perhaps best known because he purchased a 36-mile tract of land on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, where he established an estate known as Kingswood, later known as Wolfeborough. Today, this estate is the oldest summer resort in America. His beneficial acts during his service included building roads, including one from Portsmouth to Kingswood; publishing the first accurate state map; organizing the State militia; his help in founding Dartmouth College; and building of Wentworth House, now owned by the State. Loyal to the English crown, he embarked for Nova Scotia at the beginning of the American Revolution.
A pre-American Revolution event occurred in New Hampshire in December 1774, when some 400 men from Portsmouth, Rye, and New Castle raided Fort William and Mary and removed 16 pieces of small cannon and 98 barrels of gunpowder. They also hauled down the fort’s huge British flag. Several injuries but no deaths occurred in the engagement. Many consider the attack to be the first overt act of the Revolution. The arms and powder were distributed through several New Hampshire towns for potential use in the looming struggle against Great Britain.
During the Revolutionary War, New Hampshire was one of the 13 colonies that revolted against British rule. In January 1776, it was the first to establish an independent government and its constitution. The state raised three regiments for the Continental Army, which fought in the Battles of Bunker Hill, Bennington, the Saratoga Campaign, and the Battle of Rhode Island. John Paul Jones‘ ship, the Sloop-of-war USS Ranger, and the frigate USS Raleigh were built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, along with other naval ships for the Continental Navy and privateers to hunt down British merchant shipping. New Hampshire’s John Langdon was the first acting vice-president of the United States and was President of the Senate when George Washington was elected as the first president.
Many events helped to individualize New Hampshire’s history in the following decades.
The first government-sanctioned Navy shipyard in the United States was built on Fernald’s Island in the Piscataqua River in 1800. Concord was named the state capital in 1808. The Dublin Juvenile Library, established in 1822, was the first free public library. In 1827, Lewis Downing and J. Stephens Abbot built the first Concord Stagecoach in Concord, New Hampshire. In 1829, the 278-foot-long Haverhill-Bath Covered Bridge was built in Woodsville, New Hampshire. Today, it is the oldest covered bridge in the United States. In 1833, the first free public library in the United States was established in Peterborough.
During the Civil War, New Hampshire provided 31,650 enlisted men and 836 officers for service. In August 1866, Sylvester Marsh demonstrated the first mountain-climbing railway with his steam engine on Mount Washington. The same year, the Cornish-Windsor Bridge, a double-span, 460-foot covered bridge connecting Cornish, New Hampshire, and Windsor, Vermont, was built. It is the longest-covered bridge in the United States.
The textile industry in New Hampshire was hit hard by the Great Depression in the 1930s-1940s, as major manufacturing industries left New England and moved to the Southern United States or overseas, reflecting nationwide trends. In the 1950s and 1960s, defense contractors moved into many of the former mills. The replacement of the Nashua textile mill with defense electronics contractor Sanders Associates in 1952 and the arrival of minicomputer giant Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1970s helped lead the way toward southern New Hampshire’s role as a high-tech adjunct of the Route 128 corridor. The population of Southern New Hampshire surged beginning in the 1980s as major highways connected the region to Greater Boston and established several bedroom communities in the state.
Today, the state also thrives on tourism. With some of the largest mountains on the East Coast, New Hampshire’s major recreational attractions include skiing, snowmobiling, and other winter sports. Mount Washington is the highest mountain east of the Rockies. Its privately-owned cog railway was the first mountain-climbing railway in the world. Other popular outdoor activities include hiking, mountain climbing, and observing the fall foliage. The White Mountain National Forest links the Vermont and Maine portions of the Appalachian Trail.
The state has a seaboard of about 18 miles where Hampton and Rye beaches have long been famous summer resorts. Portsmouth was the only seaside city with a historic past and a prosperous present with its large navy yard. New Castle is a place of romance and aesthetic beauty, and adventure. Many of the Isles of Shoals in Portsmouth harbor belong to New Hampshire, with their cottages and hotels.
Summer cottages line the state’s many lakes and the seacoast. Lobster fishermen find the Isles of Shoals and the New Hampshire coast favorable areas for taking this famous seafood.
New Hampshire is open to visitors, from the coast to the mountains, 12 months a year. Other popular sites are the Canterbury Shaker Village, Forts Constitution, Stark in New Castle, the Museum of New Hampshire History in Concord, and its numerous state parks.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.
Scenic Byways & Historic Trails