Long before the arrival of the English in 1638, Native Americans, mostly the Pennacooks, had used the area as their summer camping place. They fished in the river and planted corn and beans in the rich upland meadows. After the harvest, when winter drew near, they moved inland to spend the winter hunting. Numerous artifacts found near the Taylor River are silent witnesses to their long occupation of what became the fourth English settlement in New Hampshire.
English Puritans from Massachusetts were drawn to this area by the lush salt meadows which were ideal for raising cattle. Although Winnacunnet was officially established on October 14,1638, most of the settlers, led by the Rev. Stephen Bachiler, arrived in 1639 to begin building their new town. Bachiler was a colorful character who was eventually forced to leave the town because of his scandalous behavior. However, he gave the town its permanent name of Hampton and one of its leading families, whose descendants still live here.
Isolated from the other towns of New Hampshire by the lack of good river communication, Hampton was more closely allied to the Puritans in Massachusetts. Its residents shared with them many of the same anxieties and pressures of life in 17th century New England. Hampton was the only town in New Hampshire to bring women to trial for witchcraft. Goodwife, or Goody, Eunice Cole was jailed several times as a witch and in 1680 was reindicted along with two others, Rachel Fuller and Isabella Towle. This last accusation was dropped, and witchcraft stories became only part of Hampton legend.
18th Century Hampton
At the turn of the eighteenth century, settlers began to spread out from the center of Hampton to the west and north. Although the original grant for the town was extensive, the original inhabitants lived clustered around the town green (where this museum stands). As the population grew, however, young families moved further away to new farms. Eventually, new towns, from Hampton Falls to Sandown, were carved out of the outlying parts of the original Hampton grant.
Most of Hampton's residents lived modestly, with none of the pretensions of the wealthy merchants in Portsmouth or Exeter. Only Jonathan Moulton, a merchant and militia commander, attempted to emulate their style. When he built himself a fine house, rumor whispered that he was in league with the Devil. Farming and fishing, along with the crafts of weaving, shoemaking, and joinery were the major occupations in Hampton during this time. True to the town's Puritan roots, there was still only one church, although simmering religious disputes would cause a schism in the church at the end of the century.
Despite the relative quiet of the town, Hampton lay on a main road between Boston and Portsmouth. News of a wider world passed along this road, involving Hampton with events beyond its daily routine. Soldiers from Hampton served in both the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution, putting them on a national stage for the first time.
Hampton As a Destination
As the 19th century dawned, Hampton was still a small conservative town with a single church. The Congregational minister was paid by the town, which owned the meetinghouse and the parsonage with all its land. However, in the first quarter of the century the Baptist and Methodist churches were founded, and their parishioners regularly contested this arrangement. Church and town finally became separate in 1838, sixty years after the American Revolution.
The coming of the railroad in 1840 changed Hampton forever. Now it was possible for tourists to travel easily from the city to stay in one of the hotels in town or at the beach. The Union House, later renamed the Hotel Whittier, was the first new hotel uptown, while the Leavitt and Nudd families operated early inns at the beach and were active in promoting the beach as a vacation destination. In the last half of the century the beach's popularity grew, and a number of hotels were built to accommodate the crowds of visitors.
As more visitors discovered the charms of the seaside town, Hampton became less insular. The trains brought to the town, not only visitors, but also news, ideas, and controversies, which put issues like slavery at the forefront of town debate. The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 left its mark on the small town, since more than 100 Hampton men served in the army and navy between 1861 and 1865. One quarter of these died in service, a significant toll in a village where everyone knew everyone else.
Hampton Beach - From Oxen to Tourism
For the first 200 years of its history, Hampton Beach was an isolated part of the town, frequented only by a few fishermen and farmers bringing their oxen to graze on the Great Ox Common at Boar's Head. Gates were even installed across the roads leading to the beach to protect the sea grass and the seaweed, which were valuable commodities. The gates were removed in 1846, just as tourism at the beach became an economic force in the town.
The first visitors to the beach came by train to the depot in the village and then were driven to the beach in horse-drawn wagons. These visitors normally came for an extended stay at one of the hotels which were quickly built to accommodate them. However, the picture of the beach as a place of leisurely resort changed forever in 1897 with advent of the trolley. The Exeter, Hampton, and Amesbury Street Railway connected the mill towns of the area with the beach and brought thousands of visitors for a single day's enjoyment. That same year the Hampton Beach Improvement Company leased a large part of the beach and built the Casino and other businesses to serve these new visitors. Within a few years the beach had developed much as we see it today.
Although the trolley went out of business in 1926, the automobile had already replaced it as the main transport to the beach. Today on a good summer day 100,000 people may throng the sands and boulevards of Hampton Beach.