Colonial New Hampshire

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Colonial English Research

This article is part of a series.

Overview of Colonial English Research
Colonial New Hampshire
Colonial Massachusetts
Colonial Rhode Island
Colonial Connecticut
Colonial New York
Colonial New Jersey
Colonial Pennsylvania
Colonial Delaware
Colonial Maryland
Colonial Virginia
Colonial North Carolina
Colonial South Carolina
Colonial Georgia
List of Useful Colonial English Resources

This article originally appeared in "Colonial English Research" by Robert Charles Anderson, MA, FASG in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Jurisdictional History

The first permanent settlement in New Hampshire was made in 1623 at the site of what is now Portsmouth, followed no later than 1628 by the establishment of Dover further up the Piscataqua River. Two more towns, Exeter in 1637 and Hampton in 1638, were established by religious refugees from Massachusetts Bay. These four towns existed as self-governing bodies until they were absorbed by Massachusetts Bay Colony a few years later. For many decades, they formed the bulk of settlement in what became New Hampshire.

When Massachusetts Bay established its first counties in 1643, these four settlements were in Norfolk County (distinct from modern Norfolk County), along with the other settlements between the Merrimack and the Piscataqua, Salisbury and Haverhill. The residents at Dover and Strawbery Bank (Portsmouth), however, did not go along with this scheme, as they had been operating a court of their own from at least 1640. They continued, without surviving evidence of formal concurrence by Massachusetts Bay, as the County of Dover and Portsmouth, also known as the County of Piscataqua.

In 1679 the Crown established the Province of New Hampshire, incorporating the towns of Dover, Portsmouth, Exeter, and Hampton. Old Norfolk County was dissolved, and Salisbury and Haverhill were included in Essex County in Massachusetts. For the next century, the Province of New Hampshire existed as a single jurisdiction, with no governmental entities intervening between the levels of town and province. Then, in 1769, the province was divided into five counties'Cheshire, Grafton, Hillsborough, Rockingham, and Strafford'which began operating as separate entities between that year and 1773.<ref>New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers, 39:v'xix.</ref>


Once the jurisdictional maneuvering was done in the early 1640s, the towns that form the early core of New Hampshire were served by two county courts. Hampton and Exeter were in (old) Norfolk County, while Dover and Portsmouth were in Piscataqua County.

In Norfolk County, courts were held alternately at Hampton (in the fall) and Salisbury (in the spring). Although Hampton eventually ended up in New Hampshire and Salisbury in Massachusetts, each of these courts covered all the Norfolk County towns. These early Norfolk court records have been published along with the other courts that operated in the area that is now Essex County, Massachusetts.<ref>Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Massachusetts, 9 vols. (Salem, 1911'75). In the first volume, see pp. 149'51 and 164'68 for the first surviving records for Hampton and Salisbury Courts.</ref> Separate deed registers, referred to as Norfolk Deeds, were maintained for these same towns, and these volumes also contained wills and other probate material. This probate material has been included in the published volumes of Essex County probates, but the deeds have not been published.<ref>The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts, 3 vols. (Salem, 1916'20).</ref>

The court that sat at Dover and at Portsmouth (Strawbery Banke), known variously as Piscataqua County or Dover and Portsmouth County, entered all its records in a single volume in its earliest years. The book, designated as Volume 1 of the provincial deeds (and a number of succeeding volumes), contains court records, deeds, and probate material. The court records themselves have been extracted and published in the last volume of the provincial and state papers, New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers.<ref>New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers, 40 vols. (Concord, 1867'1943).</ref>

Probate records for these first four New Hampshire towns may be found in a number of places. Transcripts of these records have been gathered together in Volume 31 of the New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers. Most of the probate documents for the earliest years are taken from the first volume of New Hampshire deeds and from the first volume of Norfolk County deeds. A few additional probate records were recorded in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which at various times and for various reasons had superior jurisdiction over some estates.

Finally, the recorded deeds for these towns may be found in the same places as the probate and court matter discussed previously. In addition, original land grants and some later transfers between person and person may be found in the town records.

In summary, the published volumes of court and probate records for early New Hampshire have selected their material from several sources, and portions of the original sources have been published in various places.

West of the Merrimack River, the most southerly tier of towns in what is now New Hampshire was part of Massachusetts until the border was adjusted in 1741. Prior to that time, deeds for these towns should be sought in Middlesex, Worcester, or Hampshire County records, as appropriate.


In 1791, Vermont was admitted to the Union as the fourteenth state. The area north of Massachusetts and west of the Connecticut River, which became the Republic and then the State of Vermont, was claimed in the colonial period by both New Hampshire and New York, and both made extensive grants of proprietary townships there. Although the Crown eventually ruled in 1764 that this region should be governed by New York, the majority of the early immigrants were New Englanders. Vermont has always been culturally a part of New England.

In the wake of the 1764 ruling, the region fell within the jurisdiction of Albany County, New York. In 1766, Cumberland County was erected for the area between the Green Mountains and the Connecticut River. In 1770 this county was divided, with Gloucester to the north and Cumberland to the south. Finally, in 1772, Charlotte County was set off from Albany County, to include much of northern New York, along with the area that would become northwestern Vermont.

Documents created by New Hampshire relating to the area that would become Vermont have been printed in two volumes of the New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers. Volume 10 has a lengthy collection of records on 'The Controversy Between New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont...,' while Volume 26 is totally devoted to the actual charters of the New Hampshire Grants of townships west of the Connecticut, the earliest of which was issued in 1749.<ref>New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers. 'The Controversy Between New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont . . .' is found on pp. 197'500 of volume 10.</ref>

Case Studies

Steven Edward Sullivan, 'The Two Families of Sarah (Libby) (Smith) Dolbear of Hampton and Rye, New Hampshire,' American Genealogist 73 (1998): 258'71. Sullivan tackles a very difficult problem in spousal identification by using a very wide range of sources, in many different formats. First, he uses many different volumes of the New Hampshire Provincial and State Papers for probate, town, and military records. Second, he consults the original documents behind some of these published volumes in the Rockingham County records, which in their earliest years were equivalent to the provincial records. Third, he uses many town records, including vital, land, and tax documents in the original, in microfilm, in typescript, and in published forms. Fourth, he examines many church records, again in many formats.

Janet Ireland Delorey, 'John Woodin, Brickmaker, of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and South Carolina,' American Genealogist 64 (1989): 65'74, 150'56, 238'45. John Woodin lived, at one time or another, in virtually every town in old Norfolk County, including three of the four towns that formed the core of early New Hampshire. Delorey makes good use of the town, county, and colony records both in Massachusetts Bay and in New Hampshire to follow Woodin throughout his restless career (which ended in South Carolina).