The Obscure History of Indigenous Exeter

By Emmanuelle Brindamour (March 2021)

400 years ago, the area known today as Exeter, NH was a dense forest of white pine and red oak spotted with marshes and stretches of meadow. A winding stream drawing inland tumbled down stony rapids into a broad saltwater basin, where its fresh waters met the tides of the Atlantic. After a year at sea, salmon and alewife would venture up the Squamscott River to spawn at the falls, hence Exeter’s original name—“M’Squamskook,” meaning “Falls at the Place of the Salmon” in the Abenaki language. M’Squamskook would have made the perfect home for these anadromous fish. 

For thousands of years before the arrival of the English settlers,1 the Pennacook Abenaki peoples thrived here.2 The Pennacook led a confederacy of over a dozen tribes across New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine.3 Ethnographic and archaeological evidence suggest that the Pennacook would spend the winter further in-land hunting moose and caribou, collecting maple sugar, and sometimes collecting rhyolite from Mount Jasper for lithic tools.4 Every spring, a few Pennacook families, amounting to over 100 people, would return to the fertile banks of the Squamscott to garden corn and pumpkin, fowl pigeon, and fish, of course, until the late fall. Their relations were not far; other Pennacook families gathered in villages at what is now Concord, Sewall’s Island, and Manchester. The Pennacook were an amicable, pious people, a monotheistic people who would come to interpret the Bible, a democratic people who would use consensus decision-making, and a peaceful people who would not once in history engage in offensive acts of violence.5  

In 1637, English settlers arrived at M’Squamskook to establish the Town of Exeter.6 As the dark cloud of frigid winter approached, Reverend John Wheelwright, exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for challenging the Puritan authorities, docked his vessel on the Squamscott riverbank, just a few kilometres south of where Exeter now sits. There, he wintered with Edward Hilton, one of the few pioneers already living in the area.7 Come spring, Wheelwright rowed up to the western banks of M’Squamskook, where a handful of his followers and family members joined him. They were welcomed by the Pennacook families, whom the English had decided to name the Squamscott, from hearing this word spoken frequently in the Pennacook’s Algonquian tongue. On April 3rd, head speakers of the Pennacook and neighboring tribes agreed to share their land with Wheelwright and his people. 

In this paper, I aim to accurately tell the story of the settling of Exeter, describe Exeter’s Native-English relations, and clarify obscure history of the deeds of Exeter. 

Figure 1: Image of a copy of the Wheelwright Deed of 1629. Photography from the Hampstead Historical Society. 
https://hampsteadhistoricalsociety.org/

The settling of Exeter began with two land deeds; the first in May of 1629, and second on April 3rd, 1638 (see Figure 1 and Appendix).8 These two deeds were in many ways very similar. The deeds were granted by four Head Tribal Speakers, or Sagamores—“Passaconaway of the Pennacook, Runaawit of the Pentuckitt, Rowes of the Nuchanawack, and Wehanownowit of the Squamscott”—to a group of five settlers; John Wheelwright, William Wentworth, Augustine Story, Thomas Wite, and Thomas Levitt. The deeds granted the English a large swath of land, about 30 by 30 miles, between the Merrimac and Piscataqua river (see Figure 2). In return, the grantees would pay Passaconaway one coat of trucking cloth9 per year and allow the Pennacook peoples  to continue to live, hunt, fowl, and fish among them. The most significant difference between the two deeds concerns the southern boundary; in the former deed it was a line three miles north of the Merrimack river and in the latter it was the river itself .10 There is also the matter of the deeds being nine years apart. 

Figure 2: Map of Lands granted in Wheelwright Deed of 1638 from Middlesex North Registry of Deeds.
(Personal correspondence with Richard P. Howe Jr., Register of Deeds)

Why are there two deeds that say nearly the same thing? This question has been raised and debated by many for centuries. In 1820 James Savage argued that a mere comparison of dates proved the deed of 1629 was spurious, and other New Hampshire historians like John Farmer followed suit. Both Charles Henry Bell in 1888 and Nathaniel Bouton in 1856 were generally indifferent, presenting arguments for both sides. On the other hand, Judge C.E. Potter in 1851 claimed that documentation of depositions in Salem and Exeter prove a Native land purchase by Wheelwright before he settled Exeter in 1638, and Charles Beals in 1916 argued that Wheelwright was a pious gentleman of good character, and that it is unthinkable for him to partake in any such forgery or fraud.11 Since the early 20th century, there has been little documentation on this matter, perhaps because historians concluded that land disputes were settled, or that Indigenous perspective in these disputes was of little importance to explore. 

I argue that there were never two deeds—the deed of 1629 is a forgery, a fabricated legal document that roped the Pennacook into a colonial land dispute. There are significant inconsistencies about the grantees and their whereabouts, and the deed’s appearance in conjunction with a 1707 court case gives a likely explanation for the forgery. 

Recall from earlier that the grantees arrived in Exeter in 1638; this visit is well documented.12 What’s up for debate is whether the grantees could have been in Exeter in 1629, returned to England, and came back in 1638.13 Let us begin with the eponymous grantee, John Wheelwright. He was born in 1592 in Bilsby, Lincolnshire, completed a Bachelor’s degree at Cambridge in 1614, and, in 1621, married the daughter of Thomas Story, who was at the time the vicar of Bilsby.14 Story died in 1623, and Wheelwright succeeded him as vicar. One of the duties of the Vicar was to sign Bilsby’s yearly parishioner transcript. Wheelwright signed this transcript on March 25th 1629, making it highly unlikely for him to have been able to cross the ocean in time for the supposed signing of the deed that spring. 

On April 15, 1668 John Wheelwright gave a testimony saying he bought the land from Sagamores that “ran from the Merrimack river eastward and so up into the country.”15 Recall from my initial description of the deeds that the former deed named its southern border to be a line 3 miles north of the Merrimac, whereas in the latter deed, it was the river itself. Wheelwright’s testimony supports that if any deed was real, it was the one of 1638. 

The 1629 deed included four other grantees; Augustine Story, William Wentworth, Thomas Wite, and Thomas Leavitt. All except Levitt, came from Bilsby, Lincolnshire, aboard the vessel of Wheelwright’s followers and were close family or business connections. Wentworth, the youngest, features once in later New England history.16 Beyond the deeds and the Combination of 1639—Exeter’s “constitution”—there is no trace of Story, Wite, or Leavitt in New Hampshire or Massachusetts history. Two of the grantees’ names—Augustine Story and Thomas Wite—were written in the deeds, but in signing the Combination, they were written “Augustine Starr” and “Thomas Wright,” which has prompted historians to question whether they are the same people.17 

There is very little information on the supposed witnesses of the deed’s signing. But one, Samuel Sharpe, was detained by bad weather on the coast of England in 1629 which would have placed him on the ocean during the deed’s signing.18 

Gaps are not uncommon in early colonial history. But the information we have is not merely limited, it simply does not align; there are uncertainties concerning the grantees’ whereabouts in 1629, their whereabouts after the deed, details about their identities, and whether some of the grantees truly existed. 

Even if we conclude that the 1629 deed is spurious, we’re still left wondering; why might someone forge this land deed? Who would forge this? Here is one possible explanation. Forging deeds in New England was not uncommon. By the mid-1650s, farmable land had become scarce in northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire and by the 1670s, litigation increased over disputed land titles. Peter S. Leavenworth in the New England Quarterly wrote, “Old deeds retrieved from household strongboxes, when they existed at all, joined recently fabricated forgeries in a stream of documentary proof flowing into local courts.”19 The Wheelwright deed of 1629 only appeared 48 years later in the even more obscure 1707 Allen v. Waldron case involving the title of all the lands in New Hampshire. One of the defendants was an heir to Captain John Mason, who received a grant in November 1629 from the King of England to all the lands in New Hampshire. The other defendant was heir to the lands of settlers at Exeter and neighbouring towns. To complicate things, both of the defendants represented were dead at the time of the trial and documentation of the trial is incomplete and partially in the form of letters between both defendants’ representatives and the judge. It is highly possible that the Wheelwright deed of 1629, dating just a few months before Mason’s grant, was fabricated in this case by the other defendant to claim, put simply, “we were here first and therefore are the rightful heirs to New Hampshire.” 

A full consideration of this case clearly demonstrates the manipulation of Indigenous peoples in intra- and inter-colonial land claim battles and power struggles, a recurring theme across indiegnous homelands in the Northeast. But even if the deed of 1629 was forged, there was still the deed of 1638, whose authenticity has scarcely ever been debated. So let’s take a look at what this deed meant, contextualized by the broader native-English relations in Exeter. 

Let’s begin with the intentions of the Pennacook in welcoming the English in Exeter. The Pennacook have been described by European colonizers as an amicable, righteous, and honorable people, and there were nothing but minor skirmishes between the two groups concerning loose pigs during their first years living alongside each other.20In particular, the Pennacook Sagamore Passaconaway, one of the grantors, was well respected by settlers and natives alike, called “Child of the Bear” or “Conway” by the English because of his seemingly supernatural power.21 He actively advocated against quarreling with the English and evidently was sincerely committed to good relations; for instance, in 1631, Passaconaway handed over one of his people who had murdered an English trader to Boston authorities.22 Especially considering that the Pennacooks had no concept of land ownership and Wheelwright himself drafted the 1638 deed with a couple other grantees, these deeds meant nothing to the Pennacook but amity and mutual protection.23 Furthermore, allowing the English to settle would help protect the Pennacook from the Mohawk, their Iroquois enemies, who for decades had been encroaching on N’dakinna, by having more men to fight side-by-side.24 

The settlers had different intentions behind the deed. Wheelwright was banished from the expanding Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his reputation was damaged.25 This almost untrodden section of land had not yet been claimed by Massachusetts, and Exeter was an environmental jackpot, being easy and desirable to settle. Wheelwright didn’t care as much about relations with the Pennacook as he did rivaling Massachusetts by obtaining a land title. In fact, the settlers’ relationship with the Pennacook deteriorated dramatically over the next decades. Unsurprisingly, the settlers ignored their promises in the deed; they eventually stopped allowing the Pennacook to live, hunt, and fish on their lands, forcing the Pennacook to leave Exeter within decades.26 But worse, this community of settlers, along with settlers of neighboring towns, conscripted the aid of the Mohawks to weaken the Pennacook in the 1666 Battle of Fort Eddy (north of Concord NH), and continued supporting Mohawk attacks into 1680.27 The Pennacook never regained their strength numerically, nor their power as a confederacy for the rest of history.28 

The settling of Exeter had many other consequences on Indigenous lifeways in New Hampshire. Wheelwright directly blocked and prevented the use of the southern end of the Pentucket trail, a trail created by the Pennacook confederacy for transportation—this Pennacook trail system would become paved for European transit.29 Also, within the first decade of settlement at Exeter, the settlers built dams to harness water power which ruined a prime Pennacook food source; alewife populations decreased dramatically, and salmon along with a multitude of other anadromous fish species deserted Exeter.30 

The obscure nature and probable forgery involved in the 1629 Wheelwright deed and the broader settling of the town of Exeter demonstrates how the Pennacook peoples were roped into a system of colonial disputes and manipulated to gain leverage in colonial America. The Pennacook embodied peace, commitment to forming strong relationships, neutrality in colonial disputes and even at times a desire to adopt European practices.31 Still, the English chose to lie, manipulate, and commit acts of violence that led to the plight of Pennacook populations in this town, and in this state. 

I wanted this paper to bring to the spotlight the Indigenous experience and perspective of these lands, so this is where I’ll end. Back in January I interviewed Paul and Denise Pouliot, the current Sagamore and Sagamoskwa of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People. When I asked them their opinion on the authenticity of the Wheelwright deeds, Denise said something that resonated with me: “To us, all of these land deeds were forgeries.” To Indigenous peoples, it didn’t matter if Wheelwright and the Sagamores truly had signed a sheet of paper on the Western bank of the Squamscott on April 3rd 1638, because the settlers’ promises of amity and peace would always be lies. 

It is our responsibility as individuals who have the privilege of living, working, and learning on this land to acknowledge the losses the Pennacook suffered for us to be here. We must also acknowledge that Exeter was founded not only on the hard work and courage of the settlers, but their manipulation and dishonesty towards Indigenous peoples. 

Footnotes

1In this paper, I refer to English who arrived at Exeter as “settlers” for sake of simplicity since I refer to the establishment of Exeter as the “settling” of Exeter. However, it should be noted that I believe the name “colonizers” is equally fitting–the consequences of colonization in Exeter and New Hampshire is traced back to this group of people.
2 Rimkunas, Barbara. Hidden History of Exeter. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2014. 
3 According to Charles Beals in “Passaconaway in the White Mountains,” these allied tribes included the Pennacook, Wachusetts, Agawams, Wamesits, Pequawkets, Pawtuckets, Nashuas, Namaoskeags, Coosaukes, Winnepesaukes, Piscataquas, Winnecowetts, Amariscoggins, Newichewannocks, Sacos, and Saugusaukes. 
4 Chapdelaine, Claude. Late Pleistocene Archaeology & Ecology in the Far Northeast. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2012. 
5 Personal Correspondence with Paul and Denise Pouliot, Head Speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abeanki People
6 Native people have been in the Western Hemisphere since around 9,000 B.C.E., 10,000 years before European contact. This period witnessed different social innovations, such as the transition of indigenous lifeways from nomadic to sedentary living, the popularization of horticulture, the development of indigenous democracy, intertribal conflict, and vibrant cultural practices. The Woodlands phase (1000 BCE – 1000 CE) was by no means static, or unimportant. Information on this section of history is limited by the loss of indigenous oral storytelling and physical indigenous artifacts, which was largely caused by colonization. To piece together this information would require and deserve an entirely separate paper. 
7 Rimkunas, 2014, 7. 
8 According to Robert Stewert Grumet in “An Analysis of Upper Delawaran Land Sales in Northern New Jersey, 1630-1758,” land deeds, however vague or unreliable they can be, constitute a large majority of available documentation on Northeastern Algonquian history. 
9 Trucking cloth was cloth for trading, often made out of wool.
10 Bell, Charles Henry. History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire. Boston: J.E. Farwell, 1888.
11 New England Historic Genealogical Society Staff. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 45 1891. Boston, MA: Heritage Books, 1997; Bell, 1888; Bouton, Nathaniel. The History of Concord, From Its First Grant in 1725 – To the Organization of the City Government In 1853, With a History of the Ancient Penacooks. Concord: Benning W. Sanborn, 1856; Beals, 1916. 
12 Wheelwright, John, and Charles Henry Bell. John Wheelwright: His Writings, including His Fast-day Sermon, 1637; and His Mercurius Americanus, 1645; with a Paper upon the Genuineness of the Indian Deed of 1629, and a Memoir. Boston: John Wilson And Son, 1876. 
13 The 1629 visit is only attested in the very deed itself. 
14 Vicars essentially collected taxes for the Church of England. 
15 New Hampshire Historical Society. Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Volume 2. Concord, NH: Jacob B. Moore, 1827. 
16 William Wentworth is presumed to have been 21, on the cusp of no longer being a minor, when the deed of 1629 was signed, which would have made him 20 years younger than the rest of the grantees. He reappears in New Hampshire history when noted for his incredible strength with “successful resistance to the attempts of the indians to enter the house he was at during the Dover massacre in 1689.” Belknap, Jeremy. The History of New-Hampshire . Boston: Bradford and Read, 1977. 
17 New Hampshire Historical Society. Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Volume 1. Boston: Jacob B. Moore, 1824. 
18 Winthrop, John, and James Savage. The History of New England from 1630 to 1649. Vol. 1. Boston: Little, Brown &, 1853.
19 Leavenworth, Peter S. “”The Best Title That Indians Can Claime”: Native Agency and Consent in the Transferal of Penacook-Pawtucket Land in the Seventeenth Century.” The New England Quarterly 72, no. 2 (1999): 275-300. Accessed March 15, 2021. doi:10.2307/366874.
20 Rimkunas, 2014, 16. 
21 Beals, Charles Edward. Passaconaway in the White Mountains. Boston: R.G. Badger, 1916. 
22 Ibid, 32. 
23 Rimkunas, 2014, 18. 
24 Beals, 1916, 32. 
25 While the Antinomian controversy is beyond the scope of this paper, it is notable for forcing Wheelwright out of Boston.
26 Rimkunas, 2014, 22. 
27 Bouton, 1856, 24. 
28 Beals, 1916, 35. 
29 Piotrowski, Tadeusz. The Indian Heritage of New Hampshire and Northern New England. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002. 
30 Martin, Laura. “Exeter’s Alewives.” Exeter Historical Society. June 24, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://www.exeterhistory.org/exeter-history/2016/6/24/exeters-alewives.
31 Personal Correspondence with Denise and Paul Pouliot, Head Speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People. 

Appendix: Typed Manuscript of Wheelwright Deed of 1629 from Middlesex North Registry of Deeds 

Recorded according to the original found on the ancient files for the County of York this 28th day of January 1713/4, at Cambridge October 31, 1729. 

Whereas we the Sagamores of Penecook Penacket Squamsquot and Nuchawanack are inclined to have the English inhabit amongst us as they are amongst our County men in the Massachusetts Bay by which means we hope in time to be strengthened against our enemies the Tareteens who yearly doth us damage likewise being persuaded that it will be for the good of us and our posterity, etc. 

To that end have at a general meeting at Squamsquot on Pinataqua River we the aforesaid Sagamores with a universal consent of our subjects do covenant and agree with the English as folloith – Now know all men by these presents that we, Passaconaway, Sagamore of Penecook, Runaawitt, Sagamore of Pentuckitt, Uahanqnonawitt, Sagamore of Squomsquot and Rowes, Sagamore of Nuchawanack for a competent valuation in goods already received in coats, shirts and vituals and also for the consideration aforesaid do according to the limits and bounds hereafter granted give grant bargain sell release ratify and confirm unto John Wheelwright of the Massachusetts Bay late of England a minister of the Gospel Augustine Glory, Thomas Wite, William Wentworth and Thomas Levet all of the Massachusetts Bay in New England to them their heirs and assigns forever all that Part of the Main Land bounded by the River of Piscataqua and the River of Merrimack that is to say to begin at Nuchawanack Falls in Piscattaqua River aforesaid and so down said River to the Sea and so alongst the seashore to Merrimack River and so up along said river to the falls at Pentuckit aforesaid and from said Pentuckt Falls upon a Northwest line twenty English miles into the woods and from thence to run on a strit line northeast and southwest till meet with the main rivers that runs down to Pentucket Falls and Nuchawanack Falls and the Rivers to be the Bounds of the said lands from the straight line or head line of the aforesaid falls and the main channel of each river from Pentucket and Nuchwanack Falls to the main sea to be the side bounds and the main sea between Piscataqua River and Merrimack River to be the lower bounds and the thwart line that runs from river to river to be the upper bounds together with all islands within said bounds as also the Isles of Sholes so called by the English together with all profits advantages and appurtances whatsoever to the said tract of land belonging or in any ways appertaining reserving to our selves liberty of making use of our won planting land as also free liberty of hunting, fishing and fowling and it is likewise with these presents following first that the said John Wheelwright shall within ten years after the date hereof set down with a company of English and being a plantation at Squomsquot Falls in Piscataqua River aforesaid – secondly that what other inhabitants shall come and live on said tract of land amongst them from time to time and at all times shall have and enjoy the same benefits as the said Wheelwright aforesaid [thirdly] that if at anytime there be a number of people amongst them that have a mind to begin a new plantation that they be encouraged so to do and that no plantation exceed in lands above ten English miles square or such a proportion as amounts to ten square miles. Fourthly that the aforesaid granted lands are to be divided into townships as people increase and appear to inhabit them and that no lands shall be granted to any particular persons but what shall be for a township and what lands within township is granted to any particular persons to be by vote of the major part of the inhabitants legally and orderly settled in said township – fifthly for managing and regulating and for avoiding contentions amongst them they are to be under the Government of the colony of Massachusetts their neighbours and to observe their laws and orders until they have a settled government amongst themselves. Sixthly we the aforesaid Sagamores and our Subjects are to have free liberty within the aforesaid granted tract of land of fishing fowling hunting and planting etc. Seventhly and lastly every township within the aforesaid limits or tract of land that hereafter shall pay to Passaconaway our chief Sagamore that now is and to his Successors forever if lawfully demanded one coat of trucking cloth a year and every year for an acknowledgement and also shall pay to Mr John Wheelwright aforesaid his heirs and successors forever if lawfully demanded two bushels of Indian corn a year for and in consideration of said Wheelwright’s great pains and care as also for the charges he hath been at to obtain this our grant for himself and those aforementioned and the inhabitants that shall hereafter settle in townships on the afore granted premises and we the aforesaid sagamores Passaconaway Sagamore of Penecook, Runaawitt, Sagamore of Pentuckitt, Wahangnonawitt, Sagamore of Squomsquot and Rowles, Sagamore of Nuchawanack do by these presents ratifie and confirm all the afore granted and bargained premises and tract of land aforeseaid excepting and reserving as afore excepted and reserved and provisos aforesaid fulfilled with all the meadow and marsh ground therein. 

Together with all the mines minerals of what kind or nature so ever with all the woods, limbs and timber trees ponds rivers lakes runs of water or water courses thereunto belonging with all the freedom of fishing fowling and hunting as ourselves with all other benefits profits privileges and appurtenances thereunto of all and any part of the said tract of land belonging or in any ways appertaining unto him the said John Wheelwright, Augustine Storer, Thomas Wight, William Wentworth, and Thomass Levet and their heirs forever as aforesaid. 

17th day of May 1629 in the fifth year of the King Charles’ Reign over England. 

Works Cited: 

Beals, Charles Edward. Passaconaway in the White Mountains. Boston: R.G. Badger, 1916.

Belknap, Jeremy. The History of New-Hampshire. Boston: Bradford and Read, 1977. 

Bell, Charles Henry. History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire. Boston: J.E. Farwell, 1888. 

Bouton, Nathaniel. The History of Concord, From Its First Grant in 1725 – To the Organization of the City Government In 1853, With a History of the Ancient Penacooks. Concord: Benning W. Sanborn, 1856. 

Chapdelaine, Claude. Late Pleistocene Archaeology & Ecology in the Far Northeast. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2012. 

New Hampshire Historical Society. Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Volume 1. Boston: Jacob B. Moore, 1824. 

New Hampshire Historical Society. Collections of the New Hampshire Historical Society, Volume 2. Concord, NH: Jacob B. Moore, 1827. 

Leavenworth, Peter S. “”The Best Title That Indians Can Claime”: Native Agency and Consent in the Transferal of Penacook-Pawtucket Land in the Seventeenth Century.” The New England Quarterly 72, no. 2 (1999): 275-300. Accessed March 15, 2021. doi:10.2307/366874. 

Martin, Laura. “Exeter’s Alewives.” Exeter Historical Society. June 24, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://www.exeterhistory.org/exeter-history/2016/6/24/exeters-alewives. 

Piotrowski, Tadeusz. The Indian Heritage of New Hampshire and Northern New England. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002. 

Rimkunas, Barbara. Hidden History of Exeter. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2014. 

Wheelwright, John, and Charles Henry Bell. John Wheelwright: His Writings, including His Fast-day Sermon, 1637; and His Mercurius Americanus, 1645; with a Paper upon the Genuineness of the Indian. Winthrop, John, and James Savage. The History of New England from 1630 to 1649. Vol. 1. Boston: Little, Brown &, 1853.