King George III had banned the export of powder and arms to the American colonists. Paul Revere went riding to warn the local people. A crowd gathered, fearing Redcoat troops would soon be coming. Taking up arms, they faced the king’s men in the first armed uprising of the American Revolution and won. They captured Fort William and Mary in New Castle and seized its stores.
Wait ... New Castle? New Castle, New Hampshire?
The Capture of Fort William and Mary
Yes, in spite of what you may have read in the Massachusetts history books, the Revolution really began on December 14, 1774, and the scene was the New Hampshire seacoast. Paul Revere had just ridden from Boston to Portsmouth to deliver the news of the arms ban. Smithsonian Magazine calls this “the midday ride of Paul Revere.”
Samuel Cutts, the leader of the Committee of Ways and Means in Portsmouth, had a drum beaten to summon people to head to the British fort. Thomas Pickering and John Langdon led them, and reinforcements from New Castle and Rye soon joined in.
Governor Wentworth had warned the garrison of six men at William and Mary of a possible attack. At first, Captain Cochran ordered his men “not to flinch on pain of death but to defend the fort to the last extremity.” Seeing a force of four hundred charging, they quickly realized that would be a stupid idea. They fired a few shots, but no one was hurt. Cochran surrendered, and the crowd hauled down the King’s flag. They broke open the powder magazine and carried a hundred barrels of powder away.
On the next day, Major John Sullivan brought another group to the fort and took away sixteen cannon and about sixty muskets.
You can still visit the site in New Castle. It’s now called Fort Constitution.
The developments of 1775
In April, hostilities broke out in Lexington and Concord, and the Revolution was clearly under way. The H.M.S. Scarborough established a blockade of Portsmouth harbor. Captain Barkley seized provision ships to send to General Gage in Boston and impressed local seamen into service. The colonists counter-blockaded the ship so it couldn’t get supplies. A group of eight cannon fired on the Scarborough. The attack was poorly organized and had little physical effect, but Barkley realized it was time to get out.
Governor Wentworth had tried to play a conciliatory role, but the royal decrees and Barkley’s enforcement had pushed the colonists too far. On August 23, the Scarborough set sail for Boston. Wentworth and his family were on board. The fort was demolished soon after his departure.
He tried to get support for a naval force to take Portsmouth back, but it didn’t happen. He never returned to New Hampshire.
New Hampshire was the first colony to adopt a constitution independent of British authority. In December the Fifth Provincial Congress met in Exeter and voted to establish a new form of government.
The new civil government came into effect on January 5, 1776, with the Provincial Congress resolving itself into a House of Representatives. One of its first acts was to revoke the institution of appealing verdicts from the New Hampshire courts to the British courts.
By 1776, the colonial uprisings had turned into a mandate for independence. On June 11, the legislature formed a committee to draft “a Declaration of this General Assembly for Independence of the United Colonies.” Four days later there was a unanimous vote for independence.
New Hampshire sent three representatives to the Second Continental Congress. Josiah Bartlett of Kingston was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence after John Hancock.
The Declaration was read in New Hampshire on September 10, 1776. The legislature passed an act adopting the name “State of New Hampshire.”
The rest is history, and the eighteen miles of New Hampshire coastline were an important part of that history. We don’t begrudge Massachusetts for celebrating Patriots’ day, but we’d just like to remind them that it really started here.
(In writing this article, I relied heavily on Revolutionary New Hampshire by Richard Francis Upton, Kennikat Press, 1936, among other sources. Upton is strongly pro-British, but that makes me more confident I haven’t painted New Hampshire’s patriots in excessively glowing colors.)