By Rudy VanVeghten
One of the frequent questions posed by visitors to the Meredith Historical Society Museum on Main Street is how Meredith acquired its name. Early records show that the town was first granted in 1748. Since Samuel Palmer was the first name on the petition, the town was referred to as Palmer’s Town, but that was never adopted as an official name. In 1750, the petitioners started calling themselves Salem after the early Puritan settlement in Massachusetts Bay Colony. When they learned that name had previously been claimed by another town in New Hampshire, the petitioners altered their name to New Salem. It was as New Salem that early town settlers petitioned the New Hampshire provincial government for incorporation in the summer of 1768.
When Governor John Wentworth finally signed off on the petition at the end of that year, however, it wasn’t under the name New Salem. He renamed the frontier settlement Meredith. A close look at the documentary sources and at the political undercurrents of the times tells an intriguing story, not only of our town’s beginnings, but how it all relates to the broader early history of New Hampshire and the United States of America.
John Wentworth’s English Visit
John Wentworth was the grandson of one 18th-century New Hampshire governor and the nephew of another. His father, Mark Hunking Wentworth, was a wealthy Portsmouth merchant who had charge of his family’s lucrative New Hampshire mast-supply business. He was also a member of the Masonian Proprietors who in 1748 granted the land north of the Winnipesaukee River that eventually become Meredith. It was in relation to the Wentworth mast business that his son John traveled to London in 1763 as the family’s agent. While in England, Wentworth met Charles Watson-Wentworth, the marquis of Rockingham, a member of the House of Lords and possibly a distant relative of the New Hampshire Wentworths.[i]
It was during Wentworth’s second year in England that Prime Minister George Grenville introduced the infamous Stamp Act, which in March 1765 was approved unanimously in the House of Lords and by a 205-49 vote in the House of Commons. One of those 49 opponents of the original passage was Sir William Meredith of Wigin, England, who made the following address in Parliament on February 6, 1765: “We cannot lay a tax upon others without ourselves. This is not the case in America. We shall tax them in order to ease ourselves. We ought therefore to be extremely delicate in imposing a burden upon others which we not only do not share ourselves but which is to take it far from us. If we tax America we shall supersede the necessity of their assembling.”[ii]
Sir William’s prophecy proved true. Soon after the Stamp Act’s passage, word of colonial protests began flooding in, particularly from merchants hurt financially by American boycotts on imported English goods. King George focused blame on his prime minister and dismissed Lord Grenville in July 1655, replacing him with Gov. Wentworth’s new friend the marquis of Rockingham. And among the appointees in the new Rockingham administration was Sir William Meredith, who was named a lord of the admiralty.[iii]
Shortly after Rockingham’s appointment, his friend from New Hampshire joined the discussion over the Stamp Act. “John Wentworth was concerned about the reaction to the Stamp Act in the colonies, and so was the marquis of Rockingham,” writes Wentworth biographer Paul Wilderson. “What Rockingham needed was a firsthand account of the colonies from an American point of view. It was natural, then, that he turned for this information to his close friend John Wentworth.”[iv]
Another member of Rockingham’s group of Stamp Act opponents was Barlow Trecothick, a wealthy merchant who had grown up in Boston before settling in London about 1750. “As an expert on America,” notes one biography, “he had played a part in the opposition to the Stamp Act by colonial agents and merchants before it was passed.”[v] When Parliament on February 11, 1766, considered repeal of the Stamp Act, two of the most extensively questioned witnesses were visiting American scientist Benjamin Franklin and Barlow Trecothick.[vi] Based in part on Wentworth’s advice, concurrence by Lord of the Admiralty Sir William Meredith, and the arguments presented by Trecothick and Franklin, Prime Minister Rockingham succeeded in winning repeal of the Stamp Act in March of 1766. Three months later, Rockingham resigned as prime minister and was replaced by William Pitt, who in turn resigned four months later due to health issues and replaced by the Duke of Grafton.
Appointed N.H. Governor
John Wentworth and Barlow Trecothick in July 1766 were appointed by the New Hampshire legislature as provincial agents to the British government.[vii] Before they had received notice of their appointment, however, King George in August 1766 named John Wentworth to succeed his Uncle Benning as governor of New Hampshire.[viii] “It having been his Majesty’s pleasure to appoint John Wentworth, Esq. to succeed me in the Government, who, I presume may be expected some time in this month,” said Benning Wentworth to his council and the N.H. Assembly in November, “I thought it necessary to meet you in General Assembly at this Juncture, that you might have an opportunity to provide for his reception.”[ix]
It wasn’t, however, until several months later that John Wentworth returned to Portsmouth and took over the reins of the New Hampshire government. In Wentworth’s introductory speech to the provincial assembly on July 2, 1767—made in the shadow of the approval, protests against and repeal of the Stamp Act—he urged obeisance to the mother country. “It remains for me to observe that unanimity, Wisdom and application in all your Proceedings will be the best means to compass the great End of your Consultations,” he told his General Assembly, “therein preserving the Honor of the Crown, and advancing the unlimited Prosperity of the Province, which are at present the only objects of my Wishes.”[x] His primary goal throughout his years as governor was to bridge the widening divide between colonial protests and England’s increasingly repressive control.
Not long after his arrival, Wentworth had to navigate through another period of tax protests, this time related to Parliament’s approval of the Townshend Acts, particularly the Revenue Act passed in July 1767. This act in effect replaced the repealed Stamp Act by imposing excise taxes on products imported into the colonies, including paper, paint, lead, and tea. Any residual feelings of jubilation over the Stamp Act’s repeal dissolved in the presence of renewed anger, spearheaded by Samuel Adams down in Boston. In a “circular letter” (that is, a letter circulated to other provinces), Adams wrote that Parliament’s acts “imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s Commons in Britain, by those acts, grant their property without their consent.”[xi]
Falling in line with Adams’ suggestions, other colonies like Virginia and Pennsylvania soon sent their own petitions to Parliament requesting repeal of the Acts. Port cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston, as well as the province of Virginia, boycotted the British imports, causing financial hardships among many of Britain’s merchants, including Barlow Trecothick.
New Hampshire’s legislature acknowledged receipt of Adams circular letter on February 19, 1768. “Mr. Speaker laid before the House a Letter he Received from the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, respecting measures proper to be taken at this critical time,” read the minutes of the session.[xii] A week later, Speaker Peter Gilman presented the House with a response to Massachusetts. Delegates voted “that it be signed by the Speaker in behalf of the House.”[xiii] According to Wilderson, the N.H. House took no action at that time but promised to take up the matter again when a newly elected House convened in June. Gov. Wentworth, in a letter to Rockingham, informed his friend that he felt New Hampshire would not join in the Massachusetts protests.[xiv]
After the new legislature gathered in Portsmouth on June 1, 1768, the House assigned a committee to draft “a Proper Address to his Majesty and proper Representations to be made to his Majesty’s ministers Respecting the several things mentioned in said Letter.” They also directed the committee to write to Barlow Trocothick in England “whether he accepts the appointment of him as agent.”[xv]
In was in this context that, on June 16, 1768, settlers of the township they called New Salem north of the Winnipesaukee River petitioned the provincial government for incorporation. Addressed to “His Excellency John Wentworth Esqr., Captain-General, Governor, and Commander in Chief in and over His Majesty’s Province of New Hampshire,” the petition in part reads as follows:
The humble Petition of David Lawrence, Esqr., and Ebenezer Smith, Gentn, in behalf of themselves and others, Proprietors and Inhabitants of New Salem, in the Province aforesaid, upon Winipisiokee Pond.
Sheweth That 17 Families have actually Settled and are now resident in New Salem aforesaid, and four other Families preparing to go & reside there.
That they humbly apprehend they are ripe for an Incorporation and an Investment with Town Privileges, which will greatly assist the present Settlement, and accelerate its Completion, as they can thereby make proper Highways, & have power to chose Town Officers, &c.
They therefore pray your Excellcy & Honrs to take the premises into your Consideration, and that they may be incorporated accordingly.[xvi]
It took another six months for the petition to crawl its way through the governmental process, and when the New Salem residents and proprietors received their answer, it must have been somewhat of a shock. Although the incorporation was approved by Gov. Wentworth and his council, it didn’t come back as submitted. Instead of incorporating the town under the requested name of New Salem, the governor instead gave it a different name. Wentworth declared it “to be a Town Corporate, and are hereby erected and incorporated into a Body Politic and Corporate to have continuance and Succession forever by the name MEREDITH.”[xvii]
House of Commons representative Sir William Meredith, as noted earlier, was one of the acquaintances Wentworth made during his recent sojourn in England. After Wentworth left England in 1766, Barlow Trecothick took over as New Hampshire’s provincial agent (today we call them lobbyists) in London, a post he held until 1774. Trecothick was also elected to the House of Commons, serving from 1768-1774. After the death of his first wife, Trecothick in 1770 married Anne Meredith, sister of Sir William Meredith. During Rockingham’s brief tenure as prime minister, as mentioned previously, Sir Meredith served in his administration as a lord of the admiralty.
Through his first two years as New Hampshire’s governor, Wentworth maintained steady communication with his English friends, especially to keep track of Parliament’s ongoing efforts to pull tax revenue from the American colonies. At the same time, he did all he could to separate New Hampshire from the dangerous protests in his southern neighbor of Massachusetts. “During the spring of 1768,” notes Wilderson, “Wentworth watched the developments in Massachusetts and elsewhere and remained confident that the trouble would not spread to New Hampshire.”[xviii] Where he previously was free to agree wholeheartedly with his friends’ opposition to English taxes on the colonies, now Wentworth was an agent of the king and had to balance his previous inclinations with his obligations to the crown. His job only grew tougher when he received orders from Will Hills, the Earl of Hillsborough, Britain’s secretary of state for the American colonies.
Hillsborough, according to the American Revolution website of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, first ordered the Massachusetts legislature to cancel its call for boycotts of English goods. “He then ordered the governors of the rest of the colonies to dissolve their assemblies if they refused to disown it.”[xix] Wentworth received this order in late June 1768 during the time when a N.H. legislative committee was drafting its own petition in support of the Massachusetts boycott. He found it necessary to dissemble in his response to the uncompromising Hillsborough, falsely assuring him that New Hampshire had responded to Massachusetts that they would not join in the economic protest action. In truth, what they had said was that they would work on their response when the current legislature gathered. Wentworth’s “only alternative was somehow to prevent the proposed petition to the king in opposition to the Townshend acts,” explains Wilderson.[xx]
After an extended recess, the N.H. House reconvened again in late August 1768. The committee studying an appropriate response to Massachusetts’ February circular letter reported back to the assembly on August 27. Members approved the draft and “voted that it be signed by the Speaker and sent to the agent for this Province at the Court of Great Britain to be presented to his Majesty.”[xxi] Recall that this “agent” was Wentworth’s friend Barlow Trecothick, serving as New Hampshire’s lobbying representative in London. Somehow, Wentworth seems to have prevented the letter from being dispatched. “What is apparent is that Wentworth succeeded in putting pressure on [House Speaker Peter] Gilman, and possibly on the other men [on the drafting committee], not to send the petition,” writes Wilderson. “Wentworth saved himself from a severe reprimand and possibly worse by preventing New Hampshire from following Massachusetts, Virginia, and other colonies in petitioning the Crown for redress from the Townshend acts.”[xxii]
Wentworth desperately needed to leverage his contacts over the ocean, but he had little to offer them in return for their past and hoped-for future support in fighting against England’s repeated efforts to tax the colonies. He wrote to Rockingham in October, detailing not only Massachusetts’ request for boycotts, but also describing the arrival in Boston Harbor of war ships depositing two regiments of British regulars sent by General Gage to help the Massachusetts government keep that city’s Sons of Liberty in check.[xxiii] During an exceptionally cold December of 1668, Wentworth kept up correspondence with the former prime minister, who, now out of power, was not making much headway against the punishing edicts of Secretary Hillsborough.
Barlow Trecothick was similarly becoming discouraged. “To renew the agent’s flagging interest in the fate of New Hampshire,” writes Wilderson, “Wentworth in May  chartered a new town to be called Trecothick and made its namesake one of the new proprietors.”[xxiv] Similarly, he used the recent division of New Hampshire into five counties to name one of the them after the marquis of Rockingham. He similarly named Grafton County after another member of Rockingham’s Whig faction, the Duke of Grafton then serving as prime minister. Hoping to gain favor with the secretary of state for the American colonies, Wentworth named yet another county after the intransigent Earl of Hillsborough.[xxv]
And on the penultimate day of 1768, he finally approved the incorporation of New Salem, but not with that name. Instead, Wentworth named the town after that other outspoken Rockingham Whig, Sir William Meredith.[xxvi]
Although Sir William, like the governor, had opposed the Stamp Act and Declaratory Act, settlers of the new town were most likely unaware of that. To them it was case of the governor usurping their right to name their own town. We know they harbored resentment over the move because in April 1778, during the Revolutionary War, they petitioned the N.H. legislature to revert the town’s name back to New Salem (although the request was ultimately denied). In a time when the British authorities were increasingly portrayed as restricting liberty and natural rights, this was but another example. Five years later in 1775, when it came time for the new town’s settlers to decide between independence or loyalty to the crown, Gov. Wentworth’s action was still fresh enough in their minds to point them in the direction of liberty and independence from Great Britain.
[i] Paul W. Wilderson, John Hancock and the American Revolution (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994), 58-59.
[ii] L. Namier and J. Brooke, eds., “MEREDITH, Sir William, 3rd Bt. (?1725-90), of Henbury, Cheshire and Pierrepont, Surr.” in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1754-1790, http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/meredith-sir-william-1725-90, retrieved 9-30-21.
[iii] Ibid. Sir William continued to oppose punitive measures against the colonies, and on the eve of Revolution in 1774, he blamed “all the present troubles to the Declaratory Act asserting the supremacy of Great Britain.”
[iv] Wilderson, 65.
[v] L. Namier and J. Brooke, eds., “TRECOTHICK, Barlow (?1718-75), of Addington, Surr.” in The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1754-1790, http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/trecothick-barlow-1718-75, retrieved 10-21-21. Trecothick was a London representative to the House of Commons from 1768-1774.
[vi] Bob Ruppert, “Barlow Trecothick’s Role in the Repeal of the Stamp Act,” on Journal of the American Revolution website, https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/01/barlow-trecothicks-role-in-the-repeal-of-the-stamp-act/, retrieved 10-21-21.
[vii] Nathaniel Bouton, ed., Provincial Papers. Documents and Records Relating to the Province of New Hampshire, from the Earliest Period of its Settlement, 1623-1686, 40 volumes (Concord, NH, 1867-1943), 7:105-106. Hereafter PP.
[viii] Wilderson, 83.
[ix] PP, 7:114.
[x] Ibid., 125-126.
[xi] “Massachusetts Circular Letter [February 11, 1768], from History Central website, https://www.historycentral.com/documents/MassCircular.html, retrieved 10-2-21.
[xii] PP., 7:152-153.
[xiii] Ibid., 157.
[xiv] Wilderson, 142.
[xv] PP, 180. Judge Samuel Livermore, later an early settler of Holderness, was a member of the drafting committee.
[xvi] D. Hamilton Hurd, ed., History of Merrimack and Belknap County, New Hampshire (Philadelphia: J.W. Lewis & Co., 1885), 835.
[xvii] Ibid., 836.
[xviii] Wilderson, 145-146.
[xix] The Colonial Williamsburg Project, “Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire (1719-1793), on The American Revolution website, https://www.ouramericanrevolution.org/index.cfm/people/view/pp0042, retrieved 10-22-21.
[xx] Wilderson, 144.
[xxi] PP, 188.
[xxii] Wilderson, 150-151.
[xxiii] Ibid., 146-147.
[xxiv] Ibid., 152-153. Trecothick in Grafton County later changed its name to Ellsworth, and is located north-northeast of Plymouth.
[xxv] Ibid., 122.
[xxvi] Hurd, 835-836.