Exeter is special, historically speaking.
It does not celebrate the Fourth of July with the rest of the Americans. In fact, the celebration is on the second Saturday after the Fourth since that was when the news of Independence arrived in Exeter by horseback. Every year, people dress up in costumes from the 1770s and gather on Water Street which is filled with various stands, selling things that remind people of history. The unique Exeter Independence Festival truly brings people back to the old days.
“We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor”
At the last words of the Declaration of Independence as originally read by John Taylor Gilman on 16th July 1776, Exeter turned into an ocean of jubilation.
It’s hard to image that Exeter was once an important port which was founded in 1638, being the first colony in New Hampshire. Because of the perfect location (along the Squamscott River which is a tidal inlet of the Atlantic Ocean), Exeter developed the industries of fishing and lumbering. Exeter flourished during 1700s with the development of lumber products such as barrel parts and wagon spokes. These products were traded to Boston, Virginia, the West Indies, Spain and Portugal.
Portsmouth, which used to be the provincial capital of New Hampshire, got a warning from Paul Revere on 13th December 1774, who said the British Army was heading towards Fort William and Mary which is the harbor of New Hampshire. The following day, the army did arrive, forcing the people in Portsmouth to move inland to Exeter and that was why Exeter became the capital of New Hampshire during the Revolutionary War.
The relationship between the British soldiers and colonists further deteriorated and finally exploded into the tragedy of Boston Massacre. Later in 1773, the British charged little taxes on the tea imported by British East India Company, making the tea industry in colonies less competitive which largely affected the income of the colonists. Therefore, the famous Boston Tea Party took place: colonists poured shipments of tea into the harbor to protest. This event was also the explosive start of the Revolutionary War.
The Americans then started to set up organizations to further protest. The Committee of Correspondence, which communicated among the colonies, and the Provincial Congress, which addressed the military and civil issues, formed. On 21st July, 1774, the first Provincial Congress met in Exeter with the Americans planning began their actions for independence.
The significance of Exeter is not only that it was the capital of the state during the Revolutionary War; it is also because it was where the Republic Party of the United States was founded. On the 12th of October, 1853, Amos Tuck suggested forming a group called “Republicans” at Major Blake’s Hotel with some other men who advocated for anti-slavery. Ever since then, the term “Republican Party” has been accepted in New Hampshire and other parts of the States. It is interesting to know that Amos Tuck was once a Democrat but left the party in opposition to the pro-slavery position of the Democratic Party.
When talking about Exeter, people have to talk about the Gilman Family. John Taylor Gilman who read the Declaration of Independence here in 1776 was the eldest son of Nicholas Gilman who was a shipbuilder and merchant but later became the treasurer of the state because of his financial ability. John Gilman later represented New Hampshire at the Continental Congress once and became the treasurer of the town after the death of his father. Nicholas Gilman’s other son Nicholas Jr followed the path of his father and brother and became the leader of Exeter and entered the army as a captain at the age of 20.
From 1721 until now, the house of the Gilman family remains. It grew from a small brick house from the first generation of Gilmans into what is now the Independence Museum of Exeter. Walking through the Gilman house people can get a taste of how the Gilman family grew with the history of Exeter.
We should feel honored and grateful studying in a place that is so significant for the U.S. and has so much history to tell. We should also be thankful to the Gilman family since they donated the land of Phillips Exeter Academy.