South Windham, Some South Side Residents from the Past.
One of the oldest and most prolific families on the South side of Windham were the Simpsons. Alexander was the emigrant ancestor of most of the Simpsons of Windham; was of Scotch descent; came from the north of Ireland to Windham and bought land of James Wilson, for 105 pounds, old tenor, Nov. 24, 1747. He settled in a meadow (another Indian meadow?) about forty rods southeast of Robert Simpson’s house. His brother-in-law, Adam Templeton, came with him, and they both reared log-houses upon the surface of the ground, with no cellars, within a few rods of each other. Simpson was a weaver, and could do exceedingly nice and fine work. He often said, ‘he could weave anything, when the warp was strong enough to bear the weight of his beaver hat.’ Templeton was a wheelwright, a maker of spinning wheels. These wheels he carried on horseback and sold through out the settlement. While living in their log houses they commenced to hew their farms from the wilderness, and also followed their trades. A slight depression in the soil marks the spot where they excavated for the spring from which they procured their water. After living here several years, Simpson moved about 50 rods southwest, and built a framed house on what is now the highway, only a few yards south of the Deacon Dana Richardson house on the opposite side of the highway. The old cellar is still there. At this place he died December 12, 1788 at 67 years. His wife Janet Templeton, died July 28, 1787 at 68. They had 9 children.
John Simpson’s cellar has a historical marker where he lived at the head of Golden Pond…He was a Revolutionary war solider, and at the battle of Bunker Hill he had two of his fingers shot away by a cannon-ball; he was a pensioner the last years of his life; he was a well-to-do farmer, capable and one of the wealthiest men in the southerly part of town, He married Mary Hennessey, a conscientious but high-tempered woman, In those days the justice’s courts were often held to settle neighborhood difficulties, and when she was brought on as a witness she was often too honest and outspoken for the good of her side of the controversy…she died January 3, 1804. John then married Margaret Smith, the alleged Revolutionary war solider who supposed was with the Continental army during the invasion of Canada.
The interesting thing about Leonard Morrison as a historian is his old Scotch trait of blatant honesty and here he presents the story of Alexander Simpson, another South Windham resident. He was born November 28, 1756. He first settled in Bow, N.H. where he married Mary ______. He returned to town previous to July, 1789 and resided most of the time, till after 1805, on the place owned by William Smith, near T.W. Simpson’s. His wife was particularly unfortunate in being insane (OK so this raises some unanswered questions, did Alex marry her when she was insane…or did she go insane…details, details) She was known to take one of her children in a pillow-case and journey on foot, carrying her child, to visit her native town of Bow; at another time she clandestinely gathered up provisions, took her child in a pillow-case, left home, and before she was found, lived for two or three days in the old Cross cellar, in the woods near Isaac Emerson’s. He removed to New York, with his family, and resided near Watertown. There was quite an emigration at that period to what was called the ‘Black River Country,’ and many Windham people removed there. The then ‘Far West’ was only five hundred miles away.”
Thank you for all coming here today as we take time to remember a part of Windham’s history that was largely forgotten.
At least four African Americans are buried in Windham. There may very well be more, because there were over a dozen slaves and free-blacks in town during the late 18th and early 19th century. Their burial in the Southeastern corner of the Cemetery on the Hill, was confirmed by Bob Perry using ground penetrating radar. They are in the exact location as described by Leonard Morrison in his History of Windham. Every time we enter into that cemetery, we are treading on their graves. And now we know, and the Windham residents that follow us will know, that they are there. I am so grateful to the Cemetery Trustees for the support of this project and the costs associated with verifying the grave sites and preparing the location for the installation of the memorial tablet.
The impetus of this ongoing effort was simple; it was based in common decency. The Dinsmore family has rows of memorials to remember the lives of those who were members of this community along with all the other old families like the Morrisons, Cochrans, Nesmiths, Simpsons and Armstrongs. I have come to feel strongly that the contribution and the names of the African Americans who were part of our history and who are buried alongside my ancestors, should also be remembered. By so doing so, we will preserve their history as part of the town of Windham and the wider Black community of early New England.
I first learned about Black history and slavery in Windham, over twenty-five years ago, from Leonard Morrison, and I wrote a series of articles about it at the time. During the last few years, with all the racial strife dividing our nation, I went back and dug deeper into Black history in both Windham and New England, and I came to see how the story was far richer and deeper than just a story of slavery.
The fact that there was a large, vibrant African American community in New England at the time of the Revolutionary war has vanished from our collective memory. William Piersen in “Black Yankees” says that in 1770 there were over 15,000 free-Blacks and slaves in New England, with New Hampshire having 654.
Until just recently, it was also forgotten by most, that there were large numbers of Blacks soldiers in the continental army. “Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 African descended people participated in the Revolution on the patriot side…” Just think about that for a moment, blacks were fully armed and fighting side by side with whites. This must have been an eye-opening event for all of them as they both fought bravely for a common cause. And for Blacks it was an ennobling event of self-empowerment and honor. Many African Americans used what they earned from fighting in the war to buy their own freedom, or as in the case of Barzillai Lew, who was a free black, it allowed him to use his earnings to buy the freedom of his wife in Andover MA.
I have to tell you my favorite story of a Black man’s bravery in the Revolutionary War. It is the story of the African American Cuff Whittemore, who faced General Burgoyne twice, both at Saratoga and Bunker Hill. British forces captured him in Saratoga and he was escorted to Burgoyne’s tent, where he was ordered to take the reins of the general’s horse, “like a groom or some such thing.” “Wittemore did take Burgoyne’s horse, but not as ordered. Instead, he mounted it and amidst whizzing musket balls, sped off to freedom on Burgoyne’s own steed!”
In the old Nesmith Library gleaming white marble plaques are engraved with the names of the people in Windham who fought in the various wars. I would always marvel at the names and look for my ancestor, Robert Dinsmoor, a 17-year-old fifer who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. But little did I know, until last year, that one of the names engraved in marble was an African American by the name of Nicholas Vicksham, who was a free-black that lived in South Windham, and who fought with his friends and neighbors, in Vermont, at the Battle of Hubbardston. He was either captured or killed there by the British.
After the Revolutionary War, slavery in New England slowly faded away, and the strong abolitionist movement of the 19th century was the impetus for the disappearance of both the history of blacks and slavery in New England. When I grew up in New Hampshire in the 1960’s and when I studied history in college, I had no idea that blacks had even existed in New England before the Northern migration of the twentieth century.
I’ve read that African Americans by enlarge did not patriciate in local religious institutions in the 18th century, but this is not what my research has uncovered. For example, Nancy Gardner Prince, one of the first black published authors, attended the church in Gloucester with her grandfather. She was a devout Christian, who overcame incredible challenges and accomplished great things as an African American woman. Barzillia Lew, attended the church just south of here in Dracut, which was known as “Black North” on the underground railroad maps, where his children sang in the choir of this integrated congregation. And here in Windham, Jeffry was said to have listened to the gospel message on the porch and did not go inside, but a change came, and beginning in 1785, “Pew 36” was being used by the African Americans in town during worship.“
Another story from Windham tells an incredible story of the resilience of two women. Agnes Hemphill and her slave Dinah. Agnes’s husband Captain Nathaniel Hemphill died young, leaving 18 children to be raised by this pair of women. Agnes spent long hours with her daughters laboring at their looms, making linen cloth, to sell in Salem, Massachusetts. Dinah took care of the younger children and household tasks. These two women, working together clothed, fed and kept a roof over these 18 children. Dinah was later freed and continued to work in the Hemphill household until she left to marry.
We know only a little about Peter Thom, Jeffry, Pompey and Rose. Jeffry was first enslaved by John Dinsmoor who ran a store, was a justice of the peace and a delegate to the Provincial Congress in Exeter. By 1790, we know that Jeffry could write his own name, leading to the tantalizing possibility that he might have been literate. We also know that by 1790 he was earning wages for his work. Jeffry later went on to work for the Nesmith’s who also had a store in Windham and whose family was among the founders of Lowell Massachusetts. Dinsmoor’s account books show that Pompey worked on the old Meeting-house that was once located in the Cemetery on the Hill. Both helped many of the farmers in Windham to establish their farms using oxen to help clear their land.
I would again like to thank all of the people who worked so hard to make this event happen: I am so grateful for the members of the African American Committee in town who have led this effort. The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. The Windham Presbyterian Church and pastor John Seiders; The Cemetery Trustees; The Windham Endowment; and the Windham Citizens for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
I hope that as more of the lost history of the African American community in New England is rediscovered, that both blacks and whites will understand the importance of our common history and culture. We as a nation are passing through perilous times, and the only way we are going to preserve this Republic for our children, is by ending the purposeful division and by uniting as one people.
And now I would like to say out loud, the names of the African Americans who lived in Windham in the 18th and 19th century beginning with those we know are buried in the Cemetery on the Hill. Their names will no longer be forgotten. To tell you the truth, they have all become like old friends to me:
Old Rif: A slave of Robert Smiths. Who was said by Morrison to be the last slave in New Hampshire and died near 1842. He liked to hunt rabbits with his white friend and neighbor George Simpson.
Raphael Smith Who lived with Lieutenant Robert Smith, died while sitting on a wheel-barrow.
Harry and Venus Chew and their family
Nicholas Vicksham the Revolutionary war solider.
And James Jones who fought in the Civil War with the First Regiment of Heavy artillery.
Jon Carpenter provided me with this cool Indian trail map of New Hampshire. It clearly shows the major Pawtucket trail which ran through Windham. Its course ran past Big Island Pond from the north Windham line near today’s Route 28 then past the head of Cobbett’s Pond near Indian Rock; then continuing down between Cobbett’s Pond and Canobie Lake nearly following the path of Range Road. It continued its course north-south on the eastern side of Golden Brook, crossing the Pelham line. This trail continued into Massachusetts to the falls at Lowell, where Chief Passaconaway held court in the summer months. It seems probable that this was the trail that the Greggs were following when the young boy John Gregg was slaughtered by Indians. Not only did this well used trail pass through Windham, there were also settlements here where the Indians burned the forests in order to plant the three sisters; corn squash and beans. This trail helps to explain the large numbers of Indian artifacts found in town including a 3,000 year old plow near Rock Pond.
So I took a walk out to Deer Leap with my son Isaac, and was inspired again by the massive rock out-croppings on the site plus the spectacular view of the pond. It’s a beautiful hike if you haven’t been and the area is even better now with the kayak launch on the adjacent Marston-Finn Dam site. I still remember the howling by some at spending $500,000 for this “rock-pile.” I had forgotten the incredible stone out-cropping which are a prominent feature of the site. Morrison says that, “Deer Ledge (Deer Leap) is situated on a the high, romantic, and precipitous sides of the hill of ledges. Its name is derived by the fact, that an Indian drove a deer over the precipitous sides of this ledge into the water…”
It’s hard to believe that anybody in their right mind would try to farm this parcel of land but the old cellar hole, stone walls and sheep pen prove that they tried to make a go of it. In fact this parcel was once home to Thomas Sargent and his family. Morrison says, “Thomas lived in Windham and was killed about 1830, by being run over by a load of wood.” He lived at Fletcher Corner near Simpson’s Mill.” Oh, I think to myself, wow, that’s a pretty random and brutal accidental death. So I head over the Morrison’s handy chapter on Calamities: “Accidents, Sudden Deaths; Freshets and Fires and learn that lots of people in Windham were killed by falling from wagons. 1832: William Simpson (father of Samuel W.) was thrown form a load of wood and killed at the guide post near J.L. Cottles…another south Windham location. 1837: About this time, James Alexander started in the night for Lowell with a load of wood, He rode upon the spire, fell off, hit his head triggering the wheel. He was dead when found. 1861: Robert Simpson, an aged man, in getting out of his wagon, fell and broke his neck. 1861: Joseph Clyde fell from his wagon at Bartley’s store, and was killed.” Who knew horse and wagons were as dangerous as cars?!
Finally, while it did not take place in South Windham, I have to recount this really touching story of kindness of neighbor to neighbor by the people of Windham. “Moses Sargent, Thomas’s brother, lived in Windham; bought land of Eleonor Clark and built his buildings in 1810…the place was then an unbroken forest, except for a small patch of cleared meadow. On the 28th of August, 1821, his barn was struck by lightning and the hay and grain with which it was filled, was quickly consumed. His neighbors and towns-people rallied to his aid, and the surrounding farmers contributed to his reestablishment. Teams loaded with timber, boards, shingles and nails quickly appeared; and one day sixty men were there at dinner, having brought provisions with them, and made a festive day. The barn was raised, and in one month the new barn took the place of the old, and was equally filled with grain and hay. The people literally fulfilled the scriptural injunction, ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens.’ ” From the many acts of kindness I have witnessed in Windham, this spirit is still alive and well.
The top map is from Morrison’s History of Windham. The bottom map is from 1892. What is now the beginning of Rock Pond Road was built in 1845: The town voted to build in “October 11, 1845.—One hundred and twenty-six rods of highway, two rods wide, from Samuel L. Prescott’s running easterly to the road running over Simpson causeway.” Below is the old directional sign from Simpson Road courtesy of Jon Carpenter.
L.A. Morrison explains that, “Golden or Golding’s Brook tradition says is so called from the fact that an ox by that name died upon the banks at an early date. This was the time that the Chelmsford and Dracut people used to turn their cattle into this neighborhood in spring, to get fresh grass and to browse during the summer. They also set the forests on fire to kill the wood, so the grass would grow more luxuriantly, and in early days the hills in that part of town were black with the burned and dead trees, caused by these devastating fires. A Mr. Golding owned land in its vicinity. This undoubtedly gave it its name.”
The fact is that the people of Chelmsford and Dracut were reusing the old “Indian meadows” that were left by the Native Americans who used this land for at least 2600 years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. They would also burn the woods in order to grow the “three sisters,” corn, winter squash and pole beans. More on this later.
These maps from the 1880’s and 1892 show south Windham. At this point many of the families that once had lived in this section of Windham had moved on. There was a large migration to the Black River Valley in New York state. Joseph Corliss, Adam Templeton, Daniel McIlvaine, Cross cellar, Sargent’s cellar, near Dear Leap, George Simpson’s cellar, Robert Smith’s cellar, (also Alexander Dunlap’s) between the causeway across Simpson’s mill-pond and the Robert Simpson cellar. Robert Simpson’s cellar, near Simpson’s causeway. House lost by fire in 1864. Ellenwood cellar, at the corner of the road between J.L. Cottle’s and S.W. Simpson. James McLaughlin. Samuel Senter’s at the top of the hill southeast of Neal’s mill. William Smiley’s cellar, southeast of Senter house near the top of Spear Hill. John Morrow’s is on Senter Hill, south of the Senter house…and many others. On the top map you can see the location of the mysterious “Gold Region,” which would be near where Bear Hill Road, the “Gage Lands” and high school are today.
When I grew up in town, South Windham, the part that borders Salem and Pelham, was a pretty uncharted place, especially the empty wilderness along Marblehead Road and on top of Castle Hill. A few people discovered the quiet solitude of Rock Pond, or made a visit to Moeckel’s Grove, but many didn’t even know any of it was there. It wasn’t until the Tokanels and Red Lamson began developing Shady Brook Park, that the area began to be rediscovered. I began pouring over the family histories in the area in order to find more information about Robert Smith, and his slaves; Raphael Smith, Peter Smith and “Old Rif.” People should have paid more attention to “Old Rif” because in ancient times this end of town did seem bewitched or maybe it was just the copious amounts of rum that flowed through every important and sundry occasion in early Windham. Then again, maybe this was related to the slaughter of the young boy, John Gregg, by Native Americans on Golden Brook that let loose the juju or was the result of it. He remains buried there still. Finally, there is the deeply evocative Deer Leap with it many exotic, bizarre and massive stone outcroppings, which may just be some kind of undiscovered spiritual vortex. Many strange and terrifying events happened in this section of Windham back in the day. In the 18th and 19th century this was a vibrant community made up of the many Smiths, Simpsons, Emersons, Woodburys, Smileys, Corlisses, Fletchers and others whose lives intertwined through marriage and other connections. They had kith and kin in that adjacent section of Salem, reached by Spear Hill Road, that was removed from Windham in 1752.
The photograph above from 1910, shows Simpson’s Pond where it is crossed by Simpson Causeway. It is important to know this site because Morrison uses it repeatedly as a landmark in the area. Simpson Pond at the time was adjacent to Golden Pond. There was the neighborhood of “Golden Row,” located along Lowell Road from the Center to the Pelham line, and another place known as the “Golden Meadow.” The magnificent heights on Castle Hill which was known as “Mount Ephraim;” overlooking the Golden Brook valley was the location of the curiously named “Gold Region.” I hope you enjoy the trip back to a time when this section of Windham was a densely populated community with a rich, yet somewhat mysterious history.
Cutting Down Windham’s Trees – When they were Worth more than the Land the Grew on.
I know you’re not going to believe this, considering the price of real estate today, but there was a time in Windham when land had was worth almost nothing. The value or large tracts of land was in the timber value. Top photo is of a portable mill in West Windham. From left to right below: Timber piled up near the train station in West Windham. The Seavey Mill. A saw mill operated by the Johnson family. Workers at the Seavey mill at the Junction.
This photograph was featured in the local history “Rural Oasis.” I’ve been musing lately that I would like a horse. I mean a real, honest to goodness horse. A friend to greet me in the morning. Not an AI dream but real flesh and blood to pull a carriage or to ride upon. Automobiles are O.K. but they’re not alive and endowed with a personality; they can’t show affection or anger. I know cars go fast, have AC and keep you out of the weather, but they aren’t a creature. Quite honestly, I am jealous of the people who have had relationships with horses. Maybe I had a beloved horse in another life. A magnificent black steed that carried me into battle or a sway backed mare that carried me to the tavern. Simpatico; at one with my living, breathing ride!
Riding along a dirt road, in the open air, experiencing the weather and scenery. Kind of makes me see our current world as so totally fake; plastic, screens, a glowing electric world of impulses, of zeros and ones. None of this madness existed when horses lived among us! So now we are being bludgeoned to accept a suffocating new green world, where you will own neither a horse or a car. Soon, you will hunger for insect protein and if you’re really good and behave, a little digital money; maybe even the right to rent a bike for 24 hours. But you’ll own nothing, not even your own body or soul. I’m not down for a digital prison. Come on boy, let’s fly like the wind and gallop right out of this place… Back to the real world of living, breathing, beings.
I have published the photograph of this house in the past. It was home first to Isaac Dinsmoor and his family and later the Park family. At the time of this photograph it was owned by Edward Searles. He owned all of the land on that side of Range Road, which he had rebuilt in order to surround his estate with stone walls. His land ran all the way to the shores of Canobie Lake. The reason I am sure it was owned by Searles at the time of the photograph is because of the ubiquitous wire fencing that he placed around his property. Rather unfriendly but effective for a reclusive millionaire. Searles added the mansard roof, moved the chimneys to the end walls and added the gambrel carriage house. Of course, people say that the location of the popular Windham Restaurant is haunted. All I can say is that one night before Christmas, in the back upstairs bedroom, a plate on our table, began to spin in circles of its own volition, or by the wispy hand of a spirit. It was witnessed by myself and several other people at our table. Its hard to believe that dirt roads once traversed this now busy intersection.
Glenwood Beach & Cottage on the North Shore of Cobbett’s Pond.
William Harris developed his “resort” on the North Shore of Cobbett’s Pond to be in harmony with it’s natural surroundings. Harris was an avid naturalist who collected the flowers and fauna of Windham. Unlike the tawdry and crowded vacation areas near the beach, he envisioned a place where people could enjoy the solitude and beauty of Cobbett’s Pond. For this reason, the cottages were very privately set among the woods of the shoreline. Glenwood Cottage is one of the last summer “cottages” remaining on the lake today. These photographs are from William Brooks, postcard views and the owners of Glenwood cottage.