Nelson History: In the Beginning

Editors Note: This is the first of what will be a great series of articles about Nelson’s history from Rick Church and David Birchenough.

Nelson likely looked like this to its first settlers. Diorama at the Harvard School of Forestry in Petersham, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Eric Aldrich. Click image for larger rendering.

Nelson likely looked like this to its first settlers. Diorama at the Harvard School of Forestry in Petersham, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Eric Aldrich. Click image for larger rendering.

King James I awarded John Mason a charter of new land in the New Hampshire/ northern Massachusetts in 1623.   The grant included all the land between the Naumkeag (today called the Merrimack) and Pascataqua Rivers extending 60 miles inland.  The place was to be called New Hampshire and Mason’s charge was to settle the area.

Mason died in 1635 leaving only minor heirs. The title to the lands fell into dispute – a dispute resolved by a court case in 1746, which awarded the right to most of the original grant to John Tufton Mason who in turn sold his rights to a group of men who came to be styled the Masonian Proprietors.  Some of John Mason’s original grant had been settled by 1746 and those title disputes were quickly resolved in favor of the towns and settlers already established. There was not much dispute over what became Nelson; there was no one here.

The Masonian Proprietors were a group of fifteen wealthy insiders.  Many were related to the Provincial Governor, Benning Wentworth, and almost all were related to each other.  They put up £1,500 for what would become many townships.  Each put up an initial £100 and each share was assessed for costs as the proprietorship incurred them and received the proceeds of any land sales prior to any division of the township into individual lots for sale.

On December 6, 1751 the Masonian Proprietors granted Monadnock Number Six to another group of proprietors who would have the direct responsibility of settling the town. The Masonian Proprietors made their money by reserving a big block in the southwestern part of the new town for themselves.  The plan was to sell these lots and make a return on their investment. They were not obliged to settle and none did. They were also not obliged to pay the costs of the new town as it built roads and a meeting house, settled a minister and built schools.  The town was eight miles east to west and five miles north to south. It contained 24,000 acres.

Thomas Packer, one of the Proprietors (who was married to the Governor’s sister) was the largest landowner, owning the entire northwest quarter of the town. By 1753 he had purchased many additional shares in the township and by 1759 owned 32 of the 100 total grantee shares. He was the dominant figure in the early affairs of Monadnock Number Six, repeatedly elected Moderator of proprietor’s meetings. His son, Thomas Packer, JR was elected proprietor’s clerk.  The two men served in these positions from the grant in 1752 until settlers/proprietors like Breed Batchellor and Dr. Nathaniel Breed established a proprietor governing body in the town. (Eventually Monadnock Number Six was renamed Packersfield, though the name held for just a short time.)

The Monadnock Number Six Proprietors were obliged to settle the town to an agreed extent within 3 years or forfeit their grant. The Grantees, as they were called, were to “make settlement at their own expense.” By November of 1758 each double share (and there were 50 of these) was to have cleared 3 acres of land and enclosed the clearing for either mowing or tilling. They were to have built a house suitable for a family and they were to clear an additional 3 acres each year for three years. By 1762 the grantees were to have built a meetinghouse.  There were to be fifty families with a house and twelve acres cleared by 1761; the first settler actually arrived six years later in 1767.

The charter further stated that “all White pine trees fitt for masting his Majesty’s Royal Navey Growing on said tract be and are hereby granted to his Majesty…”

Things went developed slowly. Their first act was to divide the town into shares or lots and hold a public drawing where each proprietor would choose his lots. At a proprietors’ meeting held in Londonderry, the proprietors voted to choose a committee to lay out the lots in the township and to make a map of the layout.  They also assessed each share for the cost of this work. This meeting took place in October 1761.

The grant provided future support for support of the gospel and for schools: there were three 100-acre public lots.  One was reserved to support schools and the other two to support the church with one to be given to the first settled minister.   There was a ten-acre common lot to be used for public purposes. They were also to build necessary roads and the grant provided that roads could be put through any lot as needed with no compensation paid to the landowners. Expenses for surveying, road building and for any public purpose were raised by a majority of the Monadnock Number Six proprietors in a legally called meeting. The meeting could assess each share for the expenses of settling and developing the town. Any such assessment not paid within 30 days could have a portion of that owner’s land sold to meet the assessment.

Extenuating circumstances (Indian Wars was one mentioned) could extend the time allowed.  Indeed the French and Indian War (1754-1763) did occur and may have delayed Nelson’s settlement. The Monadnock Number Six proprietors seem to have been granted an extension.  The first settler, Breed Batchellor, arrived in 1767. There seem to have been at least three settlers that year.

On September 30, 1767 the pressure to settle must have been “on.” The Masonian Proprietors met to consider a petition by the proprietors of Monadnock Number Six for a further two or three years to comply with the terms of the grant which “by sundry impediments they could not comply with. But as they had done much toward making settlement agreeable to said grant, but wanted some further time… which should not require more than two or three years.”  They were granted a two-year extension.

Breed Batchellor was the first settler, settling just west of the old center of what is now Roxbury. Dr. Nathaniel Breed settled on the Old Stoddard Road about ¼ mile northeast of where the Giacomo’s live today.  Both came in 1767.  Both played a large role in the settlement of the town by buying and selling lots.

Prior to 1772 meetings were held in Londonderry and other coastal towns convenient to Thomas Packer and the other Monadnock Number Six proprietors.   In early 1768 Breed Batchellor was commissioned by the proprietors to make a plan of the town and lay out the first roads. Each settling share was assessed 50 schillings for the expenses.  In January 1769 the Batchellor plan was ratified at a proprietor’s meeting; by 1770 the records show only five settlers.  Settlement was behind schedule and the Monadnock Number Six proprietors stood to lose their grant.

Copy of Breed Batchellor’s early layout of lots in Monadnock Number Six. Click on this image to see a larger rendering.

Copy of Breed Batchellor’s early layout of lots in Monadnock Number Six. Click on this image to see a larger rendering.

In 1772 the first meeting of the Monadnock Number Six proprietors held here occurred at Breed Batchellor’s house. Nathaniel Breed was elected Moderator and Breed Batchellor, proprietor’s clerk.  Four acres of the common land were cleared and a meetinghouse of 25 by 30 feet built. Roadwork started with shareholders able to work off their assessments by working on the town’s roads at the rate of two schillings six pence per man per day and two schillings for a pair of oxen.

At the proprietor’s meeting in March 1773 the town voted to petition the royal governor for incorporation as a town. Breed Batchellor was appointed agent to present the petition on behalf of the Monadnock Number Six proprietors.  There were some who thought the petition premature.

To be continued . . .

Sources: State of New Hampshire Town Charters, Nelson Town Records

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