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A Sketch of a Pioneer and Veteran - Stephen Messer

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Date: 1738 to 1825
Location: [unknown]
Surnames/tags: Messer Peabody
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A Sketch of a Pioneer and Veteran - Stephen Messer 1738 to 1825

by Elford H. Messer 1993

The author has generously allowed me to share this paper under the condition it is not altered in any way nor that it be used, in any part, for profit. Please respect his requests

Stephen Messer was born in Methuen, Massachusetts in 1738,[1] the year of the throat distemper in Essex County, where 1400 people died.[2] Stephen lived until age 87 and died in Gorham, N.H., in 1825.[3] During his lifetime our nation became of age, separating from England, and establishing its own identity. This paper sketches the events and forces that shaped Stephen Messer's life.

Stephen's father, John, was born in Haverhill in 1701;[4] his mother, Sarah Barker, was born in Andover in 1709. [5] Methuen, originally part of Haverhill, is located on the Merrimac River, across from Andover. Wild tales of Indian attacks along the Merrimac were familiar to Stephen.[6] By age ten, colonists and natives had become pawns of European conflict; Stephen knew about the great French fortress city, Louisbourg, on Cape Breton which had fallen to a colonial militia at a cost of seventeen Andover lives.[7] Was his father, who died in 1745, among them?[8] It was a great loss to Stephen's mother who was left with six children, ages 5 to 15.[9] Stephen never forgot the disgust of the town, when, in 1748, England returned Louisbourg to the French.[10] The Frenchmen, whom protestant Massachusetts so feared, were again free to corrupt the northern shores, they believed.[11]

When Stephen reached 17, his sisters married;[12] townfolk were talking about the French land Indian War [1754-1763],[13] and of Generals Braddock, Winslow, and of Andover's own Major Frye; of far away places; Fort Crown Point and Acadie where Methuen and Andover men risked their lives.[14] Major Joseph Frye became a hero for his subjugation of the Acadians,[15] but tragedy once more stuck Stephen's family when his brother died of sickness in that war for the mother country.[16] Times were unsettled; taxes were high.

Massachusetts life centered around the church. The people, obliged to attend, were taxed according to ability. What chance did Stephen have to succeed, fatherless at age five? Church tax- rolls for 1770 give a clue:[17] Stephen was assessed only one forty-eighth as much as Esquire Phillips. Stephen descended from the Barkers,[18] a well-to-do Andover family, but, apparently, none of their wealth trickled down to Stephen's family. In 1764, Stephen married Anna Barker,[19] his third cousin. Could he keep up with the Barkers? A year later, they had their first child, John, named for Stephen's father.[20] In 1765, the couple joined the Methuen church by the half-way covenant,[21] by which persons not fully qualified for membership could secure baptism for their children.[22]

As fighting ended for provincials in 1762, elite colonials had become proficient at self-government; most were proud to share in the British triumph. Then, when England needed revenue to pay for the war, Andover citizens complained of the Stamp Act[23] and other harsh measures. Bigotry was aroused; New Englanders were sure the Quebec Act gave Catholics special privileges.[24]

Anti-British sentiment festered and swelled. During the next decade, Stephen and his neighbors read in the Boston Gazette:[25] of demonstrations in Boston, British troops, the "Boston Massacre," the tea party, and the Port Bill.[26] Things began to happen in Andover: military companies organized; committees formed; and the old veterans, Johnson, Bridges, and Frye[27] were being looked to for leadership. To counteract British General Gage's dissolving of the colonial government, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Patriotic fervor in Andover was so high that Colonel Johnson had no trouble enlisting ninety-five recruits in January, 1775.[28] Our Stephen was trying to make ends meet; his sixth child, Anna, was born March 17, 1775,[29] but he was swept up in the spirit of the time; he enlisted as a private that same month. He joined a company of men who had chosen Benjamin Farnum as their Captain.[30] Soon, British forces seized stores at Danvers.

329 Andover men, including Stephen Messer and his cousin Daniel Messer, marched off to Lexington and Cambridge when the alarm was sounded on April 19th.[31] They were too late to engage the enemy who had been driven back to Charlestown in confusion, but it was 3 1/2 days[32] before they returned back home to anxious families. In less than two months, Stephen would be saying "Goodbye" to his family again, this time to defend Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights from the British.[33] On the evening of June 16, Colonel Prescott had his chaplain say a prayer for the safety of a thousand men, but the colonials were defeated the following day.[34] Five men from Andover were killed and eight wounded, 1500 of the British were killed or wounded, and 411 of the colonials were dead or injured.[35] John Barker, a third cousin of Stephen, became a hero for saving the life of Captain Benjamin Farnum.[36] Twice that year, home life and tranquility had been shattered, but in six months Captain Farnum's Minutemen were back in Boston helping to keep the British holed up on Boston Neck.[37] Sixty-six days later, British General Howe evacuated Boston and Stephen returned home.

Andover was patriotic and voted for independence.[38] On July 23, 1776, Captain Samuel Johnson marched 75 Andover men off to reinforce the Continental Army on lower Lake Champlain.[39] General John Sullivan had already reached Crown Point with 8000 troops, while Generals Benedict Arnold, Peter Schuyler, and Horatio Gates were heading north from Albany.[40] British General Sir Guy Carleton was moving south from Canada with an army of 10,000, plus 800 Canadians and Indians, determined to take Fort Ticonderoga.[41]

Stephen said "Goodbye" to Anna and the six young children.[42] Would he return?. Even with good neighbors, how would she manage?

Three men kept journals: Col. Jeduthan Baldwin, an engineer who reached Ticonderoga earlier in July, gives an officer's view;[43] Captain Johnson and Private Phineas Ingalls tell of rain soaked travel, of sickness and death. Loaded with gear, they walked 210 miles in 20 days to reach Fort Ticonderoga.[44] They had come to help win colonial independence, but soon discovered disharmony among their leaders. Generals Arnold and Wynkoop argued for command;[45] Schuyler argued with Congress.[46] Disease spread. News of the defeat at Long Island brought further discouragement.[47]

General Peter Schuyler negotiated with with the Six Indian Nations,[48] but, on October 21, there were reports of 5 tribes of Indians having joined the British, plus rumors of Indian torture.[49]

At Skeensboro, 23 miles south, carpenters built vessels for General Arnold's defensive,[50] while, in Canada, a fleet was built for Carleton's offensive.[51] Baldwin's journal shows his concern for Carleton's onslaught.[52] Baldwin's men feverously erected barriers and fortifications. Baldwin tells of the good food the officers ate, while the enlisted men's food rations were scant.[53]

In mid-September, enemy cannon fire added to the anxiety. Baldwin was concerned with Carleton's and Burgoyne's expected attack;[54] he compared Arnold's fleet with Carleton's, item by item, stressing the dire need for manpower.[55] More patriots were killed in late September skirmishes, and some were captured by Indians.[56] Baldwin reports the completion of a new row galley of 10 guns for Arnold's fleet.[57] Ingalls gets duty caring for the sick.

Carleton launched his naval offensive in early October and both men's journals described Arnold's defeat at Valcour Island.[58] Sixty men were killed or wounded. At sunset, the British fleet approached Crown Point, only 8 miles away, and prepared to land. It was a melancholy sight; inhabitants torched Crown Point and fled south to Ticonderoga.[59] Short supplies and sickness mark those tense days. Carleton boasted of certain victory.[60] The colonists were terrified, but determined; they dug in. As Stephen Messer and his friends prayed for miracles, 15 tons of gun powder arrived. The wind was against Carleton's attack. After many tense days, Carleton decided that the season was too late to man the fort. On November 3, the British fleet departed.[61]

By mid-November, snow and cold permeated Fort Ticonderoga;[62] it was no place to winter, as a few poor souls later discovered. On November 23, Captain Samuel Johnson's men struck their tents and began a 210 mile homeward march. Johnson's journal gives detailed glimpses of the trip, which brought Stephen home on December 8, 1776.[63] He had been gone for 4 months and 16 days. It was a day for rejoicing and thanksgiving for a deliverance from ghastly dangers. Although Stephen was already a poor man with a large family, Anna would deliver their seventh child the following September 7.

Our attention now turns to some early pioneers of the Upper Androscoggin River Valley, gateway to the White Mountains. In 1772, Oliver and John Peabody Jr., and John and Samuel Bodwell of Methuen, petitioned the Province of Massachusetts to purchase land west of Sudbury, Canada (Bethel, Me.). Also, Peter Poor went to Shelburne to settle in 1772, and Nathaniel Segar went to Bethel in 1774. Colonel Joseph Frye petitioned Massachusetts for a grant of land, now Fryeburg, Maine, in 1761.[64] All these men returned to Massachusetts to serve in the war before returning to the vast wilderness. Perhaps Stephen Messer had not been to this mountain area before the war, but it was certainly the talk of Andover. The new frontier was a lure to his kind, little income, large family, hard pressed with rising prices, taxes, and the constant depreciation of paper currency. He and Anna had married young. Their grandson, William Evans, gives an account in his 1882 letter:[65] Although Ann's family had been prosperous, and she had been furnished everything nice, they soon found themselves poor. It so mortified them that they'sold everything and went to Pigwacket (Conway, N.H.), where friends and relatives, in similar circumstances, helped each other. Stephen left his family there and started into an unexplored wilderness. After many hardships, he came out in Gilead and built himself a cabin in the Androscoggin River Valley, north of Bethel and south of Shelburne. When cold weather came, he returned to Picwacket and spent the winter with his family. In March, 1780, the family started for Gilead with all their effects, carrying the smaller children on a handsled. Anna followed on snow-shoes, carrying an infant in her arms. They camped for two night on the snow crust.

Thanks to Androscoggin River Valley historians, much has been written about Stephen Messer and his pioneering neighbors, of their hard work, perseverance, and severe privations. The Reverend Benjamin G. Willey, a historian who recorded pioneering lore in his Incidents of the White Mountains, tells hair raising stories of bear encounters, including one of a determined bear that tried to seize one of Stephen Messer's hogs but failed.[66] In this case, Messer was "hungrier than a bear." Mrs. R.P. Peabody, in her history, tells many personal stories of the Messers and other early settlers. The Peabodys and Messers were "family", and she enjoyed telling family stories. She tells us that Mrs. Messer was the most intelligent woman, that she was a physician and nurse to the settlement along the Androscoggin for miles, and that she would often, with a child in her arms, visit on horseback to Concord, Pembroke, and her hometown of Andover, Mass. Of Stephen she says, "No one who could make a handsomer basket, snow-shoe, moose sled, or 'bottom' chair than he." She stresses the poor economic condition of the Messer family, and adds that Stephen was the only "praying man" in town for many years, and a cheerful man with sanguine temperment.[67]

Anna and Stephen maintained their ties with Andover, but, as years passed, the children married and moved on. In 1794, a group of families from Andover moved to Blue Hill, Maine where they created another small wave of population growth, crowding the less unforturnate native americans more than ever. Anna and Stephen's son, Stephen II, was one of this group. His marriage to Mary Darling in Blue Hill in 1796 resulted in several new generations of Messers in Hancock and Penobscot Counties.[68]

Every historian of the Bethel/Gilead area has told, with relish, of the September 3, 1781 famous Indian raid. None could tell the fearsome tale with more accuracy than Nathaniel Segar who was one of three men captured and carried off to Canada by a small band of St. Francis Indians. Later, with the help of Rev. Daniel Gould, Segar published his narrative.[69] The war for independence was not over, and the Indians were exploited by the British offer of bounty for settler captives and their scalps. Segar tells of being bound and led by the savages. As their party approached a brook, where the Messer children were playing, the children told the Indians that there were ten men with guns in the house. The Indians became frightened and fled, with their prisoners, across the Androscoggin River. Mrs. Peabody considered the children's exaggeration as fortunate; Stephen Messer was home alone and had always said he would never be taken alive. Several pioneer's cabins were plundered along the way, two young ladies were robbed, and Mr. Pettingill was murdered. Peter Poor, the early settler and war veteran mentioned above, was shot and scalped. The terrified settlers fled to Fryeburg where they spent the winter. Segar and the other two captives spent a grueling sixteen months in travel and captivity. In Montreal, the British paid the Indians for three prisoners and three scalps. The three prisoners were thrown in with fifty other abused captives. When the war ended, they were dropped off in Boston. Segar complained of no reward for his patriotism or captivity, deflation of his service pay, and lack of pension. His compensation was that he and another prisoner returned to Bethel and married to two young ladies who had been robbed.

Stories of wild bears and disasterous spring freshets were passed on to other generations and were recorded by historians, but "Segar's Narrative" was aL first-hand account of a real experience. The Indian Raid is still commemorated in Bethel, with celebrations and reenactments.[70]

New families arrived, and most couples, like Stephen and Anna, had at least a dozen children. Little wonder that Shelburne Addition, later called Gorham, N.H., was opened up to expansion. Stephen Messer moved into the addition, becoming the first permanent settler in 1804. He cleared a farm and built a log cabin just west of the Evans Cemetery.[71]

During the War of 1812, the settlers fared badly; the whole country's commerce was crippled and its finances exhausted. Wild game from the forests and fish from the streams helped the people eke out a living.[72]

Enoch Messer was a fifer in a military training unit that had no uniforms and few guns, but marched and practiced drill, pretending wooden sticks were rifles. Mrs. Peabody relates a story concerning Enoch in 1814. This was the same Enoch who Anna Messer carried to Gilead under her arms in 1780. Enoch was killed by a falling tree that hit him on the head and drove him into the ground, breaking every bone, but leaving the fife intact.[73]

William Evans's letter gives an account of the severe hardships of 1816, the year without a summer, when nothing grew. Things were tough enough everywhere, but for Mr. Evans, who had to care for his aging grandparents, Anna and Stephen, it was worse.

If Stephen Messer saw tough times in younger years, it was nothing compared to his old age. The children were grown and most had moved away; those remaining had responsibilities. He was just a poor old man, infirm at 82.[74] But he was given hope that the 1820 Act of Congress would entitle him to a veteran pension. Other enlisted men had received stipends of from 15 to 60 pounds; his old company captain, Benjamin Farnum, had received 80.[75] An applicant must make a declaration before his district judge, submit proof of service, and give a schedule of personal property. Stephen appeared before the Honorable William M. Richardson, Chief Justice of the Superior Court in Lancaster, N.H., March 8, 1821. His property included a cracked tea kettle worth fifty cents, his total worth was $15.03. The Affidavits and Schedule of Property, Record #7146, are on file at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.[76] Stamped on the face of the record, a blunt "REJECTED" declares the stark economic reality of the times. Was he disappointed? Was his pride hurt? He had fought the "good fight", surviving to old age. He had the blessing of a large family. He and Anna lived for only a few short years following the pension incident. It is fitting that they were laid to rest beneath two common field stones in the Old Gorham Cemetery, nothing, not even a "Veteran" marker to distract from the solid commonness which was so characteristic of this couple. We not only owe gratitude to the common people who strengthened our great nation, but also to the historians who have recorded their lives, the knowledge of which enriches our lives. Without a doubt, Stephen and Anna, and many others like them, did more to shape their world than the world shaped them.

Sources

  1. Methuen, Massachusetts, Town of Vital Records of Methuen, Mass. To the end of 1849, Topsfield, MA: Topsfield Historical Society, 1909, p. 58
  2. Thompson, Kenneth E., Joseph Frye. Portland, Maine: Privately published, p. 8
  3. Stephen died in Gorham, N.H., 1825
  4. Haverhill, Massachusetts Town Records, Vol. 1., p. 237
  5. Barker, Elizabeth Frye Barker Genealogy. New York: Frye Publishing Co., 1927, p.272
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  66. Willey, Benjamin, Rev., Incidents In White Mountain History. Boston: Published by Nathaniel Noyes, 1857.
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  74. Wight, D.B., p.79.
  75. United States Government, 32nd Congress, 1st Session Pensions. "Report of the Secretary of the Interior, Doc. 37. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, Feb. 16, 1852.
  76. National Archives, Record #7146




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Nice work, Steve! I suggest you add some categories so others might be able to find it. (I stumbled upon it while searching for something else.) Massachusetts for one, perhaps something more specific for location? Also New Hampshire?
posted by Jillaine Smith