Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: The Riot Of 1808 / The Cold Friday

Back to previous section -- Forward to next chapter -- Return to Table of Contents

The Riot Of 1808

In the summer of 1808, some of the people of the town went to Portsmouth to hear Elias Smith, who was then preaching, in the main, the doctrines afterward professed by the sect styled Christians. Mr. Smith was also invited to hold meetings at Hampton. A few individuals here adopted his views, and disclaiming all denominational distinctions, called themselves Christians. Their sentiments were, however, afterward greatly modified, and the church originating with them became the Free Baptist church.

A general meeting of the elders and brethren of the Christian persuasion was appointed to be held in this town, on the 8th of September, 1808, on the Meeting-house Green. This occasioned considerable excitement among the people. They had known something of Elder Smith's preaching, and they distrusted his doctrines. But this circumstance alone would not probably have led them to disturb the meeting. A more powerful reason urged them to action. Their own pastor, Rev. Josiah Webster, who had been installed only three months, had previously been settled at Chebacco parish, in Ipswich. His situation there had been rendered uncomfortable through the agency of certain men who claimed to be Christians, and reformers. One of these, it was understood, would be present on this occasion. It was a foolish bravado of this man that was principally instrumental in exciting opposition to the meeting. He was reported to have said that he had driven Mr. Webster from Chebacco and he would now drive him from Hampton. In perfect keeping with this threat was the holding of the meeting on the common in front of the parsonage, where Mr. Webster resided, and so near that from his study he could hear what might be said against "the black coats and the standing order."

The day of the meeting arrived. A great number of people assembled on the Green. Presently a company of men appeared with muskets. Some of them were advanced in life and had belonged to the Alarm List in the time of the Revolution. With them were joined others, considerably younger. All were determined to protect their minister from insult at his own door. Such were their feeling, however ill-judged or disorderly may have been their method of expressing them.

The elders who controlled the meeting thought it prudent to retire from the Green, to a field, at some distance, which the owner had offered for the purpose. This was the field at Lane's corner, opposite the late Cotton Brown's house. Elder Smith, in his account of the transaction says: "As soon as the rioters found the people had gone to the field, they followed them, and when they were opposite the field, they began with hooting, firing guns, etc. After proceeding a few rods they marched back and began their pow-wow, firing their guns again . . . . . Just after passing the assembly, they broke their ranks and rushed into that and the adjoining field, firing their guns, throwing potatoes and dirt at the preachers." Pulling the sword-pin from the ox-cart, which served as a pulpit, they tipped them all out. One of the elders then mounted a stump, and began preaching, but was soon pulled to the ground.

Elder Smith says the rioters were fifty or sixty in number; that is was supposed that more than a hundred guns were fired; and that the men claimed to be peaceable people, but declared that they meant to defend their religion and their minister. That they did intend to defend their minister, is certain; that they appeared upon the scene in the name of religion, is not so clear.

The meeting was broken up. Elder Smith left the field first, and the other elders, about an hour after the disturbance began. Mr. Smith's narrative goes on: "Soon after this, they came up to the house where I was (Mr. Joshua Lane's), and stood before it. My horse was harnessed at the back door, and I went down the back stairs, out at the back side of the house, got into my carriage with a brother, and rode away before they knew I was gone, glad to escape through the back door; and through the good hand of God upon me, arrived safe at Portsmouth. Notwithstanding all the tumult, no one was injured in the least, though some had their clothes scorched with the powder."

The narrative quoted above, a prejudiced recital by one of the principal actors in the drama, was sown broadcast over the land, carrying exaggerated impressions of riotous behavior and persecution. There was undoubtedly wrong on both sides. It was not a dictate of piety to attempt to break up a connection which had just been harmoniously formed between pastor and people, by meeting before his own door to rail against him. It was not a mark of wisdom for a professed preacher of the gospel to proclaim his intention to drive this minister from his parish. It was foolhardy, to come into the parish, among the friends of the pastor, to execute his threat. Had they not been, indeed, "a peaceable people," the attempt could hardly have been made, and "no one injured in the least." But the proceedings of these armed men were armed men were disorderly and in violation of law. Had they been content with their victory on the Meeting-House Green, and allowed the elders undisturbed possession of the potato-field and the empty cart, all would have been well; but the temptation to enact a comedy was too strong for the young blood in that mixed company to resist. Some of the leaders were prosecuted, but were discharged, on making a slight acknowledgment of their fault, which, after the excitement of the occasion had passed away, they could not fail to perceive.

The Cold Friday

The 19th of January, 1810, was one of the most memorable cold days of the present century. "From a mild state of temperature, the weather suddenly became cold, the mercury descending to thirteen degrees below zero in less than sixteen hours. The change was accompanied with high wind, cold and piercing in the extreme, and of such force as to prostrate many trees and buildings." [Hist. Soc. Col. v: 77.] This is the general description for a wide extent of territory. In Hampton, the morning was so mild, several farmers set out for Newburyport, with ox-loads of potatoes, beguiling with neighborly chat the tedium of the slow progress. On the return, the cold became so intense and the wind so violent, all suffered extremely, and one man who had rashly left his overcoat at home was only saved from perishing, by wrapping himself in the blankets that had covered the potatoes. The next day it was announced in Hampton that, in the midst of all this severity, a son had been born to the beloved pastor. He was named John Calvin.

At the annual town meeting, in 1814m it was voted "that in future, the annual meeting shall be opened by prayer, by the minister of the town, after the moderator is chosen." This was no new thing, as the custom had prevailed from early times, but perhaps there had latterly been some laxity in that regard. The good old custom of opening the town meeting with prayer still holds.

Back to previous section -- Forward to next chapter -- Return to Table of Contents