The Oldest Town in New Hampshire Is 153 Years Older Than America Itself

Written by Arlene Mckanic
Updated: August 13, 2023
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Key Points:

  • Dover is the oldest permanently settled town in New Hampshire, with a history dating back to 1623.
  • From a small fishing village, Dover has evolved into the state’s fifth-largest city.
  • The region at Dover Point, where the Piscataqua and Bellamy Rivers meet, was inhabited for 153 years before the United States was founded by the Hilton brothers.
Founded in 1623, Dover is New Hampshire’s oldest town, transitioning from a fishing village to the state’s fifth-largest city.

Dover is the oldest permanently settled town in New Hampshire. It has grown from a small fishing village into the state’s fifth-largest city. The region has been inhabited since 1623, when brothers Edward and William Hilton established a plantation on Dover Point where the Piscataqua and Bellamy Rivers meet. This makes Dover 153 years older than the United States itself.

Aerial Drone Photography Of Downtown Dover, NH (New Hampshire) During The Fall Foliage Season

Dover, New Hampshire has beautiful views in the fall.

©Loud Canvas/Shutterstock.com

Before the town was founded, nomadic Native tribes frequented the area for its abundance of fish and game and its fertile soil. However, by the 1740s, the Native population had been pushed out. This was due to diseases that they had no immunity against, as well as removal by European settlers.

The Hilton Brothers and Investors

The Hiltons’ stay at Dover Point was only partially successful. As late as 1631, the plantation held only three houses and William Hilton’s salt works. Eventually, the Hiltons’ land was bought by a consortium of upper-crust British Puritans, including William Fiennes, the first Viscount Saye and Sele, and Robert Greville, the second Baron Brooke. These men were interested in setting up colonies in New England. After they bought the land, immigrants from England began arriving in numbers. So many people came from Bristol that Dover Point was renamed after the English city. These settlers built a meetinghouse on a nearby hill, protected by a trench. They also built a lockup.

Name Changes

The oldest town in New Hampshire’s name changed three more times. It became Dover in 1637, and Northam in 1639. Robert Dover, an anti-Puritan lawyer, inspired the first name change. A town in Devon inspired the second. It was in this town that Thomas Larkham, a Puritan cleric, famously preached. Larkham moved to Dover in 1640 but was found so troublesome that he went back to England in 1642. Meanwhile, Viscount Saye and Sele and Baron Brooke lost interest in their plantation, in part because they were forbidden to set up a British-style hereditary aristocracy there. The plantation was then sold to the state of Massachusetts in 1641, and the name Dover was restored.

Dover’s Expansion and the Cochecho Massacre

The colony grew as more and more settlers arrived and built garrisons, which were log houses built to withstand attack by natives. This gave Dover the nickname of “Garrison City.” The center of industry also moved to Cochecho Falls, as the waterfall there powered the mills. The falls are now found in downtown Dover, which the settlers named Cochecho Village.

Though the word “Cochecho” comes from an Abenaki word that means “rapid foaming water,” relations between the settlers and the Native Americans were sometimes fraught. After King Philip’s War, a group of Indians took refuge with the Abenaki. Ordered by the Massachusetts Bay Colony militia to attack these Indians, Major Richard Waldron duped them into staging a so-called “mock battle.” After the warriors fired their weapons, Waldron arrested the lot of them. Some of the leaders were executed, while others were sold into slavery. Indians who had been deemed innocent were let go, but they never forgot the insult.

Thirteen years later, on June 27, 1689, a group of Native American warriors took revenge and killed or captured 52 of the colonists. This was known as the Cochecho Massacre. The colonists captured made up 25 percent of Dover’s population. One of the people killed was the 74-year-old Waldron. Warriors sliced his abdomen with knives in an act of “crossing out their account.” Then, they burned his house and some of his mills, captured his seven-year-old granddaughter, and sold her in Quebec. This was not the end; the raids continued, off and on, for at least 50 more years.

The Revolutionary War and Industrial Revolution

The old mill at Dover in New Hampshire, New England USA

Cochecho Falls was the engine of Dover’s prosperity from the 17th to 20th centuries.

©Enrico Della Pietra/Shutterstock.com

No battles of the Revolutionary War were fought in New Hampshire. However, Portsmouth, which is about 12 miles south of Dover, was a center of much activity. They helped supply material for the war. Portsmouth was also visited by Paul Revere, who warned the residents that the British were coming.

Because of Cochecho Falls, Dover prospered after the war. The early 19th century saw the town become a center of textile manufacturing. Cotton was the main textile, followed by wool. The textile industry burgeoned when the railroad reached Dover in 1842, and brick mills sprang up along the banks of the Cochecho River. Thousands of people were employed in the textile industry.

However, this prosperity came to an end starting in the early decades of the 20th century, and the Great Depression basically wiped it out altogether. The great mill buildings now house government agencies, tech corporations, stores, shops, and residences. The Children’s Museum of New Hampshire is also found in one of these repurposed mills.

The oldest town in New Hampshire became an incorporated city in 1855, over 200 years after its founding. According to the 2020 census, there are 32,741 residents. It’s also the county seat of Strafford County.

Where is Dover Point Located on a Map?

Dover Point is the current name of the location formerly known as Hilton’s Point, where the first settlement party arrived in 1623.

Here is Dover Point on a map:

What’s in a Name?

The name “Dover” comes from an insular Celtic word characterized as Brythonic, or Brittonic. In the case of Dover, it’s the Middle Welsh word “dwfr.” It means “waters.” This is apropos, as the oldest town in New Hampshire sits on a confluence of rivers.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Tudoran Andrei/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Arlene Mckanic is a writer for A-Z Animals whose focus is on plants and animals of all kinds, from ants to elephants. She has a Bachelor's Degree from City College of New York. A resident of South Carolina, she loves gardening and though she doesn't have pets, a black racer snake does live in her kitchen.

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