It has now been more than 230 years since the start of the Revolutionary War. In our twenty-first-century minds, the justice of the patriots’ cause seems to be just common sense. Wasn’t England ruled by the freedom-hating King George III? And every schoolboy knows that the colonies were unanimous in their support of the godlike George Washington. We were right; they were wrong. The American Revolutionary War was the classic battle of justice, liberty, and truth against the forces of tyranny and oppression.
As with most things in life, the Revolutionary War cannot be understood in black and white terms. Not every American subscribed to the legitimacy of the patriot cause. The commonly accepted formula is that in the thirteen colonies, one-third favored the British, one-third was pro-patriots, and a final third was neutral. Although it is impossible to ascertain if this division was true in Nutfield, it is safe to say we were not all patriots. Some very good Nutfield residents remained loyal to king, country, and the Union Jack.
The story that follows could easily be rewritten into modern spy thriller by Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy. It involves many of the most significant figures in American history, including George Washington, John and William Stark, Ethan Allen, Robert Rogers, Matthew Thornton, John Wentworth, John Langdon and several British generals. It would be a simple matter to transport the tale to twenty-first-century America. Think of the main character as a respected businessman and elected politician who is really a Taliban mole.
Arguably the most important loyalist in the Revolutionary War period of New Hampshire was Colonel Stephen Holland of Londonderry. Most sources report that he was born in 1733 in the vicinity of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. He emigrated to America as a young man. On July 24, 1756, he enlisted as a sergeant in the legendary Roger’s Rangers. He rose through the ranks to ensign by February 1757 and was promoted to second lieutenant in 1759. In 1761 he purchased the rank of second lieutenant in Gorham’s battalion for two hundred seventy-five pounds sterling. He left the military in 1762 after being wounded first at the battle of Fort William Henry and then at the battle for the city of Quebec. Because of his service and wounds, he received a pension of half pay.
In 1761 he moved to Londonderry and purchased a lot on Horse Hill, directly across from the meetinghouse in East Derry. He land extended all the way east to the shores of Beaver Lake. The next year the selectmen examined his character and found him “a proper person to keep a tavern in this town.” His tavern was at a prime location in the frontier town. East Derry was at the time the educational, political, and religious center of the region.
Do not confuse the village of East Derry today with that of 1762. In the mid-eighteenth century, the settlement on Horse Hill consisted of just the meetinghouse, a cemetery, and a one-room school. Even the pastor lived a mile away. Stephen Holland’s tavern was only the third building ever built in the immediate area. The present First Parish Church was built in 1762 to replace the original meetinghouse. Most of the buildings there now were built in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1762 the population of Londonderry was scattered haphazardly throughout the town in isolated farmhouses.
Holland’s tavern was a welcome addition to the tiny community. During recesses at the town meetings, the men could adjourn to his taproom for libation and strategy sessions. Here the town fathers held meetings and received taxes. It would also serve as the town’s defacto post office, as weekly post riders would leave mail and newspapers there in await pickup by their owners. On Sunday the worship service at the meeting house would begin in the morning and continue into the afternoon. During “nooning” (lunch break) the tavern was a definite destination. This was certainly true during the winter months, as the meeting house was unheated. Rooms were available for the occasional visitor and a store sold staple items such as tobacco, spirits, notions, and crockery. It was a “Squire” Holland’s tavern on December 8, 1768 that the plans for the building of the present First Parish Church were drawn up.
At Holland’s tavern the great issues of the day were debated. In its rooms there were discussion on all the political and economic issues that were fueling the call for revolution within the colonies. It was here that “taxation without representation is tyranny” was argued. Within its taproom, patriot leaders such as Matthew Thornton. George Reid, and John Bell would likely have planned their next course of action. Luminaries like Robert Rogers, John Stark, and Josiah Bartlett would have been frequent visitors. In the decade before the Revolutionary War, Londonderry was no longer the small, isolated frontier community it had been in the 1720s, Now only the coastal town of Portsmouth had a greater population.
Regrettably, we do not know what Stephen Holland’s tavern looked like, as it was torn down in the 1870s. It was probably a spacious, Georgian-style building similar to the present Pinkerton Tavern Restaurant. A legal advertisement in the 1780s describes it as a “a large mansion house….well calculated for any sort of public business in its situation, together with eighty or ninety acres of choice land, three barns, a store, out houses and stables; said land is well proportioned with mowing, tillage, pasture, wood and watering, well fenced with stone walls.”There are also no existing portraits of Stephen Holland, but newspaper notices from 1777 and 1778 give us a partial description of the man. He is reported to be “a well looking man” of about forty-five years of age, five foot, eight inches tall, “rather fleshy” (stout) “of a ruddy, comely countenance” with a face “pitted with small pox” and “given a wearing wig.” So he was of about average height, handsome, with a red, pockmarked face, somewhat pudgy and wearing a wig. This head covering may have been a stylish affectation or merely used to hide a bald pate. Because of his wealth and social standing, he probably dressed in a manner appropriate for a country squire.
He married Betsey (Jane) Stinson sometime around 1751. She was the daughter of John Stinson and Mary Hogg. They had nine children, two of whom are known to be buried at Frost Hill Cemetery in East Derry, as are his parents-in-law. His oldest son he named John Wentworth Holland, after the governor of New Hampshire. A member of the family of General George Reid named one of his children Stephen Holland Reid.
Holland soon became a very wealthy citizen. He owned a pew in the First Parish Church and was one of the few here who could afford a gold pocket watch. He quickly became the banker for the area, always iwlling to loan money and hold mortgages at an interest rate of 10 percent per annum. In 1763 he loaned a Londonderry resident nearly six thousand pounds to purchase land from the legendary Ranger Robert Rogers.
Tavern Keeper Holland also invested in local land. By 1778, in addition to his own estate he owned the McNeal farm with a large house, barn and approximately sixty acres of land; the Wiar farm, with a large stone house, a barn, a cider mill, an orchard, and about eighty-five acres; the Gregg farm with a house and barn in need of repair and sixty acres of land; the Nesmith lot, of thirty-five acres consisting of orchard, mowing, pasture, and woodland; the Barr lot, of about seventy acres which was covered with a forest of oaks. In addition he owned land near Beaver Lake, including three meadow lots which produced hay and were good for hunting ducks and geese. He also owned sundry smaller lots, making him the holder of about four hundred acres in town.
During the French and Indian War he was given two thousand acres near the town of Thornton, New Hampshire as a reward for his military service. This land was the unincorporated town of Holland’s Location which had a settled population and an ordained clergyman. In time Holland’s Location would become the town of Livermore. In addition he owned eight hundred acres in Hill, a thousand acres in Tamworth, and other tracts in about sixty-five other New Hampshire towns stretching across the state. He also owned “1/3 of 1/8 of 1/15 part” of the Mason patent, which claimed much of the southern half of the state. In total he held a title to about ten thousand acres of land worth in excess of eight thousand British pounds sterling. In addition to this he owned about 8,000 acres in Vermont. Although most of his land was unsettled wilderness, it had the potential for substantial profit as more and more pioneers moved north, leaving the crowded southern tier of the state in pursuit of elbow room.
Soon after he arrived in town, Holland was appointed a justice of the peace for the province, which gave him judicial authority. Probably through the intervention of his Portsmouth friends, he was appointed clerk of the Court of Common Pleas and clerk of the court in Hillsborough County. These two political plums gave him an annual salary of 190 pounds. This income alone was considerably more than most locals earned in a year. Mr. Holland was indeed a very wealthy man.
Because of his military experience, Stephen Holland was a commissioned colonel in the local militia. Among his brother officers were ardent patriots George Reid, Matthew Thornton and John Bell. Several times a year there was a training day when all adult men were drilled in the fundamentals of military maneuvers. Holland also was elected to serve in several local offices. He was surveyor of highways for the portion of the town east of Beaver Brook in 1771 as well a member of the board of selectmen. He was elected a member of the colonial legislature to represent Londonderry and Windham a total of five times between 1771 and 1775. His election as representative in 1771 did not sit well with many citizens. On January 1, 1772, a petition signed by 186 residents of Londonderry, Derry, and Windham was delivered to the legislature to request a new election. A tie vote in the assembly allowed Holland to retain his seat. The reason for this anti-Holland sentiment is not known.
By the early 1760′s, the political climate was becoming more and more hostile toward remaining a colony of Britain. Deserters from the English army were known to be harbored in Londonderry. In February 1769, our local militia freed some of these deserters from a squad of redcoats who had been sent to retrieve them. There were the 1766 Stamp Act riots in Portsmouth and the anti-British resolves published by several New Hampshire towns in 1768. In shipload of tea thrown into the Piscataqua River.
On April 29, 1773, the inhabitants of Londonderry presented Governor Wentworth with an extremely fawning proclamation. It praised the king for appointing Wentoworth, “a gentleman whose birth and education has been in the province over which he presides.” The proclamation further stated that the easy access they have gained and the polite and courteous reception they have ever met with from you has offered them the means of communicating and your Excellency receiving all necessary of their wishes and wants.” The document ends by declaring that its purpose was to reassure the governor of their loyalty to the king and to offer their prayer for Wentworth to “live long.” It is likely that Holland had a hand in the composition of the proclamation. Despite the avowed popularity of Governor John Wentworth, the dislike of the British government in Whitehall was too strong to be stilled.
On April 2, 1774, a town meeting was called by Stephen Holland and four other men, who decreed the eastern part of the town demanded that the legislature declare the April 2 Town Meeting of the “pretended east town” null and void. The reason for this Holland-led coup is unkown but it probably had something to do with preventing anti-British feelings from controlling the political agenda. The meeting and the election were declared void by the legislature and five new selectmen were elected. It was further decided that Holland’s election as representative was “illegal in every respect.”
In mid-1774, word spread throughout New Hampshire that a provincial congress was being called to meet at Exeter on July 21 to discuss the gathering political storm. This Exeter meeting was quickly declared illegal by Royal Governor Wentworth. In Londonderry, a town meeting was called to elect delegates to the Exeter Congress and to authorize forming a company of local minutemen should hostilities break out. Before anything should be done, Justice of the Peace Stephen Holland ordered the meeting to be broken up as illegal. He, in effect, read them the riot act and threatened to arrest anyone who failed to leave the meetinghouse. Because of this action, the town was officially unrepresented at the state’s first political convention.
Stephen Holland was becoming a very unpopular man, as the overwhelming majority in his town were firmly on the patriot side. One of Holland’s allies was Constable William Vance, of Londonderry, who in 1774 had arrested some deserters from General Gage’s army who were being hidden in town. Vance would frequently, while staying at Stephen Holland’s tavern, have to post guards all night. On at least one occasion, the tavern was surrounded by a mob and Vance, Holland, and their friends had to use force to drive off the assailants.
On December 14, 1774, British Fort William and Mary at Portsmouth was attacked and briefly seized by an army of New Hampshire men. War was now inevitable. On April 1, 1775, Paul Revere made his fabled ride and the next day, at Lexington green, the shot was fired that “was heard around the world.” The Revolutionary War had begun.
There was suspicion in town that tavern keeper Holland was a Tory and couldn’t be trusted. There were even some who suspected that he was a clandestine British spy.
Fearing for his life and the erosion of his position in local society, Stephen Holland had to come up with a way to restore his credibility. On April 23, 1775, a town meeting was held at the First Parish meetinghouse with Matthew Thornton as moderator. Most of the issues on the warrant dealt with war matters such as pay for the local soldiers who were fighting in Massachusetts and the local supply of gunpowder. The meeting was adjourned to Saturday, April 29.
At the start of this reconvened meeting, Stephen Holland stood up and asked to be allowed to address the hall. He mustered all of his considerable eloquence to win over his fellow citizens. With obvious sincerity he proclaimed:
Whereas my mistake, misunderstanding, misrepresentation, or for reasons unknown to me, I am represented an enemy to my country, to satisfy the public, I solemnly declare I never aided or assisted any enemy to my country in anything whatsoever and I make this declaration not our of fear of any thing I may suffer but because it gives me great uneasiness to think that the true sons of liberty and real friends to their country, from any of the first mention reasons, should believe me capable so much as in thought of injuring or betraying my country, when the truth is I am ready to assist my countrymen in the glorious cause of liberty at the risk of my life and fortune.
This speech did it. The town meeting unanimously voted that it was “satisfactory for his conduct.” The meeting continued and appointed a committee “to look into the conduct of those men thought to be friends to their country.” Holland, however, was not chosen to serve on this board. The meeting voted to raise thirty minute men and purchase three hundred pounds of gunpowder and lead for bullets.
As a further expression of its trust, the town meeting in June 22, 1775, elected Holland as moderator. He replaced Matthew Thornton, who was serving as president of New Hampshire’s Provincial Congress. The town meeting later voted that every man who was able, had a gun, twenty bullets and six flints, and was “willing to go against the enemy” would be given a share of the town stock of powder to be used “only on self defense.” The town meeting on November 7 even petitioned the state government to have Holland and Matthew Thornton continue in the rank of colonel in the militia.
Holland was later offered the command of a battalion with the rank of brigadier general but he declined with disdain.Stephen Holland’s speech at the town meeting had worked; he was now viewed as a patriot and worthy of trust by the townspeople. His April 29th speech was even published in the state’s only newspaper. In reality, Holland was lying through his teeth! He was, in fact, a British spy who was secretly sending information to Royal Governor Wentworth in Portsmouth, who would in turn forward the data to British General Gage in Boston. Holland was so trusted that on June 19, 1775, patriot General John Stark sent him a private communication with details of the Battle of Bunker Hill, which had occurred just two days earlier.
What General Stark didn’t know was that on June 18, Holland had gone to coastal New Hampshire to recruit an army to assist the British in the defense of Boston. He was able to get more than two hundred men to swear an oath of allegiance to England and to march with him to Massachusetts. Holland’s army got as far as Somerville but was barred from reaching General Gage because the patriots had blockaded all the roads in and out of Boston. Governor Wentworth would later beg Holland not to defect to the British because he would be more service if he remained in Londonderry as a secret British Agent.
In April 1776, the Continental Congress decided it was time to take a census to identify the supporters of the patriots. Every person was invited to sign “the Association Test.” The subscribers, by adding their name to the list, were showing that they were willing “to join our American brethren in defending the lives, liberties, properties of the inhabitants of the united colonies… at the risk of our lives and fortunes, with arms, oppose the hostile proceedings of the British fleets and armies.” The only ones who were not required to sign were those below the age of twenty-one as well as “lunatic, idiots, Negroes”; and, of course, women. The name of those who would not sign were sent to the patriot authorities in Exeter.
In Londonderry, there were 376 men who were willing to acknowledge that they supported George Washington and thus renounced all allegiance to King George II. On June 24, 1776, the town clerk reported that there were only fourteen men who would not sign. Among the first to sign was Stephen Holland. Once again the gentleman tavern keeper publicly lied so he could remain a spy.
This excerpt is from “Nutfield Rambles,” Richard Holmes’ fifth published piece on local history. Richard was born, raised and attended school throughout New Hampshire. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education from Keene State College and his Master’s Degree in History from Rivier College. In 2003 he founded the Derry Museum of History. In 2007 Richard Holmes received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. This is the most prestigious recognition one can receive for the preservation and interpretation of state and local history. Richard has also been a columnist for the Derry News, the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, Nutfield News, and the Manchester Union Leader.
Leave Richard a comment on the story. Copies of his book are still available at the Derry Public Library.