Capt. Stephen Parker: A Nelson Patriot in the Revolutionary War

Roberta Wingerson
From Grapevine-2, May 1996

It was 100 years ago at the Nelson Picnic on August 12, 1896, that an account of the Revolutionary War experiences of Capt. Stephen Parker and his family was given by his grandson, Horatio G. Parker. The handwritten notes were found in the Bemis Papers when they were recently indexed at the Nelson Archives.

The hardships endured by the men who volunteered and the families they left behind are hard for us to imagine today. Only the words of those who lived it can make it real for us. Their patriotism was not supported by social systems: when the men left for extended periods, their wives and children had to survive by whatever means they could devise and, often, it was barely enough to sustain life. At that time, the family unit alone was responsible for its prosperity, if there was to be any, and each member was essential.

Yet, the men went willingly and immediately when the call to arms came.  Horatio relates that Capt. Parker, who had come to Nelson with his family from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, was plowing a field with his oxen in 1775 when a man on horseback rode up and said that he was needed to defend Charlestown from the British.  Parker left the oxen standing in the field while he hurried to the house, took down his sword, got some clothes, and left with his oldest son, Jonathan, then about 14 years old but considered a man when the times required it. With only a word to his wife that the British were going to attack, they set off on a journey from which they did not return for good for eight years.

Stephen Parker (1738-1814) settled on the property now owned by Norman Barres on City Hill Road. The cellar hole to the left of the driveway is the location of the old Parker home. At one time, Parker owned a large part of Prospect Hill, but when he sold it he accepted payment in Continental money which later proved to be worthless. He lost everything.

The Parkers had six children: Jonathan, Almarin, Elijah, Phoebe Mary, Stephen Jr., and Nehemiah, who became a noted lawyer in Keene. Horatio, who wrote of his grandfather’s experiences during the Revolution, was the son of Elijah. Jonathan served out the war with his father’s company, returning home with a permanently stiff knee where a spent bullet had struck.

Elijah told Horatio of taking Capt. Parker many years after the war to the site of his old Nelson farm where, by then, only a cellar hole and the granite slab that had been the front step remained. Walking a short distance away, Capt. Parker stood with tears rolling down his cheeks while Elijah remembered how as a boy of 10 with his father away at war, he had been hoeing corn when his mother called him. She had gotten together enough flour to bake some bread and urged him to come in and eat it. It was the first bread that the family had to eat in weeks. They had been living on only milk and checkerberries (wintergreen berries) or wild strawberries if they could be found.

All the details of the long service of Capt. Parker were not known by Horatio, but he did relate that his grandfather fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill for it was there that he was wounded. He was firing away at the British to protect the rear of his company.  “He laid on with it to the right and left” with his mouth open probably yelling in fury when a soldier told him that he had been hit. Blood was running down his face. A bullet had entered through his open mouth and went out through his cheek – a minor inconvenience, it seems.

Capt. Parker went south with Washington through the army’s retreat in New Jersey, the crossing of the Delaware, the terrible winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, and other fearsome trials. One of his favorite stories took place during a retreat when the British were close behind. General Washington asked General Cilley of New Hampshire if he had a faithful man to guard his tent that cold and dangerous night. He was told, “Capt. Parker was just such a man, and his men are just as faithful as he is.” After General Washington had studied his maps and plans and knelt in prayer, he came out and asked the Captain where he was from, whom he had married (Mary Morse), and the names of his children. Afterwards, whenever they met, the General saluted Capt. Parker and greeted him by name. It was an honor he never forgot.

Many years later, while Parker was outside chopping wood, a man on horseback brought the news that General Washington had died. Horatio recounted, “Father told me his father took out his handkerchief having on it the stars and stripes, wiped his eyes, struck his axe into a log, went into the house, sat down by the fire, and did not speak a word during the rest of the day.”

Early on the last morning of Capt. Parker’s life, he did what he had always done on the Fourth of July: he fired his old gun 13 times, once for every state and one more for Washington. He hoed corn all morning. At noon he repeated the same ritual, 13 shots for the states and one more for Washington. After the noon meal he started out to the field again, but complained of not feeling well and returned to the house and his bed. Ever the patriot, he died that Fourth of July still loyal to his general.