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Nelson’s History (The Short Version)

The settlement of what would become Nelson was established by a grant of land from King James I, who awarded John Mason a charter of land which included all the land between the Naumkeag (today called the Merrimack) and Pascataqua Rivers extending 60 miles inland. The place was to be called New Hampshire and Mason’s charge was to settle the area. Mason died in 1635 leaving only minor heirs. The title to the lands fell into dispute – a dispute resolved by a court case in 1746, which awarded the right to most of the original grant to John Tufton Mason who in turn sold his rights to a group of men who came to be styled the Masonian Proprietors. On December 6, 1751 the Masonian Proprietors granted “Monadnock Number Six” (as the area of Nelson was then identified) to another group of proprietors who would have the direct responsibility of settling the town. One of them was Thomas Packer, who never in fact lived here, but for whom the town was briefly named. The first settlers were Breed Batchellor and Dr. Nathaniel Breed, who arrived in 1767, and it is this year that has been chosen as the birth-date of the town, which was officially incorporated in 1773. The town changed its name to Nelson in 1814.



A load of chairs from the Colony Chair factory in Munsonville.

Like many small New England towns, Nelson had a steady growth in population through the first few decades of the 19th century. Population figures are somewhat misleading, as the town in those days also included what is now the northern part of Harrisville. However, with the opening of the west, a decline in sheep farming, and the Civil War (to which Nelson contributed significantly), the population fell into a decline which began a very slow reversal in the 1920s. A chair industry once flourished in Munsonville (a “suburb” of Nelson on the north side), and small mills dotted the landscape. But the town never had railroad service, and its hilly rocky terrain was a deterrent to aggressive settlement. Today there are no stores, and mostly just cottage industry. Nevertheless, the town has a rich cultural heritage of writers, artists, musicians and craftsmen, and a very vibrant community spirit.

Preparing for our holiday tables. Print by Fran Tolman

While this website endeavors to portray Nelson history accurately, the flavor of the town has been seasoned by flamboyant eccentric characters, and tall tales, most of which serve as smile or laughter-generating entertainment. We trust the explorers of this website to distinguish between the dry data and the more frivolous musings, though the latter does indeed say a lot about the history of the town.

While the history of the town by definition must start with those European settlers who stepped into an area designated by the British Empire, the history of the land, and its occupants, is an older story. As is noted elsewhere, this website is – and will always be – a work in progress. One of our goals in the coming months will be to fill in some of this older story, and we welcome suggestions and resources to help in this process.  At this time there is no known evidence of settlement, or even use, by the native population in pre-settlement times.

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Nelson's population in the Census of 1790 was 721. The most recent (2020) Census shows a population of 734 - a whopping increase of 13 people over a 230 year period. Of course there are some twists and turns in the story, and we've added some graphics to spice up the tale.

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Randomly Selected Articles

Below are some randomly selected articles from this website. Refreshing your page will provide a new set of selections. Click on the title to read the full article.

Ben Smith, an Interview

From Summer to Settler: This interview with Ben Smith is one of a series of interviews conducted by Tom Murray, his nephew. He is especially interested in talking with people who became “year-round people” after having spent time in Nelson as “summer people.”

The Sawyer Family Provides for Old Age and Succession

Families moving to a frontier town like Packersfield employed a number of strategies to sustain themselves. They often came with others they knew from their hometowns and settled near one another in their new home. Often those clusters of new arrivals were related. In the second generation they often took steps to keep the farm in the family and provide for their old age. The Sawyer Family who settled in the northeast corner of Packersfield did all of these things.

Sledding on Tolman Hill

This was in the mid-sixties. It was a rather warmish, foggy night in January. I had come back to New Hampshire to go to the contra dance - in Dublin, as it happened. I ran into Barry (Tolman)..........

Our Write Wing: The Authors of Nelson, Part I

"There's gold in them thar hills," the ever hopeful western prospector used to say. But the only ore in the hills hereabouts was "lead" (which was really graphite), and the two so-called lead mines in Nelson have long since ceased operating. In our hills, however, there runs another kind of rich vein, and that is the writings of various Nelson authors.

A Moderator’s Reflections

It is the second Tuesday of March 1946, and, just as in each of the years since, the Nelson Town Meeting will decide many of the directions the Town will take the following year: who will lead, how much must be raised in taxes, what will be done about the most pressing issues the Town faces. 

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