The Bethel Courier

Volume 1, No. 2 (June 1977)


Dr. True As Historian

by Randall H. Bennett


[Note: This article has been edited by the author for inclusion on this web site.]

The productive years in the life of Dr. Nathaniel Tuckerman True (1812-1887) were a propitious time for antiquarian efforts.  Indeed, the ground work of what we know today of Bethel's beginnings is in large part the result of a thirty-year period (from about 1850 to 1884) when Dr. True's awareness of the importance of local history spawned several major contributions to the historiography of western Maine.

Two papers worthy of mention—a manuscript letter on Bethel history written by James Grover for William Williamson's History of Maine (1832) and the Nathaniel Segar narrative of the 1781 Indian Raid on Bethel and surrounding towns, published in 1825 and allegedly arranged by the Reverend Daniel Gould—were the only visible antecedents of Dr. True's first major literary work, the "History of Bethel," printed in serial form in the Bethel Courier newspaper between 1859 and 1861.  [This "History" was published in book form, with editorial revisions by Randall H. Bennett, in 1994.]  True shared with other "patrician" historians, mainly professional people who viewed their literary achievements as an avocation, a concern for thorough research, meticulous transcription, and fair and accurate reporting.  On the local level, he readily exchanged ideas with such notables as William Willis and Edward Elwell of Portland, Thomas Moulton of Porter, David Noyes of Norway, Israel Washburn, Jr., of Livermore, and George Whitefield Chapman of Gilead.  On a broader basis, his writing appears to indicate admiration and emulation of the works of Francis Parkman and Henry Adams.

A Pownal, Maine, native born in 1812, True trained at Bowdoin College for a medical career, but soon became absorbed with "matters foreign to the sick room," and in balancing an interest in research and writing with that of medicine, chose teaching as a profession.  Still, during his term as principal of the Academy at Monmouth, Maine (1837-1846), and at Gould Academy at Bethel (1848-1861), one finds frequent mention of his labors in botany, mineralogy, geology, and chemistry, as well as his dedication to agricultural societies (he helped found Maine's first "Farmer's Club" at Bethel in 1853).

Joseph Williamson's voluminous Bibliography of the State of Maine (1896) provides an indication of the range of Dr. True's writings, but the list is anything but exhaustive.  His promotion and eventual documentation of the "antiquarian suppers" at Bethel in 1855, 1856, and 1857 resulted in some of his first published articles.  Thereafter, such pieces appeared frequently in the Oxford Democrat, the Portland Transcript, the Lewiston Journal, and, later, the Bethel Courier.

Beyond the newspaper essays, Dr. True's pen produced innumerable articles for scholarly journals.  Some, such as his "Grooved Boulders in Bethel, Me." (1862) and "New Localities of Minerals in Maine" (1863), both printed in the Proceedings of the Portland Society of Natural History, combined scientific inquiry with historical investigation.  True's mention of the extensive "Cabinet of Minerals" at Gould and the inclusion of several highly descriptive passages on area geography undoubtedly succeeded in promoting Bethel and the Academy.

As an active member of the Maine Historical Society and a corresponding member of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Dr. True had access to a wealth of archival material, as well as published records relating to other towns and states.  Thus, it comes as no surprise that some dozen manuscripts by True between 1877 and 1884 when he was head of schools at Bethel and Litchfield, Maine, and Gorham and Milan, New Hampshire, found their way into the recently reprinted series Old Times in North Yarmouth, Maine.  Besides giving us some clues as to his genealogical background, the Doctor recalled his school days at North Yarmouth Academy in the 1830s, describing himself as "a raw, country lad, dressed in homespun."  On a more humorous note, his comments on boarding-house life provide certain insights: "We cooked food when compelled to do so from sheer hunger, and washed the dishes from pure necessity, the safe rule being to do so when we could not well decide what was in them last."  At around the same time, True's defense over his dismissal from Gould Academy in 1861 (brought on mainly from a lack of discipline at the school) surfaced in another article he wrote: "To secure position in society, there were certain prescribed grooves in which a man must walk, or he was ostracized."  True's biographical sketch of Ezekiel Holmes (he succeeded Holmes as Editor of the Maine Farmer newspaper from 1865 to 1869) and his "History of the Press of Oxford County" in Griffin's The Press of Maine (1871) shed further light on his outlook and unique personality.

Like some of his Maine contemporaries, Dr. True was probably less an interpreter of history than a recorder of it.  The massive bulk of his 102 chapter "History of Bethel" (misnumbered as 97 chapters) is somewhat sketchy and reads poorly as a narrative, but nonetheless furnishes important information on land grants, the Androscoggin River (it was Dr. True who advocated a steamer between Rumford Falls and Bethel in the 1860s), town meetings, church history, and biography.  In the "Preface," True makes special mention of Dr. Moses Mason's early efforts in collecting data (Mason's "Historical Notes" were recently given to the Society), regarding him as a "co-laborer."  True included a chapter on political history by Mason in his "History," and then followed it with twelve chapters about Dr. John Locke, obviously one of his favorite citizens.  Readers familiar with Dr. True's "History" and Dr. William B. Lapham's 1891 History of Bethel will find that the latter work contains liberal extracts from True's writings, most often without specific citations.

Perhaps the largest area of Dr. True's interest and one on which he was most widely known in his day, was the history of Indians in northern New England.  In fact, the first thirty-five chapters of his "History of Bethel" were devoted to accounts of the Ossipees, Pequawkets, and Anasagunticooks, with special emphasis on the Indian language and its English translation.  Among his contributions on the these subjects for periodicals were "Names and Location of Tribes on the Androscoggin" (Historical Magazine, 1863), "Collation of Geographical Names in the Algonkin Language" (Essex Institute Historical Collections, 1866), and "The Indians" (Old Times, 1879).  Although some of True's statements, based on the best information he had at hand, may have since proved false, his comments about the Native American past in this region retain value for those studying the times during which he wrote.  The story is told that his great collection of unpublished Indian manuscripts was sold to an archives after his death.

Commemorative motives prompted Dr. True to accept the role of orator at a number of historical celebrations, mostly in Oxford County.  On August 20, 1863, he spoke at the Fryeburg Centenary.  In 1867 he was present and delivered an address at the marking of Molly Ockett's grave, helping to set the gravestone in place at Andover's Woodlawn Cemetery.  When the 1874 Bethel Centenary occurred, centered around his Broad Street home, he prepared a lengthy speech which subsequently appeared in printed form.  One year later, he participated at the Waterford Centennial celebration.  During the 1881 Indian Raid Centenary, he gave a moving oration before a large gathering of people in Kimball Park.  If the municipalities failed to publish his protracted lectures, Dr. True usually saw to it that local newspapers did.

Second only to the "History of Bethel" in volume was True's 1882 "History of Gorham, N.H.," which was published in successive issues of the Gorham Mountaineer newspaper.  [This material was issued in book form, with editorial revisions by Randall H. Bennett, in 1998.]  True's remarks encouraged further comment on the subject, and letters he received were quickly inserted into the text.  His weekly columns about Gorham, where he was then teaching a high school, were later utilized in the History of Coos County, N.H. (1888).

Throughout his life, Dr. True's concern with history was always to commemorate, to preserve, to collect, and to record.  The destruction by fire of his Bethel home and its contents in 1896 will forever leave a dark void over parts of his life.  However, after finishing his newspaper work on the Bethel "History," he deposited in 1862 a collection of original documents and pamphlets at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.  Today, the "scrapbook" preserves some choice bits of the town's past: a plantation record of 1782, Eleazer Twitchell's account book (1785) and that of Jonathan Clark (1793-1802), Rev. Charles Frost's sketch of the Indian Raid, reports of the Bethel Farmer's Club and the "Maternal Association," a geological report on Puzzle Mountain in Newry dated 1859, a map of the West Parish in 1800, and a copy of a paper printed on a cheese press by Charles and Henry L. Chapman.  These items are carelessly placed, with some pasted to pages and others simply laid between the leaves.  Through overuse, a number of "scraps" noted on page margins have gone missing.

Speaking at a special "Reunion" of his Gould Academy students in 1884, Dr. True noted, "For fifty-two years . . . I have never known what it was to have a well-rested brain."  If he faltered somewhat along the way, it was probably in his effort to cover too much ground, ample cause for his recurring financial problems.  Nevertheless, Dr. True's wide-ranging interests resulted in published works that remain as invaluable sources of information on northern New England's varied and colorful past.

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