1796: A Special Year in Bethel's Past


1796: A Special Year in Bethel's Past


Bethel Historical Society


Summer 1996




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1796: A Special Year in Bethel's Past

The town we now call Bethel began as Sudbury Canada in 1768. It was granted to recognize the services of soldiers who fought in one of several abortive campaigns by Puritan Massachusetts to conquer the territory to the north dominated by French Catholics commonly called Canada. Located in the then District of Maine, it was called by that name since soldiers from Sudbury, Massachusetts had participated unsuccessfully in the campaign of 1690 to bring these scattered settlements to the north and east under the control of the Commonwealth. None of the original grantees ever saw this land or settled here since the grant was finally made so long after the service rendered.

Although there is some evidence that some men and boys were here for short times prior to that date, the year 1774 is generally given as the date of the first settlement. In any case, the War for American Independence was soon underway and severely restricted settlement. Adding to the woes was the fact the British were paying Indians to disrupt these outlying frontier settlements.

This fact was dramatically illustrated with the attack on Sudbury Canada in 1781, in what has been ever since known as "New England's Last Indian Raid." During that deeply unsettling event, two settlers were taken prisoner and marched off to Canada where they spent the remaining eighteen months of the war in a Quebec prison. Frightened by this turn in events, citizens of Sudbury Canada demanded military protection against further incursions of this sort. The General Court of Massachusetts responded by providing for the building of two forts, one in each parish. These precautions proved unnecessary, but few can imagine today how this event terrified these early inhabitants, causing several to move elsewhere.

Following the end of hostilities, farmers looking for good land were lured to the rich intervales surrounding the Androscoggin River. Population grew rapidly until by the mid-1790's there were more than 300 residents.

Early in 1796, the inhabitants petitioned the General Court to incorporate the town. The question of a name was finally settled when Rev. Eliphaz Chapman (1750-1814) suggested the name Bethel from the Book of  Genesis (Chapter 28, Verse 19) from the Hebrew word being "House of God."

The legislation incorporating the town passed both houses of the Massachusetts Legislature and was signed by the Governor on June 10, 1796.  Bethel became the 107th town in the District of Maine. Benjamin Russell (1739-1802), a Justice of Peace, was designated by the incorporation legislation as authorized and empowered to call the first town meeting for the purpose of setting up the first town government.

On July 23, 1796, citizens were officially warned that a town meeting would be held on August 15, 1796 at the farm of Amos Hastings (1757-1829) and officers would be elected for the first time. The meeting was held in the Hastings house or barn (accounts differ) at Middle Intervale (just upriver from the Carter farm and now the site of corn field). Both Hastings and Russell had come from Fryeburg to Sudbury Canada with their wives in 1779.

Elected selectmen were John Kilgore, Jonathan Bartlett, and Jonathan Clark. Benjamin Russell was selected as town clerk. As was the custom of the time, those men married within the year were bestowed the office of  Hogreeve for the new town.