The White Mountains

The “White Hills” are the birthplace of the infant Saco River, and through their narrow gateway the tiny stream emerges into the warming sunshine and the “open ground.” We have only sacred chronology by which to estimate the age of these North American pyramids, and no means of knowing when they were first seen by white men. In 163 1 Thomas Eyre, one of the New Hampshire patentees, forwarded a letter to Ambrose Gibbons containing the following statement: “By the bark Warwick we send you a factor to take charge of the trade goods; also a soldier for discovery.” 1Some of the early writers assumed that this “soldier” was one Darby Field, an Irishman, who discovered the White Mountains in 1632. This view is now discredited. The first successful attempt to ascend the mountains was made in 1642.

In his history of New England, Winthrop says, “One Darby Field, an Irishman, living about Piscataquack, being accompanied by two Indians, went to the top of the White hill. He made the journey in eighteen days.” Here we find ourselves on solid ground where tradition and history are in agreement. Darby Field was a real explorer, and left numerous descendants who settled on the bank of the river along whose course he made his way from Saco to the base of the mountains; and these related again and again the story of their ancestor’s adventures at their fireside. He lived at Oyster river, or Dover, and on his return from his journey to these “crystal hills,” he related that the distance from Saco was about one hundred miles, and we assume that he followed the river valley from that place. After forty miles’ travel they found the ground to be ascending nearly all the way; and when twelve miles from the summit, found no tree nor herbage, but “low savins,” which in places they were enabled to walk upon. Their course up the steep ascent was along a ridge, between two valleys filled with snow, out of which two branches of the Saco issued, meeting at the foot of the hill, where they found an Indian town with about two hundred souls therein.

Another party, conducted by Richard Vines and Thomas Georges ascended the mountain. These also reported the existence of the Indian village on the bank of the Saco. From this settlement they ascended in wooded lands some thirty miles; then upon shattered rocks without trees or grass about seven miles. These explorers reported a plain at the top of the mountain with an area of three or four miles, covered with stones; upon this plateau rose a pinnacle about a mile in height, witli a nearly level plain upon its summit from which “four great rivers took their rise.” These men seem to have been bewildered by the grandeur of the spectacle and their vision became perverted.

In a book published in 1672, entitled ” New England Rarities Discovered, ” is an account of the discovery of the White Mountains in which exaggeration ran wild. Glowing descriptions of precious stones found there were given, and among the wonderful things enumerated that had been discovered were ” sheets of muscova glass ” forty feet long. The mountains were said to cover one hundred leagues in extent.

A party of explorers ascended the highest peak in 1725, and another in 1746. The last party was alarmed by what appeared to be the constant report of muskets; but by investigation they learned that the noises were produced by stones falling over a precipice.

The “Notch” was discovered by a hunter named Timothy Nash, in 177 1. This pioneer had retired from the settlements and made him a habitation in the wilderness. As the tradition runs, he climbed a tree upon one of the mountain sides to look for large game when he saw this defile south of him. He descended at once and turned his steps in that direction, passing through the granite gateway on his way to Portsmouth. In an interview with Gov. Wentworth he described to him what he had discovered, but His Excellency discredited the report. As Nash constantly and seriously affirmed that his statement was strictly true, the curiosity of the Governor was excited, and to test the veracity of his visitor he promised that, if he would bring him a horse through this mountain pass from Lancaster, he should be rewarded with a grant of land. He was assured by Nash that this feat could and would be accomplished; then he turned his steps northward. Securing the services of another bold spirit, Benjamin Sawyer, the two lowered the horse down over a precipice by a rope, and delivered him safe and sound at Portsmouth.

The grant of land was given according to promise, and was named ” Nash and Sawyer’s Location. “

In 1803, a road costing $40,000, extending through the Notch, was built and became the thoroughfare by which the farmers of northern New Hampshire and Vermont, carried their produce to the Portland market. A hundred teams have been known to go through the mountain pass on a winter day.

One of the earliest to establish a home in the White Mountain region was Eleazer Rosebrook, a former resident of Groton, Mass., who settled in Lancaster in 1772, removing hence, in a short time, to Monadnock, where he built a house more than thirty miles from any white man, and reached by spotted trees. During the Revolution he removed to Vermont and served in the war. In 1792, he returned to the wilderness, reaching Nash and Sawyer’s Location in midwinter. Here he began to cut timber for a homestead and soon erected a log-house near the “Giant’s Grave,” not far from the site of the Fabyan House. He built a saw-mill, grist-mill, and large barns, stables and sheds for the accommodation of travelers. Rosebrook was one of nature’s noblemen, ” renowned for his heroism in war and his enterprise in time of peace. ” 2 Here, under the grim shadows of the templed hills, he gathered around his hospitable fireside the sturdy farmers who, when on their market trip, tarried with him for a night, and thus he extended his acquaintance and friend-ship until his name became the synonym of good-fellowship and generosity. He died in 1817.

Abel Crawford, descended from an ancient Scottish family, was another noted pioneer of the mountain country. He came from Guildhall, Vt., only a few years after Mr. Rosebrook, who was his father-in-law, and settled twelve miles south, near where the famous house named for the family now stands. In 1819, he opened a path to Mt. Washington. In 1822, his son, Ethan Allen Crawford, opened a new path to the hills by another course. When seventy-five years of age, Abel Crawford made his first journey on horseback to the top of Mt. Washington. Previous to this time visitors to the mountains, attended by experienced guides, ascended on foot. For more than sixty years this noble man had entertained strangers at his fireside and guided them along the dangerous paths cut through the forests to view the scenes of wild grandeur nature had hidden away here, and when venerable years had made it unsafe for him longer to attempt such services, he would cast longing looks upward and sigh for the privilege of standing once more on Mt. Washington’s summit, where, like Moses on Nebo, he could “view the landscape o’er.” It is said of him that in the spring months during his last years, he would watch for the coming of visitors with the same eagerness with which boys look for the return of the birds. He would sit in his armchair during the mild weather, supported by his dutiful daughter, his snowy hair falling on his shoulders, and watch and wait for the first traveler who might enter the wild mountain pass. Soon after the stage coaches began to pass his door with their numerous passengers, having accomplished his important mission, he sank down to rest at the age of 85 years.

Ethan Allen Crawford succeeded to the estate of Capt. Rosebrook, but the extensive buildings were soon destroyed by fire. He was known as the “giant of the mountains,” and was nearly seven feet in stature. He kept a journal of his adventures which contain many a quaint entry. Some of the most eminent men of his day were entertained under it’s roof. It was not uncommon for him to come in from a dear hunt, or fishing excursion, attired in his rough hunting garb, to find a college president, learned judge, or a member of congress at his hearthstone. He once assisted Daniel Webster to the top of Mt. Washington, and recorded the following in his book: “We went up without meeting anything of note more than was common for me to find, but to him things appeared interesting; and when we arrived there, Mr. Webster said, ‘ Mount Washington! I have come a long distance, have toiled hard to reach your summit and now you give me a cold reception. I am extremely sorry I cannot stay to view the grand prospect that lies before me, and nothing prevents but this cold, uncomfortable atmosphere in which you reside.’ ” When descending a storm of snow began to fall and the cold became so intensified that their blood nearly curdled. Webster was much pleased with his stalwart guide and host, and Ethan adds; “The following morning after paying his bill, he made me a handsome present of twenty dollars.” Ethan Allen Crawford was a noble specimen of manhood, brave, and of good moral character.

For many years the Crawford family alone entertained all strangers who visited the White Mountains, and all the bridle paths on the west side were cleared by them. They were bold, fearless men, strong as lions, and their muscular arms have been the support of many an ambitious pilgrim to the mountains when attempting to reach higher altitudes.

  1. New Hampshire; Batchelder, Albert Stillman, ed. Provincial and state papers, Vol. 29, p. 38-43. Concord: Edward N. Pearson, 1896.[]
  2. Mrs. Rosebrook was a large, resolute and powerful woman, well qualified to meet the experiences Incident to pioneer life. On one occasion, when her husband was absent, a party of drunken Indians came to her house at night and asked to be admitted. She kindly allowed them to enter, and for a time they were civil; but from the effects of the liquor they continued to drink, became insolent. She determined to be rid of their company and with a voice of authority ordered them out-of-doors. Reluctantly they withdrew save one great squaw who turned upon Mrs. Rosebrook to resist her mandate; but the latter seized her by the hair, dragged her to the threshhold, and thrust her out. In an instant the squaw sent a tomahawk whizzing at her which cut the wooden latch, upon which she held her hand, from the door. On the following day this squaw returned and asked pardon.[]


Ridlon, G. T., Sr. Saco Yalley Settlements And Families: Historical, Biographical, Genealogical, Traditional, and Legendary. Embracing the most important events on the Saco River, from their plantation to the present, with memorials of the families and individuals instrumental in their settlement, advancement and prosperity. Portland, ME: Published by the author. 1895.

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