The Gilmans of Exeter
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Written by Nancy Merrill

Nicholas Gilman/

The Gilmans all inherited a head for figures. One was even known as "The Brains of the Revolution". Today the Gilman-Garrison house survives in Exeter and this former fortress is among the state’s most interesting historic homes. Here is a quick summation of a key New Hampshire family in the years swirling around American independence.




MORE Framers of Freedom

Treasurer Nicholas Gilman and his Fiscal Family

Occasionally one finds a family whose members, over a number of generations, make valuable and lasting contributions to society. Such a family was the Gilman family of Exeter. They were an energetic, enterprising group of men and women with recognized leader ship abilities.

The Gilman Garrison

Councilor John Gilman, who built his still-standing garrison house about 1700, headed generations of Gilman representatives to the General Assembly and later the General Court judges, doctors, ministers and military officers.

Like many other colonists whose families had been faithful British subjects in America for generations, Gilman's descendants at first found it difficult to break with Britain when hostilities erupted. Peter Gilman, John's grandson, had developed a strong allegiance to the Crown through many years of service. He had fought for Britain in the French and Indian Wars and had become brigadier general of the militia following this service. He had participated in the royal government of the Colonies by serving as speaker of the Assembly for 12 years.

In 1768, while speaker of the Assembly, he refused the request of Governor Wentworth to deliver a letter of protest to the British. As a result he lost some of his local popularity but in 1771, he was appointed to the royal council in a governmental attempt to ease tensions in Exeter. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1774, he cast his lot with the British and the Provincial Congress ordered him to "confine himself to the town of Exeter." But because of his age (early seventies) and the esteem in which he had always been held, his Loyalist leanings were not taken too seriously. In fact he was elected town moderator in 1775.

John Ward Gilman was a silver smith and engraver who fashioned a seal for the new state and who after the Revolution was postmaster for 40 years. His brother, Benjamin Clark Gilman, was an inventor noted principally for his clocks and silver, and for the Exeter aqueduct system. Cousin Joseph Gilman, an active merchant, was a member of the Committee of Correspondence and Committee of Safety. His home, located in the center of the village (site of the present Exeter Town Hall), was the location of many meetings of the Committee of Safety. Samuel Adams, who had come to Exeter seeking money and supplies, was a guest there in 1776.

State Treasury

During the time of the Revolution, there was one branch of the Gilman family of particular prominence -- the Nicholas Gilmans. At the onset of the Revolution in 1775, Col. Nicholas Gilman was 44 years old, married and the father of eight children. Sons John Taylor Gilman, 22, and Nicholas, 20, were active in various services of the war. Nathaniel, 16, remained at home to help his father. In later years, these three sons would become important to the state in their own right.

The Gilman home, purchased from Nathaniel Ladd in 1752 and enlarged, became the state treasury when Nicholas was appointed treasurer in 1775 by the provincial government. It was here that bills were paid, currency signed to make it legal tender, and receipts kept in a black iron chest. This ponderous strongbox with its huge key remains in the same room today.

Nicholas had been a shipbuilder and merchant before the trials of the emerging new government demanded use of his financial ability. Called the "Brains of the Revolution in New Hampshire," he had chief responsibility for fiscal matters within the state. Although he was in command of the Fourth Regiment of the New Hampshire militia and was at Saratoga in 1777, he took no recorded part in any of the military encounters during this time. His most important duty was serving as Meschech Weare's "right arm" in the civil government of New Hampshire.

Nicholas and Ann Gilman lived to see the end of the war, but died within three weeks of each other in the spring of 1783.

After the alarm of Lexington and Concord, Nicholas' oldest son, John Taylor Gilman, hurried with other Exeter patriots to Cambridge. Although caught up in the Revolutionary fervor of the day, he found time to woo and win the "Belle of Exeter," Deborah Folsom, Nathaniel Folsom's daughter, whom he married on June 13, 1776.

When the Declaration of Independence arrived in Exeter the 16th of July, John Taylor Gilman was selected to read it to the townspeople from the steps of the town house.

The following year John, as state pension agent, compiled registration lists of all the disabled soldiers and certified that they were entitled to aid. He represented New Hampshire at the Continental Congress for one term and became treasurer of the state upon his father's death in 1783. He was elected governor as a Federalist in 1794 and held that post intermittently for a total of 14 years, the longest any man has held this office since Colonial times. He died in 1828 at age 75.

Nicholas (he never was referred to as Nicholas, Jr.), like his father and brother, quickly became one of the leaders of this era. At 20, he entered the army as captain and then became adjutant of the Third Regiment, New Hampshire line. He served only six years, joining Washington's staff in 1778 as senior deputy adjutant general. After the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Gilman made an accounting of the men taken prisoners.

When Nicholas was 32, he was elected with John Langdon as a delegate from New Hampshire to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Gilman was one of the youngest of the 39 signers of the federal Constitution. His draft copy of the proposed Constitution with his marginal notes of amendments now hangs in his boyhood home, the "State Treasury."

Nicholas Gilman's diligence and interest in politics were rewarded when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1789. There he served four consecutive terms before his election as senator in 1805. He was in his second term as senator when, returning from Washington, he became seriously ill. He died a few days later--May 2, 1814--in Philadelphia.

Senator Gilman had made his home with his brother, Nathaniel, and at his death left him the bulk of his estate--a gift much appreciated since Nathaniel had a large family and was known for his "generous hospitality."

During the Revolutionary years, Nathaniel assumed some of the family obligations while his older brothers were away and assisted his father with the state finances. Although he is referred to as "colonel" because of his affiliation with the local militia, he never saw military action.

In 1782 his father had purchased the Dr. Odlin house on Front Street in Exeter and upon his death the following year, the house became Nathaniel's property. (His oldest brother, John, fell heir to the "State Treasury ") It was here that Nathaniel brought his young bride, 17-year-old Abigail Odlin. She soon had many responsibilities: besides a growing family to look after, she had to supervise the servants who helped maintain the large farm while her husband was serving as state treasurer and financial agent of the federal government. Following the birth of their fourth child, in 1796, Abigail died at the age of 28.

A few years later, Nathaniel, almost 40, married 20-year-old Deborah Folsom, Nathaniel Folsom's granddaughter, and the family was increased by seven children.

Nathaniel never entered public life as extensively as his older brother had, but he did serve his community as a member of the House of Representatives for one term, and twice as senator. He was elected to important town offices and was a leader in various public enterprises. On January 26, 1847, Nathaniel, almost 88 years old, died at home.

  The Gilman Garrison House web page at Historic New England
  The American Independence Museum web site  

Copyright © Nancy Merrill. Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision, 1976. Reprinted by permission of the author and published. First published online at in 1997.