A Nation’s Struggle in a Tiny Town

A view by the author/researcher/collector,  Horace Seldon

The population was barely 1400 people, the town acreage and “spread” very limited. Located only a few miles from Hanover, home of Dartmouth College, tiny Canaan, New Hampshire, was the scene of struggles which characterized the nation in the 1830’s.

Abolition, anti-abolition, pro-slavery, anti-slavery, colonization, anti-colonization, prejudice, equality, all were acted out in bitter controversy, culminating in mob violence in 1835.

A group of people in Canaan, acted to establish Noyes Academy, to be a school  for the education of youth “without distinction of color”, proceeding on the “principles of the Declaration of Independence”.  The school was to welcome all students who came with “suitable moral and intellectual recommendations.”  The original plans materialized in August of 1834, with a hope to open the Academy in the next year.

Townspeople were notified of the purpose. Talk in support and in opposition  brought a meeting at which a ballot  showed thirty-six people in favor and fourteen opposed; a board of trustees for the Academy was elected, and plans proceeded.

Divisions in the town became clear in September during a town meeting.  A dominant concern about having such a local school, was a stated fear of “promiscuous” mingling of black and white children.  The larger national issue of slavery was a part of the angry discussion.  While some spoke in favor of the emancipation of all slaves, many expressed concern that it should be done only if consistent with the interests of “Southern brethren”!  The local question under discussion brought resolutions against the school which were passed, and seventeen persons appointed  “to use all lawful means to prevent the establishment of said school and if established to counteract its influence”.

Academy trustees met in September, and the ten men signed a statement that it was not their attempt to raise “the colored man out of his place” but to “leave him at liberty to do something for himself”.  It sounds like an attempt to assure opponents that they wanted only an equal opportunity for “colored” students, and they did not seek to encourage their dominance.  On the same day there was a public meeting at the Congregational Meeting House.  A Methodist minister, The Rev. Mr. Robbins, opened that meeting with a prayer. He asked that God bless the enterprise “if it was for His glory, but as he did not believe in was God’s intention to mix blacks and whites, he prayed that all the efforts might be put to confusion.”

The school was scheduled to open in March, 1835 with fourteen colored youth and twenty-eight white pupils, although town records at one point indicate that it was functioning in January.  Rumors floated through the town:

“The village was to be overrun with negroes from the South,”

“slaves were coming to line the streets with their huts”

” colored men were seen walking arm in arm with those “who ought to be respectable white females”.

Rumors warned of a July Fourth planned attack on the Academy, and indeed it happened.   Seventy men, many from adjacent towns, approached the door, only turned back by a magistrate who appeared at a second story window, warning against the intruders.  “Then the band of rioters hesitated, fell back a little, and soon retreated, with undisguised speed”.  A week later they met “at the old church”.  Complaints were raised that the Academy trustees had not proceeded according to law, and a committee was appointed to make that accusation.  Two weeks later the committee reported to an angry crowd; there were some who wanted to mount an attempt to destroy the building, “but they could not rouse their followers up to that lawless act.”   It was resolved to hold a town meeting on July 31st, to see what “measures the town will take to expel the blacks from the town of Canaan.”

The town meeting was “crowded with men filled with rage, rum and riotous intentions.  They had worked themselves into the belief that a ‘legal’ town meeting could do lawfully what it was unlawful for an individual to do.”   Among resolutions voted by the town meeting, the following sentences were included:

“..we consider the Colored School in this town a Public Nuisance and that it is the duty of the town to take immediate measures to remove said nuisance.”

“.. that the Selectmen select the spot on which to set said building.”

” .. that a committee be chosen to superintend the moving of said building at the expense of the town.”

“…that the measures adopted by the town for removing said building be commenced by the 10th day of August at 7a.m. and be continued from day to day, without intermission, so as to satisfy the calls of nature, until the moving of said building be compleated.”

It was also resolved that copies of the proceedings be sent to designated newspapers in New England, in part to counter abolitionist claims in their newspapers,  that Canaan townspeople were in favor of the school.

Accounts of the event of August 10th include:

“… the people led by villains were mad, and in their madness had become destroyers … the street was full of people and cattle in all directions … a string of fifty yoke are just turning the corner by the old Church, all from Enfield …destruction of the beautiful edifice has already begun … the team is attached … ninety-five yoke of cattle…it is straightened … the chains break … they try again and again the chains break!.. almost in vain do they try … the thermometer ranges at 116 in the sun …at half past 7 they had succeeded in drawing it into the road, when they adjourned till next day…a man set fire to the building that night, intending to destroy it, but the attempt failed …On the 11th, progress of destruction was more rapid  … they reached our store before noon and at once demanded that a barrel of rum should be rolled out or they would demolish the door…. ”

An account of the day continues … “having rested and refreshed themselves the crowd was in no better humor than before.  The rum had not made them peaceable.  this day was hotter than the preceding, yet with redoubled ardor these men persisted in their crime…. they hauled the house on to the corner of the Common, in front and close by the old church… there it stands, mutilated, inwardly beyond reparation almost, a monument of the folly of and infuriated malice of a basely deceived populace … the Institution is broken up…”  At one point as the building was being moved, Abolitionists admired Mrs. Fuller, the Parson’s wife, who acted to show her disdain for the angry crowd. Men wanted water from her well, but Mrs. Fuller ran out and cut the rope to her water bucket, so that it fell into the well, and the men could not get the needed drinks.  She made her feelings clear, loudly announcing that “her bucket should not be polluted by the touch of such foul lips”.

When the building was brought to rest, “sentiments appropriate to the occasion” were read, insuring the crowd that it had done right by the Constitution, by the Patriots of the North and South, by the Patriots of New Hampshire,  and resolving that  Abolitionists “must be checked and restrained”, and calling for an “undivided and uncompromising opposition be presented to irredicate Abolition wherever found… and that it may be removed from the continent as suddenly as the Noyes Academy has this day been removed from the control of the Abolitionists.”

It was also voted that the teacher of the Academy, and the blacks have one month to leave the town..”that if, on the 10th of  September they were found within its limits, they would be removed by force.”

On the 10th of September, the men met and “located” the Academy on a spot previously selected by the Selectmen.  “After their dinner and refreshment the men were called to order, to receive the thanks and congratulations of the chiefs, who by their wisdom and virtue had thus saved Canaan from being the Asylum of the negro race.”

“About sunset the work was accomplished, when the procession was again formed, with cannon in front and was paraded through the Street, accompanied by the stirring peal of fifes and drums.  As before, the cannon was discharged at the house of every Abolitionist.”

On the night of March 7, 1839, the building was engulfed in flames. There was no effort to extinquish the flames.  In later efforts a replica of the building was erected in the town, and serves now as the building of the Canaan Historical Society.


Note: Among the students of color who were enrolled at Noyes Academy were Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, Thomas Paul, Jr., and Julia Williams, and Thomas S. Sidney. Garnet and Williams were later married.

This article appears here in the Liberator files, because at least three of the trustees of Noyes Academy were friends of William Lloyd Garrison: Samuel Sewall, David Child, and Nathaniel P. Rogers. Rogers, in 1840 was one of the men who joined Garrison to “sit-out” the international anti-slavery convention in London, because the women in the American delegation were not allowed to participate in the discussion and voting.

Source: History of Canaan New Hampshire,  by William Allen Wallace. Edited by James Burns Wallace,   The Rumford Press, 1910