John Stark: A Hero for His Time and Ours
To remind us what a true hero looks and acts like, we’ve enlisted a local historian and an entire class of illustration students from the NH Institute of Art to illuminate the essential words and deeds of the man who set the standard for selfless heroics.
Illustration by Max Gagnon
“Live free or die,” our dire ultimatum of a motto, is used so often these days that it’s nearly meaningless. We apply it to everything, with varying degrees of jocularity — no state income tax? Live free or die. Fireworks shops on backroads and liquor stores on highways? Live free or die. Today, the word hero is also tossed around with little regard to its actual meaning. Tom Brady and David Ortiz are New England sports gods, but heroes? Sorry, not even close. Heroism is putting your life on the line for a cause or for the sake of others. Around 200 years ago, when General John Stark wrote “live free or die,” he meant exactly what it said. And he lived his life accordingly.
John Stark was a hero for his time, though most of us never learned about his life beyond his famous line. Heroism isn’t only about courage and the willingness to sacrifice one’s life — traits that epitomize a hero include individualism, courage, putting others first, passion, determination and integrity. Stark embodied all of these things, but today he isn’t exactly famous. This Granite State native, who has connections to Londonderry, Derry, Manchester and Dunbarton, deserves celebrity status.
Today, most people in New Hampshire and Vermont know at least a little bit about the Revolutionary War hero who coined the country’s most unequivocal state motto. There are plenty of sketches and paintings of him in the two states, and locals can usually pick him out of a lineup. Probably because he wasn’t what you’d call a handsome man — his sharp, dour features make him stick out like a sore thumb.
His grandson described him this way: “He was of middle stature … His features were bold and prominent; the nose was well formed; the eyes, light-blue, keen and piercing, deeply sunk under projecting brows. His lips were generally closely compressed. He was not bald; but his hair became white, and covered his head. His whole appearance indicated courage, coolness, activity, and confidence in himself, whether called upon to perform the duties of an enterprising partisan, or a calculating and considerate general.”
Someone once said, “He’s our own version of George Washington with a touch of Davy Crockett tossed into the mix.” He’s better than that. Unlike Washington or Crockett, no myths were ever written about him because there was no need to — his life was extraordinary without embellishment.
There were other heroes of the American War for Independence, but none like the uniquely eccentric Stark. He was ferocious in battle, a man “who dealt death wherever he found resistance, and broke down all opposition before him,” but who ultimately preferred a peaceful farm life to fame and glory.
Stark wasn’t a wealthy man, and he never sought recognition. He’s been called a “true Cincinnatus" — a reference to the fabled leader of the early Roman Republic. Like Cincinnatus, who was working in his field and dropped his plow to save Rome, Stark was reportedly working at his sawmill when he left to aid Boston. Along the way, he collected men and became their colonel by a hand vote. He led this newly formed militia regiment at the Battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill.
illustration by meg gallagher
Where Cincinnatus led the Romans to victory and then resigned and returned to his farm, similarly Stark led the New Hampshire militia to victory during the American Revolution, and afterward simply went home to his farm and family.
Though he fiercely believed in and fought for independence, Stark had no interest in entering politics. He refused membership in the newly formed Society of the Cincinnati, which was created in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts. Today, it’s a nonprofit educational organization with a mission to promote knowledge and appreciation of the achievements of American independence.
According to Stark’s memoirs, “to imitate that great man, we should return to the occupations we have temporarily abandoned, without ostentation, holding ourselves ever in readiness to obey the call of our country.” Unlike most, if not all, of his contemporaries, when the war ended he sought no titles and no political positions. While his important military role is generally acknowledged, this choice to return home is one reason why he is one of the least known of America’s generals. Though a remarkable man, Stark’s heritage, poor formal education, desire to avoid the spotlight and relative lack of wealth all helped hide him from history.
Stark was a product of his Scots-Irish ancestry, which was reflected in his battle-ready, incisive, no-nonsense conduct. Having grown up on New Hampshire’s frontier, Stark only received basic schooling. According to C.E. Potter’s “History of Manchester,” Stark and his siblings were “instructed at the fireside, in the rudiments of English education and such principles were instilled into them, as accompanied with energy, courage, and decision of character, made them fit actors in the stirring events of the period.” His limited education did not prevent him from becoming an astute leader, and in his long and varied career he never lost a battle.
Despite his war acumen, Stark wasn’t exactly beloved by some members of the military. That might have had something to do with his habit of ignoring the usual pecking order. He was known for going over people’s heads to get things done, and for bluntly stating what he considered to be problematic. Superiors generally don’t care for those who ignore rank, and no one likes being told, in no uncertain terms, that they’re wrong. All of this was likely why he did not receive a commission from the Continental Congress, which promoted Harvard-educated (but battle-ignorant) Benjamin Lincoln to Major General instead. Stark promptly resigned from service.
When he was urged three months later to accept a commission by New Hampshire’s Council to protect his home state, he did so under the condition that he would be autonomous and not subject to the commands of the Congress-appointed generals. Stark’s tendency to do everything his own way might have endeared him to Granite Staters and our neighbors in Vermont, but it certainly wasn’t the way to advance in the military.
Money often helps smooth things over, but Stark, unlike the other generals, was never a wealthy man. He had land, buildings and a mill, but he also had many children, and he was generous to all at his own expense. Perhaps this lack of funds prompted the Council of Massachusetts to authorize their board of war, on December 5, 1777, “to present to the Hon. Brigadier General Stark, a complete suit of clothes becoming his rank, together with a piece of linen, as a testimony of the high sense this court has of the great and important services rendered by that brave officer to the United States of America.”
To really understand Stark’s uncompromising nature, you need to know about his earlier years before the war. Born in Londonderry, now Derry, and moving at the age of 8 to Harrytown, later Derryfield, and now Manchester, he grew up on New Hampshire’s Colonial-era frontier. Life was so dangerous that his father, Archibald Stark, had built a garrison for protection, aptly named Fort Stark.
At the age of 23, while on a hunting expedition to the vicinity of Rumney, Stark was captured by St. Francis Indians and made to run their gauntlet. According to Stark’s memoirs, he ran through two lines of young warriors while holding a wooden pole about 7 feet in length, “with the skin of some bird or animal attached to one end of it.” This is where the truth gets a little blurry. In one version of the tale, Stark grabbed a pole decorated with a loon skin from one of the youth and run singing “I’ll kiss all your women.” Most versions of the story agree that Stark dealt more blows than he received and won the admiration of the elders.
At this time, New Hampshire authorities were not assisting with the return of prisoners. Stark, along with his companion, Amos Eastman, was eventually ransomed by men from Massachusetts who had come in search of other captives. Stark was traded for “an Indian pony,” for which ransomers paid five hundred and fifteen livres [$103 in 1752]. Stark retained warm feelings for Chief Francis Titigaw, his “adopted father,” who led the party that captured him and with whose native family he lived in Canada. Years later, while acting as a scout, he demonstrated his loyalty by refusing to lead a party of militia near Titigaw’s home.
illustration by will hadley
His experience of captivity didn’t discourage Stark from adventuring. In fact, he used his newfound knowledge of geography and hunting to raise funds to repay his “redemption debt.” He continued to venture into the wilds of northern New England, becoming a well-known and skillful scout and fighter in the French and Indian War. It is said that while participating in a battle at Lake George in 1757, an enemy shot broke the lock of Stark’s gun. To get a new one, he ran over to the enemy’s line and seized the gun of a prostrate Frenchman.
During his lifetime, Stark’s loyalty to his comrades and followers was widely known, and was one of the reasons men were eager to follow him. His concern for his troops is evidenced from his days with Rogers’ Rangers, where he ensured that all of the wounded were carried to safety, to the War of Independence, when he promised to pay his troops, even if it came from his personal estate.
The Battle of Bennington (it was really fought 10 miles away in Walloomsac, New York) in 1777 was one of the most important of the American Revolution. It was here that Stark earned one of his nicknames — the Hero of Bennington. Commissioned by the New Hampshire Council to protect its borders, Stark touted his autonomy and refused to follow the Continental Congress-commissioned general’s direction.
Perhaps it was best he did. Stark and his militiamen were able to defeat two detachments of British General John Burgoyne’s invading army. Though he won the battle, Stark might be more famous for what he said than what he did.
As a battle cry, to bolster his men’s courage, Stark famously said something about how they must beat their opponents or his wife would sleep a widow. The earliest printed newspaper version of this quotation, in 1819, was published as, “My Boys? You see those red coats yonder? They must fall into our hands in fifteen minutes, or Molly Stark is a widow!” Over time, this evolved (with many variations) into today’s version of “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”
illustration by olivia smith
His knack of creating fierce and memorable quips continued. Stark’s most famous saying is, of course, our state motto. Unlike his battle cry, the motto comes from an 1809 toast, offered in a postscript to a letter to the committee planning a celebration on the anniversary of the Battle of Bennington (he was actually declining to attend due to poor health). “Live Free or Die. Death is not the greatest of evils” is an oft-quoted portion of the letter. It should not be forgotten that he also wrote: “As I was then, I am now — The friend of the equal rights of men, of representative Democracy, of Republicanism, and the Declaration of Independence, the great charter of our National rights — and of course the friend of the indissoluble union and constitution of the States. I am the enemy of all foreign influence, for all foreign influence is the influence of tyranny. This is the only chosen spot for liberty — this is the only Republic on earth.”
Stark seemed, at times, to lead a charmed life. Though he lived in precarious times and participated in dangerous battles, he was only injured once. While a member of Rogers’ Rangers, during the defense of Fort William Henry in May 1757, then-Captain Stark “was struck by a great ball, which produced a slight contusion, but drew no blood. It was the only injury he ever received from an enemy’s weapon during the whole course of his military career.” Sadly, in his later years, after surviving the ills and dangers of military life, he was incapacitated by rheumatism.
Stark’s life was not just about scouting and fighting. He was also a farmer, a lumberman, a mill owner and a family man.
At the age of 30, in the year 1758, he married Elizabeth “Molly” Page, daughter of Captain Caleb Page, one of the original proprietors of Dunbarton, New Hampshire. Molly Stark was remarkable in her own right, and some say she is better known than her husband. John may have sired 11 children, but she gave birth to them and raised them. John led an army, while Molly stood as scout, ready to ride and rally more troops should John fall. She nursed and treated soldiers under her husband’s command, tending to everything from injuries to smallpox. She also opened their home as a hospital during the war.
Stark has a local park named after him in Manchester, which is situated on the grounds of his former estate. Molly, however, has two parks named after her — a state park in Wilmington, Vermont, and one in Nimishillen Township, Stark County, Ohio. John has a scenic byway in New Hampshire, while the route he took across Vermont in 1777 (Route 9) is named after his wife. John has a DAR Chapter named after him in Ohio, and Molly has one in New Hampshire. John has several statues erected to honor him, and Molly has one showing her dual role, as her likeness holds both a gun and a baby.
Today, you can feel a little closer to the Starks as some of their possessions remain in various places in New Hampshire, including Manchester, Concord and Dunbarton. It is rumored that a lock of John Stark’s hair still exists. The Manchester Historic Association has a permanent display in their Millyard Museum that includes, among other things, one of his rifles and a cooking pot that he used during his military career. The New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord has Stark’s writing desk in its “Discovering NH” long-term exhibition in the Park Street building. They also possess three pieces captured at Bennington — a drum, a cartridge box and a sword.
illustration by daniel gadwah
Stark military artifacts can be found in other states as well. After the Battle of Bennington, Stark presented relics of the battle to Vermont and Massachusetts. To the Council of Safety of the State of Vermont he gave “one Hessian gun, with a bayonet; one broad-sword, one brass barreled drum, and a grenadier’s cap.” To Massachusetts he gave “a musket, sword, brass barrel Drum and a Hessian helmet.” At one time, these were reportedly suspended in Massachusetts’ Senate chamber. A collection of trophies similar to those was also sent to New Hampshire, including a drum and one or two other articles.
According to New Hampshire Revised Statutes 4:13-l, General John Stark Day is designated as the fourth Monday in April. This year, the day falls on April 24. The statute reads: “The governor shall annually proclaim the fourth Monday in April as General John Stark Day in commemoration of General Stark’s gallant and illustrious service to New Hampshire and his country. Schools are encouraged to commemorate the day with appropriate educational activities.” Local events are indeed held each year in Dunbarton and Manchester, though none of them are ever overflowing with people.
So finally, a question remains: Is John Stark a hero for our time? Should modern heroes be media and sports celebrities whose fame is earned by performances, rather than by true heroic acts? For Stark’s spirit to live again in us, ordinary citizens need to do extraordinary things. To emulate Stark, people need to be authentic, generous, loyal, brave and willing to fight for their beliefs.
Many Granite Staters have a personal interest in General John Stark. The 4th great-grandfather of the author of this story, Ezra Abbott of Concord was a private in Stark’s volunteer army, and fought beside him at the Battle of Bennington.
There are thousands of descendants of Stark and his brave army who still live among us. They are us.
Celebrating A Hero: General Stark Day Events
According to NH State law, this April 24 is the official date to recognize General John Stark’s “gallant and illustrious service” (though you won’t get into any trouble if you miss it).
Doug Wood, a former president of the NH Society of the Sons of the American Revolution who helps organize the events, says that things begin at 10 a.m. in Manchester’s Stark Park (where John Stark’s grave is maintained). The Friends of Stark Park, who recently raised more than $125,000 for improvements there, will have a history expert on hand for a short address to the public. A color guard including Wood and fellow members of the NH SAR will be in accurate period costumes to fire a musket salute. Depending on who shows up for the color guard, there might be some music on fife and drum.
The group then travels to the Caleb Stark statue on the Town Hall green in Dunbarton for another ceremony at noon. A proclamation from the NH Governor will be read at both events.
Wood notes that weather can create some problems for the color guard. “In spite of the fact that it rained in the 18th century,” he says, “the clothing isn’t very good in the rain, and the muskets don’t fire well when the powder is wet.” He says that 18th century battles were often postponed for rain. Officials and guests may have to seek cover, he explains, but adds, “We’ve never canceled it.”
Visit the Friends of Stark Park website, starkpark.com, for more details on Stark Day events and an invitation to enjoy and help maintain the park.
The Story Behind This Story
Janice Webster Brown, who authored this piece, is a native of Manchester who has resided in New Hampshire most of her life. She confesses to being a “storyteller, genealogy wrangler, history hacker, New Hampshire evangelist and cousin to everyone.” A genealogist with 45 years’ experience, she also edits a history blog, Cow Hampshire (cowhampshireblog.com) that was named Best NH History Blog by New Hampshire Magazine in 2007. Her April blog posts will be a collection of images of John Stark. She also provides a free history-genealogy help website for those researching New Hampshire (nh.searchroots.com). She owes her love of history to her father, her grandmother and to her high school history teacher, Edmond J. Valade. Her focus in 2017 is to document the heroes of New Hampshire who participated in World War I.
Ryan O’Rourke is the chair of the Illustration Department at the NH Institute of Art. He has also been working as a freelance illustrator for the past 15 years, has illustrated 11 books and has worked for editorial clients such as The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and New Hampshire Magazine. The work his students created for this issue was part of a Community Illustration class he teaches at NHIA. The course connects students with New Hampshire-based organizations and businesses to create commissioned pieces with a public output. The John Stark article provided the students with subject matter rich for interpretation. The variety of styles used to depict Stark are a great representation of the illustration department’s goal to foster each student’s development of a unique voice.
For more of the NHIA student illustrations submitted for this story, see the slideshow below.