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This diary contains the story of a pioneer ancestry who had a son in unusual conditions on this date, April 12, in 1770, two hundred and forty-three years ago. April 12 also is the birthday of my beloved grandmother, who died in 2007. She would be 95 today.

Despite being a northeasterner through and through, I have on occasion read accounts of nineteenth-century pioneers heeding the exhortation to “Go West.” Although I applaud their bravery, I’ve got an ancestor who was at least their equal. This is the story of that ancestor, my 5x-great-grandfather Nathan Caswell Jr.

Long before they started to “go west” in large numbers, there was a trend to “go north” from Massachusetts and Connecticut. To be sure, in the early days going north was a very risky business. North of Massachusetts lay cold, mountainous, mostly uninhabited terrain and, beyond that, the French. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763 with a British victory, the French no longer were a problem. The only obstacles to English settlement in northern New England were the harshness of the terrain and climate, and the Native Americans who still roamed the woods. Those were, however, serious obstacles. Despite them, Nathan went north, and north, and north, and north.

Little in Nathan Caswell Jr.’s background suggests he would be eager to take on such challenges. The earliest Caswell in America was Thomas, an early settler of Taunton, Massachusetts in the 1640s. Caswells remained in the Taunton area for many generations, so there is a Caswell Street and a Caswell Cemetery there. Nathan Jr.’s father, Thomas’s great-grandson Nathan Caswell Sr. was born in neighboring Middleborough, Massachusetts. Nathan Sr. moved as a young man to Norwich, Connecticut, where the younger Nathan Caswell was born in 1740. This was the first move in my line of Caswells since Thomas fled England a century before.

Caswell St., Taunton, Mass.
Caswell Street runs past the original Caswell land on the east side of Taunton, Massachusetts, where Thomas Caswell first settled in 1643
Norwichtown Common, Norwich, Connecticut
Norwichtown Common in Norwich, Connecticut. These homes were there when Nathan Caswell, Jr., was a young man in the 1750s.
The family was reasonably prosperous, and Nathan Jr. appears to have been well-educated in Norwich. In 1761 he married Hannah Bingham, who descended from two founders of Norwich. They had two sons right away, but Nathan Caswell Jr. was restless.
Leffingwell Inn, Norwich, Connecticut
The Leffingwell Inn in Norwich, Connecticut. Built by my ancestor Stephen Backus and bought in 1701 by my ancestor Thomas Leffingwell, both founders of Norwich, this was the main tavern in town during Nathan Jr.'s youth.
In 1765 Col. Israel Morey (whose son Samuel would be a steam engine pioneer) persuaded Nathan to move his young family to a brand new settlement at Orford, New Hampshire on the Connecticut River. This truly was the frontier: fifty miles north of Charlestown. Charlestown, which for decades had been the fourth and northernmost English fort on the Connecticut River, was called “No. 4.” Orford, on the other hand, was “No. 7.” It was even farther north than Hanover (where Dartmouth would be founded in 1769), which received its first English settlers the same year.
Connecticut River between Orford, NH and Fairlee, VT
The Connecticut River at Orford, New Hampshire and Fairlee, Vermont. Orford is on the left.
In time Orford would become a beautiful town; in 1832 Washington Irving proclaimed it one of the loveliest he had ever seen. But Nathan Caswell Jr. didn’t stay long enough to see that, for not even Orford was remote enough for him. Within five years of arriving, despite having two more sons in Orford, Nathan was convinced by Col. Morey to join another new settlement 40 miles farther upriver. This new town was to be called Apthorp, in honor of its key financial backer, wealthy Boston merchant George Apthorp.
The Ridge, Orford, New Hampshire
The Ridge in Orford, New Hampshire, a town Nathan Jr. helped found in 1765. These homes came after he moved further north.
In the fall of 1769, a few English colonial explorers visited the area and built a rude log cabin. The following April, as soon as the ice melted enough to travel, Nathan Caswell moved north with his very pregnant wife and four young sons to move into that cabin. They reached the new land on April 11, making them the very first settlers there. To Nathan Jr.’s dismay it was clear that Native Americans had recently been in the log cabin, but it was too dark to return home and too dangerous to make a fire. He directed the boys to sleep in the tall grass outside the cabin and Hannah went inside, huddling under hay for warmth.

The reason why the boys were told to stay outside soon became apparent. Within hours of their arrival, Hannah went into labor. With no help, she gave birth to a fifth baby boy that very night, shortly after midnight on April 12, 1770, while Nathan stood guard at the door with his musket. They named him Apthorp after their new “town.” He was, without question, the first English child born in Apthorp and the family was, following the tradition, granted a large tract of land in his honor.

The next day, suddenly realizing this was no place for a newborn, Nathan Jr. found a fallen pine trunk that, once hollowed, could serve as a canoe. They then paddled amid ice drifts down the Ammonoosuc River, which flowed east toward the White Mountains. Six miles later they came across a fort with several families who took them in. Fortunately for me the baby survived: I descend from Nathan Jr. through Apthorp.

Ammonoosuc River in Littleton, New Hampshire
The Ammonoosuc River, down which Nathan Jr. paddled his family six miles in a hollowed tree trunk just hours after the baby Apthorp was born.
Ammonoosuc River in Littleton, New Hampshire
Another look at the Ammonoosuc River in Littleton. It begins on the west slope of Mount Washington.
Nathan returned to Apthorp three days after the birth, to find the Natives had burned the log cabin to the ground. He took his family back to Orford but that summer he and his family journeyed once again to Apthorp, building a new log cabin to live in until he could erect a larger house near the Connecticut River. A few more families joined the Caswells, and the community held religious services in Nathan’s house until a church was built, which did not happen for more than a decade. In the early years, the town sent frequent scouting parties into the woods to seek any indication of imminent Native American attack. If the scouts sounded the alarm, the women and children ran for safety in the fort while the men all grabbed their muskets.

When the Revolution broke out in the mid-1770s, the townspeople abandoned Apthorp for a while. Hannah and the children, whose number had continued to grow in the new town, sought refuge in the well-protected Northumberland fort twenty miles further upriver. Nathan joined the army (more on that next week). Nathan survived the American Revolution intact, and the town of Apthorp continued to grow. In 1784 George Apthorp’s syndicate sold its land holdings there to Col. Moses Little of Newburyport, Massachusetts and the town was renamed Littleton, the name it holds today. Nathan Caswell, the ultimate town father, was involved in establishing the first church and active in town government.

Main Street in Littleton, New Hampshire
Littleton, New Hampshire, the town where on this date in 1770 Nathan Jr. was the first settler and his son Apthorp the first English child born, as it appears today.
Cannon Mountain east of Littleton, not far from where Nathan Jr. sought sanctuary with his wife, sons, and new baby in 1770. Today the area is known for skiing, something Nathan Jr. never did.
Most people, in that situation, would have stayed put. But Nathan Jr. couldn’t stay put for long. By 1792 he had moved across the river to Concord, Vermont. Ironically, this man who fought on the American side in the Revolution was to end his days as a British subject. In 1800 the now-aging Nathan Jr. and Hannah followed several of their children (including Apthorp) north of the border to the Eastern Townships area of Québec, an area originally settled by many Anglophone Protestants from New England. He died there, on his son’s farm at the age of 84, in June 1824. His wife Hannah, who had bravely followed him on all his forays deeper into the wilderness, died just a few weeks later.
Eaton, Quebec, Canada in winter
My wintry trip to Eaton, Québec, where Apthorp ultimately settled
Musee du comte de Compton, Eaton, Quebec
The Compton County Historical Museum in Eaton, Québec. This building - which looks pretty New England to me - was originally the Congregationalist church founded by Apthorp Caswell and others.
The Caswells weren’t done moving about. Apthorp, a few short years after arriving in Québec, set out on a long journey in the American Midwest (particularly Ohio, then the newest state and the edge of the settled universe), in search of land to which he might relocate his family. When he returned to Québec three years later with a new locale in mind, he discovered that his sons had managed the land so well in his absence it hardly paid to leave. He stayed where he was, dying in Eaton, Québec at the age of 88 in 1858. His son Apthorp Jr., however, married a daughter of another family who had moved to that area from New Hampshire, and they settled back in the U.S.A., in Vermont. Their son, in turn, moved from northwestern Vermont to eastern Vermont, and his children from eastern Vermont to Boston and New York. Subsequent generations have made the move Apthorp Sr. did not make, relocating to Ohio, and a couple have moved on from there as well.
Grave of Apthorp and Amarilla Caswell, Eaton, Quebec
The grave of Apthorp and his wife Amarilla in Eaton, Québec. The snow was two feet deep. From his rugged beginnings, Apthorp lived a long life; he died two months shy of 88.
Now, I give full credit to those pioneers in the 1800s who moved west. But in all the reading about the wagon trains I haven’t come across anyone who went on foot, alone with a very pregnant wife and four small boys, into territory with no other Anglo settlers. Nathan Caswell Jr. was either the bravest man around, or a damn fool. Either way, I’m glad they all (and especially the baby Apthorp) made it through safely.
Grave of Nathan Caswell I, Milton, Vermont
The grave of Nathan Jr.'s father, Nathan Sr., in Milton, Vermont. He too moved north in later years, following his son Solomon.
So how about it: any crazy pioneer ancestors in your family?

Next week: Some Revolutionary War ancestors

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