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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: The life and times of Matthew Patten of Bedford

Special to The New Hampshire Union Leader

November 26. 2012 6:53PM

One of the ambitious men who frequented Amoskeag Falls during the fishing season was Matthew Patten of Bedford. He and his family laid claim to a particular spot, a large rock at the Falls which became known as Patten Rock. Patten's life spanned most of the 18th century. He was born in Northern Ireland in 1719 and moved to America in 1728 when he was 9 years old. The Pattens first settled in Londonderry, New Hampshire, along with other Scots-Irish colonists. In 1738 the family moved to Souhegan East (later named Bedford).

Matthew Patten kept a diary, or "day book" most of his life. The diary served as a record of his activities, and of his business transactions that included trades of goods and services, as well as cash transactions using a variety of currency. He also wrote about the weather, social visits, and other incidental matters.

The diary is comprised of a series of small notebooks, each assembled from three sheets of white paper, 6" long and 3 inches wide. These pages were folded into one another and sewn together with linen thread, to make a 16 page booklet that could easily fit into a pocket. To conserve paper, which was expensive in those days, Patten wrote as small as possible, but legibly. The notebooks prior to 1754 were unfortunately lost.

After Patten died, his daughters Sarah and Polly kept the remaining pamphlets in their possession. These were carefully preserved and prized as a historical record. They have grown fragile over the years, and are now kept safely in the archives of the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord.

The earliest history of Bedford published in 1851 and C. E. Potter's 1856 history of Manchester both include quotes from the diary. At the end of the 19th century a committee was organized to publish a history of Bedford to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of the town in 1750. This occasion was marked in 1900, and the "History of Bedford New Hampshire from 1737" was published in 1903. This same committee was tasked with publishing Matthew Patten's diary, and the town appropriated $500 for the project. "The Diary of Matthew Patten" was also published in 1903, and has since served as a unique and revealing record of life on the New Hampshire frontier.

The book was republished in 1993 with the inclusion of updated information and analysis by noted historians Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and James L. Garvin. As Ulrich wrote in the Preface, "Matthew Patten's diary is a classic in New Hampshire history. No other source gives a better picture of the day to day life of the Scots-Irish farmers who sowed flax and rye, fished for salmon and shad, dug potatoes, gathered chestnuts, built spinning wheels and coffins, and reckoned accounts in the towns along the Merrimack."

Matthew Patten made his living in many ways. In addition to being a fisherman, he was a farmer, a lumberman, a toolmaker, a land surveyor, a joiner (skilled carpenter), a hunter, a judge of the probate court for Hillsborough County, a representative to the general court of New Hampshire and a member of governor's council (in pre-Revolutionary days), and a justice of the peace. In addition, Patten was also busy raising a family with his wife Elizabeth that eventually included 10 children.

As James Garvin wrote, "Patten practiced several trades, understood many technologies, bartered wisely or paid cash in many currencies, kept long-term records of his debts and credits, and knew, worked with, and often lived with an astonishing number of people. Far from being a simple life, Patten's existence was one of intricacy and heavy responsibility."

The published diary begins with a few entries from June 1754. On June 22 Patten ".went to Joseph Kidders and got three bushels of Malt and was obliged to leave bushel of ground malt because the bag would not hold it."

Malt is dried germinated cereal grain, in this case likely barley. Ground malt was used for brewing beer, a common beverage in colonial America. According to founding father Benjamin Franklin, "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!"

Next week: More on the life and times of Matthew Patten.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

History Manchester

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