Monadnock Burning


Monadnock Burning

In 1820 the farmers of southwestern New Hampshire set Mount Monadnock on fire. They had tried to do it once before, in 1816, but the wet weather had defeated them. These farmers were “wool men”. Their only cash crop was the wool fleeces from their flocks. They had mutton and vegetables to feed their families and farm workers, but wool was king.

The first settlers in the Monadnock region used fire to clear pastures on the wooded slopes, so they knew how to control fire. But this time they sought no control. They knew the fire would climb up the slopes to the very top of the mountain. Why did they do it? It was clearly a coordinated effort. Men, living in the towns of Dublin, Jaffrey, and Marlborough conspired to burn all the vegetation on the mountain. Whatever the source of their frustration, they succeeded in starting a fire that burned for weeks. One result was the closing of the Connecticut Legislature in Hartford because of the smoke from the Monadnock fire. Portsmouth, New Hampshire saw people hospitalized with severe breathing problems.

The fire did make it to the top of the mountain. Every tree was burned. Some remained standing, waiting for the wind that now blew harder to topple them, and some gave up sooner. The giant game of Pick-Up-Sticks made it impossible for mere men to pass. The following years brought rain and snow while local citizens watched the soil slide down the slopes.

Mount Monadnock is now a bald-topped mountain, much of it protected as a state park, making it ideal for climbing trails and hikers. On a clear day at the peak hikers can see Boston some 60 miles away. Thousands of people enjoy climbing the mountain every year.

But the arsonists of 1820 found no joy. Some managed to burn their own land and barns, most were ruined financially because their New Hampshire fleeces were no longer wanted. Prices had plummeted in the Boston Fleece Market leading up to the devastating fire. Many left the area, going to work in the mills of Manchester and Lawrence or moving on west hoping for something better. Again, we ask why did they start this fire.

Today the local wisdom is that the farmers were so frustrated that they set the fire to kill wolves. There is some truth to that. Wolves did harass their flocks. But how many wolves did they kill? Probably none. Wolves are smart animals. At the first whiff of smoke, they would have taken off, only to return to their ideal habitat of deadfall trees. Wolves could navigate that mess more easily than the men who hunted them. As long as there were sheep in the pastures below, the wolves would stay close. I’m sure the wolves were a menace and angered the farmers, but they had put up with them for generations. What was the catalyst? What was the spark?

When William Jarvis had introduced Spain’s Merino sheep to New England in 1810, it was a sensation. Labeled the Silk Sheep, it’s hair was softer and longer making it easier to work. Granted, the high cost of the animal slowed its introduction, but those newcomers with capital had caught Merino Mania. By 1820, the Boston Fleece Market wanted only the Merino fleece.