It’s John Stark Day! Raise a glass to the man, the myth, the NH legend

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By state statute, New Hampshire honors Gen. John Stark on the fourth Monday in April.  By virtue of his love of Manchester history, John Clayton honored Stark with the following remarks, delivered at Stark Park April 27.

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Reenactors in period garb joined the John Stark Day festivities at Stark Park on April 27.

MANCHESTER, NH – We gather here today to celebrate the legacy of General John Stark, but in truth, Manchester honors his legacy every day. Manchester has a Stark Park, a Stark Street and a Stark Lane. We have two John Stark statues and we also have the Stark Mill, which now houses Milly’s Tavern – where my beverage of choice is Gen. John Stark Dark Beer.

The man is everywhere in this city.

As I have discovered through the years, if you want to be known as Manchester’s favorite son, you have to figure out a way to overshadow John Stark. I’ve been trying to do it for 50 years now, and I’m here today to say that it can’t be done.

So I give up.

Certainly that’s something John Stark never did as he forged his way into the history books, but one of the ironies of his notoriety is that so few of us can readily recall the details that made him so special. Yes, we all get a cursory look at his life when we’re dragged kicking and screaming through New Hampshire history in the fourth grade, but we seldom hang on to the specifics.

John Stark
John Stark

John Stark deserves better.

Toward that end, I have an amateur historian’s rule of thumb. For me, the true measure of a folk hero comes when you try to separate the man from the myth.

Consider John Stark’s capture by Abenaki Indians while on a trapping and mapping expedition around 1752. Legend has it that young Stark was forced by his captors to run the gauntlet, and it is here where accounts vary. According to some, Stark rushed the line, grabbed a club from the closest brave and slugged his way through. Others, like author Grace Holbrook Blood, say Stark began his run by proclaiming “I’ll kiss all your women,” which set the braves to laughing so hard he finished his run unscathed.

The truth is, John Stark wasn’t what you’d call a million laughs. Even his most flattering biographers describe him as “dour” and “taciturn.” I could only find evidence of one wisecrack. When he was ultimately freed by the Indians for a ransom equal to $103, he said it was the only time in his life he knew what he was worth.

Still, if he wasn’t a million laughs, he was no stranger to danger. When duty called, Stark answered. The first call came in 1754, when he parlayed his experience with the Indians into a commission with Rogers’ Rangers, and fought on the side of the British during the French and Indian Wars. When the French eventually capitulated, Stark returned home to raise his family and carve a living out of the hard land around Amoskeag Falls.

In his day, though, the call to arms was a constant, and by 1775, events at Lexington and Concord forced him to abandon Molly and his lumber mill, yet again. Two months later, as colonel of the First New Hampshire Regiment, he was staring down the barrel of British flintlocks at Breed’s Hill in Boston. It was there where Stark’s men – out-gunned and out-manned – managed to repulse two British attacks and, while they withdrew before a third assault, his men had shattered the myth of British invincibility at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

To this day, historians admire his bitter refusal to let the British pass, but that didn’t prevent colonial leaders from passing him over for promotion. Fortunately, his indignant retirement lasted a mere four months. When colonial forces were routed at Fort Ticonderoga, Stark was belatedly named brigadier general of the New Hampshire troops. In no time, he was off toward Bennington, Vt., for another rendezvous with history. What transpired there on Aug. 16, 1777, helped shape the fortunes of a nation, as Stark out-foxed Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, bested the Hessian hordes of Colonel Friedrich Baum and thwarted British efforts to split the colonies in half geographically.

Soon thereafter, the depleted British forces were beaten at Saratoga, and the quaint notion known as the United States of America became a reality.

Am I exaggerating? Am I gilding the lily of history to make John Stark look good?

Here’s an impartial opinion issued in 1904 by New York historian Dr. William O. Stillman on the Battle of Bennington:

“The battle on the Walloomsac (River) was undoubtedly the turning point of the British success in America,” he said. “It made possible the great victory at Saratoga which determined the destiny of a continent, and is ranked, along with Marathon and Hastings, as one of the 15 great battles in the history of the world.”

And how does this affect us today? There’s a quaint custom in England when people gather for any reason. Before festivities begin, they all raise a glass and proclaim a toast — to the Queen. If not for John Stark, we may have begun today’s proceedings in that same way. Think about that for a second… To John Stark!

John Clayton
John Clayton


Screenshot 2015-04-27 at 9.37.03 PMJohn Clayton is newly appointed Executive Director of the Manchester Historic Association.


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