History on the edge of the woods

How an archaeological find could link PEA students to Exeter's Revolutionary past.

By
Patrick Garrity
May 3, 2022

Hunter Stetz squats beside a deep mud puddle in the woods, a small trowel in his hand. He sinks the trowel into the fallen leaves surrounding the hole. The tool halts with a clink. “This might have been a chimney base,” he says. He points to other spots around the perimeter of the soggy depression near a trailhead in the Academy Woodlands. “I think this was a cellar hole.”

A story is unfolding at the edge of the woods, a story originally told 240 years ago and now coming to light. Depending on where the tale leads, it could connect the Academy to one of the American Revolution’s most tragic heroes and offer its students the chance to study early Black American history in their own backyard. That’s because the cellar hole Stetz believes he has found might have belonged to Jude Hall.

Hall was an enslaved man who fought on the colonists’ side in exchange for his freedom. He settled in Exeter in 1783 after the war, and legend has long held that he lived with his family near a small pond next to what became Drinkwater Road. The pond today is even named Jude’s Pond.

But no house remains, and the exact location of the homestead has never been determined.

Stetz, a Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, native and a field technician for a local archaeological consultant, became intrigued with Hall’s story — and the murkiness about the home’s location — a year ago. That curiosity led him to his discovery last fall, and he notified Warren Biggins, the Academy’s manager of sustainability and natural resources. “For me, the Academy Woodlands have always seemed an ideal version of a living laboratory, and one that offers our students incredible opportunities for experiential learning across a wide variety of academic disciplines,” Biggins says. “I’m extremely excited for the potential projects and collaborations that may result from this discovery.”

Adds History Instructor Troy Samuels, a trained archaeologist: “For our curriculum, I do not think I am exaggerating when I say this offers truly transformative opportunities to expand who and what Exeter history courses discuss. … This offers a new thread for students to latch on to. In Jude Hall’s story, we are a different version of what it means to be American, to be a New Hampshirite, to be from Exeter.”

Who was Jude Hall?

Hall was born in the late 1740s. Enslaved first to the Philemon Blake family of Kensington, Hall was sold to an Exeter resident named Nathaniel Healy shortly before the start of the Revolutionary War. Slavery was legal if uncommon in the region; Exeter Historical Society records show that 38 enslaved people were among the town’s 1,741 inhabitants in 1775.

How Hall came to enlist and fight for the colonists’ cause is not entirely clear. In his book Patriots of Color, George Quintal Jr. writes, “Soon after being sold to Healy, Hall ran away from his new master. When the war broke out, he enlisted and fought on the Colonial side.” Other reports theorize that Hall may have been Healy’s proxy, fighting in his enslaver’s place in exchange for his freedom.

According to a National Park Service account, Hall enlisted on May 10, 1775 — just weeks after “the shot heard ’round the world” at Lexington and Concord. A month into his service, Hall became one of more than a hundred Black and Native American soldiers to fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he narrowly missed being struck by a British cannonball. His legend, told in The History of Kensington, NH, 1663 to 1945, is that of an outstanding soldier and a mighty figure who “could lift a barrel of cider and drink from the [tap].”

This offers truly transformative opportunities to expand who and what Exeter history courses discuss."

Hall would serve in various Continental Army units throughout the war. While applying for a military pension in 1818, Hall testified that he reenlisted

in 1776 and 1779 and served “until the peace and then was discharged.” Records show he signed for military pay several times over the eight years, and he fought in some of the most famous battles of the war, including Ticonderoga and Saratoga. In the Battle of Monmouth in June 1778, Hall is said to have earned his nickname “Old Rock” while serving under George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hall returned to Exeter in 1783 — the year PEA opened its doors to its inaugural class. Now a free man, he married Rhoda Paul, a member of one of New Hampshire’s prom-inent free Black families, and by all accounts they settled beside a small pond near the Exeter-Kensington town line to farm and raise a large family.

Were his story to end there, Jude Hall would likely be a mostly forgotten figure of early America. But his tale turns tragic. Three of the Halls’ four sons — born free — were abducted and sold into bondage. From the National Park Service, citing an 1833 affidavit by the Halls’ son-in-law Robert Roberts: In 1807, their son Aaron was kidnapped in Rhode Island, “sent to sea, and has not been heard of since.” Six years later, David Wedgewood of Exeter claimed their 18-year-old son James Hall owed Wedgewood four dollars. Wedgewood had James “tied and carried to Newburyport jail, and the next morning … put on board a vessel bound for New Orleans, and sold as a slave.” At an unknown date the Halls’ son William “went to sea. ... After arriving in the West Indies, [William] was sold there as a slave.”

William Hall would ultimately escape after 10 years and flee to England. Aaron and James most likely died as captives.

Jude Hall would never see or hear from his three oldest sons again. He died on Aug. 22, 1827, and was buried in Exeter. Rhoda Hall moved to Maine after his death, leaving behind the house next to the pond.

Hiding in plain sight

Today, that pond — formally catalogued by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names as “Judes Pond” — is part of the 836-acre Academy Woodlands. Over decades, the Academy acquired land straddling the Exeter River that comprises the woodlands. Most of the tract that includes the pond was received as a gift to the school in 1910. The pond sits along Drinkwater Road near an entrance to a trail network that crisscrosses the woods. The “one-story, two-room house” Hall reported owning while applying for the military pension is gone, however. Whether it was demolished, fell down or burned to the ground, the house is lost to history. 

That’s where Stetz comes in. He took an active interest in finding the location of the homestead after his firm, Independent Archaeological Consulting, in Dover, New Hampshire, was unable to determine its location while working on a project at the Blake Family farm in Kensington. “I basically took it as a challenge,” Stetz says.

Stetz combed the area around the pond on foot looking for any evidence of human use on the landscape. He made use of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) maps of the region that reveal what the ground surface looks like underneath vegetation. “Stone walls are a great example of things that are evident on LiDAR,” he says. “I looked for irregular depressions and checked out a few I saw on the map, but the only location that was promising just happened to be the first depression I encountered.”

He zeroed in on a sunken spot in the land near Drinkwater Road and the pond. What set apart this location from other candidates around the pond, Stetz says, is the presence of large stones surrounding the depression. “There are a few stones visible above all the dead leaves and pine needles that accumulate and decompose every year, but I stuck a thin metal rod in the ground in various places and found that there were more stones beneath the ground surface that made a rectangu-lar shape and that there were hardly any stones within or outside of the rectangle.” Stetz estimates the rectangle to be approximately 15 feet by 18 feet.

Barbara Rimkunas, curator of the Exeter Historical Society, said there are no known records showing Hall owned a house or land in Exeter. An 1802 map of Exeter shows an unnamed road that was to become Drinkwater Road, with a few homes identified along its path. None belongs to Hall. But an 1822 murder trial offers clues as to the location of his house. Hall was called as a witness in the trial of John Blaisdell, accused of the fatal assault of John Wadleigh. His testimony, published in pamphlet form, reveals where the Hall home was in relation to some noted landmarks:

You form a different relationship with the past when you are touching it."

“Between 8 and 9 on the evening of [February] 18th, somebody knocked at my door. My house is near the Exeter line and about a mile and a quarter from Folsom’s. Told my children to open the door. Blaisdell came in and appeared frightened, and asked where the Captain was, (meaning me). He said, he wanted me to help lead Wadleigh in, that he was drunk and had been fighting with a sleigh. … Wadleigh’s house is between the Cove bridge and mine, about 30 rods from mine. I heard heavy groans, found the deceased, lying on his side. I lifted Wadleigh up and led him home — he appeared to shudder with cold.

I got a fire which he seemed to need. … Blaisdell went away and wanted me to go home with him — I said don’t go, and Blaisdell said he must go to take care of his cattle. Wadleigh died about three quarters of an hour before day — I was with him at that time. Blaisdell’s house is in Kensington about a half a mile from my house.”

 The 1802 map locates “Cove Bridge” along the road and “Folsom’s Tavern” at the corner of what today is Drinkwater and Hampton roads. Hall testified that “my house is near the Exeter line and about a mile and a quarter from Folsom’s.” The pond is in fact 1.2 miles from the Drinkwater-Hampton junction and approximately two-tenths of a mile from the Exeter-Kensington town line. The trial testimony may be the best evidence and only documentation that Hall did in fact live at this location.

Is this the place?

Today the site offers no obvious clues — and little else of note to the amateur observer. White pines tower over-head, and smaller trees partially obscure the site from the trail. One could appreciate how a hundred years’ worth of visitors to the woods passed by without noticing. Determining if Stetz’s discovery has historic value ultimately will require some digging. “I think the first step is to do some minimally invasive investigation of the area to get a sense of what we have in terms of remains,” says Samuels, the Exeter history teacher. “Once we have a general picture, I think the next steps would be excavation, working, of course, with local and regional interested groups as well as our students to tease out as much detail about the archaeological remains as possible.”

The discovery of bricks, ceramic shards, glass and nails all could offer clues that a house once stood on the site. Dating such artifacts would further pinpoint a domicile’s vintage. Sometimes, you even get lucky. “I know one homestead in which they found the initials of the suspected homeowner on a piece of bottle glass,” Stetz says.

“There are all sorts of fun techniques we could show our students and use to get as holistic a picture of what took place at the site as possible,” Samuels says. “Will any of this definitively show that this was Jude Hall’s homestead? Probably not — that type of definitive information is rare even in historic archaeology — but the more complete the picture, the more sound our hypotheses can be.” 

Even the possibility that the site has historic significance is exhilarating for Samuels. The digging for history is nearly as important as its discovery. “Archaeology offers historical teaching a certain vitality; you form a different relationship with the past when you are touching it than when you are simply reading about it,” Samuels says. “I am so eager to give our students that experience, to let them actively recover history, and especially the histories of groups who have not been given a leading role in the drama that is the history of America. … The opportunity to excavate and write the material history of such a fascinating and important person as Jude Hall — and to bring students along for the ride — is kind of the archaeological dream.”

Editor's note: This story first appeared in the summer 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.