In January of 1738, 280 years ago, Windham’s first settler, Thomas Chute, was contemplating moving his family from the town of Falmouth (now Portland) to the land he had purchased the year before in the township of New Marblehead, now known as Windham.
In July of 1737, he had paddled up the Presumpscot River in a boat and began clearing seven acres of land for planting on Lot 12 in the new township. This was stipulated in his purchase agreement. He then purchased Lots 13 and 14 and cleared seven-acre parcels on those as well.
By spring of 1738, he was able to bring his wife, Mary, and young son, Curtis, to their new home in the wilderness. He brought them to their new life via the Presumpscot River, traveling by boat with some tools and furniture. They settled near the river, which was the only highway in the township at the time.
There were no roads to follow in 1738, there was nothing to be found but rivers, streams and woods. It was indeed a new frontier. Chute proved to be up to the challenges of pioneer living and quickly gained prominence in the new community. He had a tailoring business, which was his trade, and he was also an innkeeper, as well as the first deacon in the settlement’s church and the first town clerk of New Marblehead.
He and Mary likely would have lived in a single-story log cabin. Chinks between logs would have been filled with grass or clay to keep out the cold winter winds and the roof would have been covered with birch bark overlaid with long shingles or splints. The cabin would have had a dirt floor and rooms were made by hanging bed quilts from ceiling beams. Heat for the cabin would have been provided by a large fireplace.
Some crops that Thomas would have planted on his cleared acreage would have included barley, rye, oats, peas and beans. He would have hunted game in the forest and fish would have come from the river and local streams.
Wild animals reigned supreme at the time and would sometimes ravage crops and domestic animals. If Chute did have domestic beasts, he probably would have had some oxen to help with planting and possibly some cows to provide milk and meat and, for candles, tallow, which is melted beef fat that was used in the candle-making process. Chances are he would have also raised geese, not so much to eat, but to be used for their feathers that would have been stuffed into pillows and mattresses.
Mary Chute would have kept busy in her pioneer life as well. You would often find her spinning wool for clothing. Sometimes, other women would join her and they’d spend the afternoon talking and telling tales. This is how the term “spinning a yarn” came about.
She also was New Marblehead’s first schoolteacher, initially holding classes in her home until the official school was put into place in the Province fort. She would have taught children to read and do arithmetic. Good penmanship also would have been taught, as it was a sign of a good education. Some children would have practiced their letters in a booklet of blank pages called a copybook.
In autumn, farm animals would have to be killed, and Mary would keep busy smoking and salting their meat to help preserve them for the winter. Vegetables would have been brought inside and kept in a pit in the floor to keep them from freezing. Fruit would be dried or preserved in jams and jellies.
Baths were uncommon in colonial times, and most people used a bowl of water to wash their hands, face and neck. In the winter months, they would have to break through the ice to get water for cooking and washing. Chamber pots served as indoor toilets and were stored underneath beds.
It wasn’t an easy life by any means, but the joy of owning land of one’s own in a new frontier made it worthwhile for Thomas and Mary Chute and the other founding families of Windham, such as the Manchesters, the Mayberrys and the Andersons. Through them and with the help of their descendents and many newcomers to town, New Marblehead would one day become Windham as we know it today.
Haley Pal is a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas Chute is respectfully remembered in Chute Cemetery located on Chute Road in Windham.
Colonial homes would have been furnished with a spinning wheel and the family musket would have been hanging at the ready by the fireplace.