Saturday, September 23, 2023

Research: Flax and the Diary of Matthew Patten, Bedford, New Hampshire

By Beth Gallucci, History and Museum Studies MA Program

            Born in 1719 in Ulster, Ireland, Matthew Patten emigrated to America with his family in 1728. The Patten’s were among the many Scotch-Irish Presbyterian families who came to America to escape religious persecution in Northern Ireland.[1] Matthew and his brother Samuel moved to Souhegan-East in 1738 which is now known as Bedford, New Hampshire. Patten was a jack-of-all-trades like many New Hampshire settlers of the 18th century. He worked as a carpenter, joiner, farmer, surveyor, justice of the peace, and a probate judge in the town of Bedford. His diary was recorded from 1754 to 1788, written on individual, unbound pages, in the form of a daily account, documenting life in the second half of the 18thcentury. Though Patten’s narrative may not appear to be a colorful one, he certainly provides the reader a glimpse into the life of a farmer on the colonial frontier and enables historians like us to engage with his world of planting flax.

Patten intermittently records the planting and harvesting of flax by himself, his family members and a mixture of men and women who were hired as help. Though his accounts are more detailed regarding the planting of rye, corn and barley, Patten duly notes (most years) the seasonal process of sowing flax in May and harvesting and “swingling” flax in the fall. The crop seems to be a staple in his household, and he records the annual hiring of women (and it is always women) to come and live in his home for six to eight weeks “to spin.” He does not discern whether it is flax or wool that they are spinning but flax was usually spun in late fall or early winter, and this is when Patten usually notes that women came to spin. A diary entry dated September 27, 1760, notes that Matthew paid Hannah Chamberlin 12 pounds for 6 weeks of spinning work, and on February 5th of 1766 he mentions that he “finished” 100 pounds of flax that year, giving the reader an idea of how much he harvested per year. He mentions taking linen and tow cloth to various people to make “britches” and dresses. This work is completed by men or women depending on who he was able to hire at that moment in time. Of particular interest, he mentions a man by the name of McCleary who weaves striped linen for him. Patten often uses flax seed to barter for payment of goods and services and he also receives flax seed as payment for services rendered.

There is a communal feel to how Patten and his surrounding neighbors work in harmony with one another to survive living in rural New Hamsphire. They barter and trade for many of their items and credit is also used quite often. They seem to know who they can trust to make good on payments, and Patten and his neighbors seem diligent about paying their debts. His entries revolve around documenting his agricultural practices along with his financial and contractual obligations, however Patten does note weather conditions, illnesses, and various social issues such as births, deaths and marriages.

He provides only small glimpses of the political issues brewing throughout the colonies, such as the Pine Tree Riots of 1772 and the shots fired at Concord in1775, but never goes into great detail about his political views. He does mention that his son John joins the Continental Army, but never mentions the fact that he was shot in the arm at Bunker Hill in June of 1775. A diary entry from May 21, 1776, reveals John’s battle injury but also demonstrates Patten’s heartfelt emotions of loss and anger when he describes John’s death while he was stationed in Canada with the Continental Army.[2]

John contracted smallpox, and while severely sick his regiment had to relocate further south, and John had to relocate with them. Matthew attributes his son’s death to being moved “in a weakened state” and to being shot in the arm while fighting at Bunker Hill the year before. This account is the only entry where Matthew vehemently shows anger towards the British by calling King George III a “Tyrannical Brute” (p. 361).[3]

 Matthew Patten Homestead - Demolished in the early 20th century.[4]

[1]     Kenneth Scott, “Matthew Patten of Bedford, New Hampshire,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society (1941-1965) 28 (September 1950): 3, 129-145.


[2]     Matthew Patten, The Diary of Matthew Patten of Bedford, N.H: From Seventeen Hundred Fifty-Four to Seventeen Hundred Eighty-Eight, Rumford Printing Company, 1903. Scholar Select, Franklin Classics.



[3]     Matthew and his wife Elizabeth had 11 children and his papers were preserved by his daughters, Sarah and Polly. Written on plain white paper that was folded together and bound with linen thread these papers made their way into the hands of the townspeople of Bedford, New Hampshire. The townspeople felt they were of great importance and had them published in 1903. Patten’s original papers have been preserved and can be found in the New Hampshire State Library in Concord. Matthew’s son James moved to Ohio in 1789 and was captured by the Delaware Indians in 1791. He was held captive for four years until he was released in 1795 in a prisoner exchange. The University of Michigan has a collection of 16 letters written by James, Matthew and Elizabeth along with other members of the Patten family.


[4]     Photo of the Matthew Patten Homestead – early 20th century:

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