Local history up for sale

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Staff Writer

WILTON – He was the first in his family born in Amherst, then a fledgling crossroads village of just 33 years’ incorporation. Originally a Federalist, later a Whig, he was a lawyer, state representative and congressman, a Harvard graduate and decided opponent of slavery.

He’s Charles Humphrey Atherton, a native and lifelong Amherst resident whose legacy lives on through compilations of familial anecdotes, journals and letters like Anne Middleton Means’ 1921 “Amherst and Our Family Tree,” one of several family history volumes tucked away in Amherst Town Library’s archives room.

This weekend, assorted artifacts once belonging to, or connected with, the early 19th-century statesman will be among tools, books, china and many other “smalls” up for auction at the historic Langdell Homestead Auction Barn in Wilton Center. Veteran Hopkinton auctioneer John French will preside over what’s dubbed in advertisements as an “old-fashioned country auction.”

A curious trunk

Of particular interest, according to the auction house, is a good-sized, hide-covered box Atherton evidently owned and used, as it is monogrammed “CHA” and contains a variety of paper and ephemera dating to the early and mid-1800s.

Much of the paperwork, which is “filed” in string-bound bundles of all sizes, appears to be receipts for items or services Atherton bought and sold, the auction house’s Janet Langdell said. “They’re all in neat little stacks, dated by year,” she said. They’ve refrained from opening the individual bundles, Langdell said, because of their age and probable fragility.

Depicted in one of the preview photos is a receipt for a $75 bill Atherton apparently paid for what might have been tuition or board for school, as it references “School District No. 1.” It also bears the name Oliver Carleton, described in history books as a Mont Vernon native who graduated from Dartmouth, became a tutor and eventually an educator who headed academies in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Box found in attic

The box and paper were consigned by members of a local family after they found them in their attic, Langdell said. Unable to trace any connection between their family and the Athertons, they figured their antiques-collecting parents probably bought it many years ago, set it aside and forgot about it.

Born Aug. 14, 1773, a son of Joshua and Abigail Atherton, Charles H. Atherton attended local schools and Harvard, where he studied law and graduated in 1794. Described in Means’ book as having “a cold correctness in his demeanor,” he was admitted to the New Hampshire Bar in 1797, going on to become a prominent attorney of nearly 50 years.

Prominent citizen

Atherton was a Master Mason and a key player in the local Unitarian movement, later establishing The Christian Society in Amherst. He helped found the Hillsborough County Agricultural Society and the N.H. Historical Society, and, according to Means’ accounts, often debated his pro-slavery father over the era’s burgeoning social and political issue.

Launched career in youth

C. H. Atherton launched his political career at 25 when he was named register of probate, as which he served from 1798-1807. Seven years later he was elected, on the Federalist ticket, to the 14th U.S. Congress, where he served one term then declined a re-election run in 1816.

Instead, he stayed closer to home, running successfully in 1822 for state representative, a seat he held for 16 years before returning to his law practice in 1839.

In the meantime, a son, Charles Gordon Atherton, born to Charles H. and Mary Ann Atherton in 1804, was following in his father’s footsteps, attending Harvard and becoming a lawyer in 1825. His political career eclipsed that of his father, however – he was a three-term U.S. senator in addition to being a state representative and U.S. congressman – and did so in a shorter time: Father and son both died in 1853, the former at age 79 in January and the latter, at 49, in November.

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