Everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes but few know about his younger, smarter brother Mycroft. The same is also true for the Stark brothers. Gen. John Stark is honored with a statue in Concord and another in Washington. His name is also given to a town, a park, a mountain and even a county in Ohio. Every New Hampshire license plate is embellished with John Stark’s stirring toast “Live Free of Die.” Few however know his equally brave brother William.
One historian has written that before the Revolutionary War William Stark was “a much greater man than his brother.” Why has William Stark been forgotten while John Stark is famous? Here are the simple answers: William died young; John survived to reach his 94th birthday — and William was on the wrong side of history.
William Stark was born in 1724 in a small house on Stark Road in Derry, the son of emigrants from Northern Ireland. His brother John was born four years later. The DAR monument on Stark Road honors the site as John’s birthplace without mention of William. In 1736, the house burned down and they moved to the other side of town to a spot that was near the Merrimack River. That house was moved in the 1960s to make way for bridge construction and is now at 2000 Elm Street in Manchester.
In the 1750s, William moved to Starktown — now Dunbarton, N.H. — where his house was used as the meeting house for the next 17 years. On the frontier, the Stark brothers soon gained a reputation as skilled hunters and trappers who ranged all over New Hampshire and Quebec. While hunting in 1754, they were ambush by Indians. William managed to escape but his brother was taken prisoner. John was taken to Montreal where he was eventually ransomed for $103 — the price of a pony.
During the French and Indian War, the Stark Brothers were part of Rogers’ Rangers — colonial America’s greatest fighting force. The two Starks were both appointed captain and were second in command to the legendary Robert Rogers himself. During the next few years, they fought with bravery in many battles from Fortress Louisbourg in Cape Breton to Fort Ticonderoga in New York. William frequently traveled with his dog Beau de Bien, who drew full soldiers pay because of services as a scout and guard.
While his brother was away, William was assigned to go with Gen. James Wolfe to attack the French-held city of Quebec. The general could find no way to attack the French army, which was secure on top of the impenetrable cliffs looming high above the St. Lawrence River. One historian purports that it was Major William Stark who told Wolfe of the hidden path to the top of the cliff. The English went on to win the battle but Gen. Wolfe was critically wounded. Stark was one of the four officers who were assigned to carry Wolfe away from the fighting. In Benjamin West’s famous painting, “The Death of General Wolfe,” it is believed that it’s William Stark cradling the dying general in a pose reminiscent of Christ in Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” This battle resulted in England taking control of all of Canada. It is considered one of the most important battles in world history.
After Quebec, William returned to his farm high on a ridge in Dunbarton. Here for the next 16 years, the soldier was at peace; here he and his wife raised seven children and took part in small-town politics. During the morning of April 17, 1775, he was startled to hear the distant sounds of cannon fire coming from 70 miles away at Bunker Hill outside of Boston. Immediately, he grabbed his musket, jumped on his horse and rode toward the fighting. By the time he arrived, the battle was over and he joined his brother John in Medford.
William Stark was solidly on the patriot side and soon applied for command of an army to protect the northern border and capture the city of Quebec. Because of his experiences in the French and Indian War there was no one who more qualified for that position then Stark. The New Hampshire government saw fit however to award the command to a politically connected soldier who had formerly been one of Stark’s lieutenants. This act of disrespect and idiocy infuriated William Stark. He rode to the British line and became a colonel in the king’s army. This action was very upsetting to his brother, patriot Gen. John Stark. When hearing about his brother leaving the state, John Stark said that leaving was “the best thing he ever did!”
During the war William Stark served in the defense of New York City. The government of New Hampshire confiscated all of his property consisting of thousands of acres of farm and forest land. The date of his death is not known with any exactness. Some reports say he died falling from a horse during a polo match during the war. The sources however, do not agree on the year of his death. From five different books I find that Col. William Stark died in 1776, 1777, 1781, 1782 and 1817. Maybe if I keep researching I’ll find a report that he’s presently living in a Derry nursing home, age 289.
If the state had given William Stark his well deserved commission in 1776, maybe he’d have stayed loyal to the patriot cause. He would likely have served with distinction and might well have come out of the Revolutionary War as a bigger hero then his brother John. If that had happen we might have a quotation by William Stark on our license plates. If the British had won the Revolutionary War, John Stark would probably be called a traitor and William Stark a man of honor. Twenty years ago, the portraits of William and John Stark in the New Hampshire Room in the Derry Library were given by my family and Topper Hamblet.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.