This post is brought to you by our friends at Visit New Hampshire!
A motto can tell a lot about a state. It teaches us about the past, and can guide a state toward the future. The majority of state mottos are lists of virtues or pleasant Latin phrases. All this makes New Hampshire’s even more intriguing. Most states aren’t bold enough to rock “Live Free or Die.” So where did this decidedly metal phrase come from, and why is it so important to The Granite State?
General John Stark
To understand what it means to “live free or die,” we have to understand the life of New Hampshire’s own Revolutionary War hero, General John Stark. He was born in what is today Derry, New Hampshire, in 1728. He was famously tough from an early age. A story tells of how he was captured by Abenaki warriors on a hunting trip and brought to their village in Canada. He impressed the tribe after he was made to “run a gauntlet” of warriors armed with sharpened sticks. He grabbed a stick from one of them and fought back, and the chief was so impressed by his bravery that the tribe accepted him as one of their own. Eventually, a government agent arrived to pay his ransom and return him to New Hampshire. He fought in the French and Indian War, retiring as a captain.
The end of the French and Indian War wasn’t the end of his military career, though. Days after the Battles of Lexington and Concord kicked off the American Revolution in Massachusetts, he accepted a Colonelcy in the New Hampshire Militia. He immediately marched his men down to Massachusetts and played a crucial role in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The Battle of Bennington
Stark eventually returned to New Hampshire, and the fight followed. British General John Burgoyne sent Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum to raid and capture American supplies in Bennington, Vermont.
Stark led his men in a swift, well-planned counterattack that decimated Baum’s troops. Shortly after Baum’s failed raid, the rest of Burgoyne’s men surrendered at Saratoga. The American army’s victory at Saratoga is seen as a turning point in the war; it boosted morale and convinced France to ally with the Americans. It’s all thanks, in part, to Stark’s quick planning and bravery.
After the war and beyond
Stark retired to his farm in New Hampshire, where he died at the age of 93. In 1809, a group of veterans gathered to commemorate the Battle of Bennington. Stark, then aged 81, was unable to attend, but sent a letter to them. It ended with the phrase, “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”
“Live free or die” was made the official state motto of New Hampshire in 1945. Before this, New Hampshire didn’t have a motto. “Live Free or Die” (or “Live Free” as it is often shortened) beat out some pretty solid options to win the title, including “Strong and Steadfast as Our Granite Hills,” “Strong as Our Hills and Firm as Our Granite,” and “Pioneers Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”
If you’re inspired to learn more about Stark, you can visit the stone marker at his birthplace, the General John Stark House where he grew up, Stark Park (which is where he is buried) or Fort Stark, one of the many sites across New Hampshire and the country named for him. As you explore this revolutionary hero’s story, it’s hard not to feel the pride that comes with the conviction to live free or die!