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Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: New Hampshire's first insurance company opens for business

March 11. 2013 8:14PM

In 1866 John C. French became the state agent for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company. As he traveled from town to town around New Hampshire, he took time to meet with many business leaders and became aware of their dissatisfaction with the out-of-state companies that controlled all of the fire insurance business in the state.

Policy holders were especially unhappy with the frequent assessments made on their contracts. They were at the mercy of powerful companies that could suddenly decide to raise premium costs on existing policies on a whim.

Often, the question of organizing a new Hampshire-based stock fire insurance company came up in conversation. But, up to this point, all efforts to do so had failed. "You can't get the capital! The money just isn't there!" was the common disclaimer. But French was convinced otherwise. He knew from many conversations with influential people that the idea of starting a stock fire insurance company had wide support and that financing could be found.

By 1869 French had established a small general insurance office on Elm Street in Manchester. That year he drafted a bill for the consideration of the New Hampshire Legislature to incorporate the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company. Before submitting the legislation, he solicited the backing of prominent leaders in the state. This list of 13 incorporators included several highly respected men from Manchester: Ezekiel A. Straw, Agent of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company; James A. Weston, a civil engineer who was Mayor of Manchester in 1868 (he would become mayor again in 1870); prominent attorneys Samuel N. Bell and Samuel Upton; hardware storeowner Albert H. Daniels; bankers George B. Chandler and Clinton W. Stanley; and insurance agent John F. Chase.

The incorporation of the New Hampshire Fire Insurance company was approved by the legislature on July 7, 1869, "for the purpose of making and effecting insurance against losses by fire."

The company would be headquartered in Manchester, and it was authorized to sell initial capital stock of $50,000, divided into shares of $50 each. The first meeting of the stockholders was held on October 1 in Attorney Upton's office on Elm Street. The second took place on November 5 in City Hall. The first board of directors included men from Manchester, Keene, Nashua, Concord, Milford, Newmarket, Dover, Portsmouth, Claremont and Littleton. This confident board decided to raise $200,000 through the sale of stock. The first $30,000 was raised the first week, and by January 11, 1870, the company had sold $91,000 of stock. But the funds began coming in at a slower pace, so the directors decided that $100,000 cash would be sufficient to begin operations.

On January 27 the company's first officers were elected. Ezekiel A. Straw became the first President and James A. Weston, Vice President. Attorney Isaac W. Smith, who was Mayor of Manchester in 1869, was elected Secretary; and banker George B. Chandler, Cashier of the Amoskeag National Bank, was named Treasurer. John C. French was elected as the General Agent to lead the sales effort.

Once the Treasurer had $100,000 on hand, French went ahead and issued the first New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company policy. This was on April 6, 1870, and the policy was written on the home of James Weston. This large wood-frame house was located on the corner of Maple and Myrtle streets at the current site of Wagner Park. The property was covered for $1,000 for loss by fire, for a term of five years. The Daily Mirror and American newspaper reported that day, "The efforts made to establish a substantial Stock Insurance Company in this city have culminated successfully.We have no doubt that this new institution will prove of great benefit.and an advantage to the public, as most people would prefer to patronize a Home Company."

The company began advertising immediately, as the "First and Only Stock Insurance Company in the State.Losses equitably adjusted and promptly paid."

It promoted its ability to insure buildings, merchandise and personal property against loss or damage by fire. This ambitious venture received favorable attention, primarily due to the personal reputation of its managers, and it began attracting customers.

Next week: Manchester faces a major fire, and the company comes through!

Aurore Eaton is executive director, Manchester Historic Association; email her at

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