American Revolution: Major General John Stark

John Stark
Major General John Stark. Public Domain

The son of Scottish immigrant Archibald Stark, John Stark was born at Nutfield (Londonderry), New Hampshire on August 28, 1728. The second of four sons, he moved with his family to Derryfield (Manchester) at age eight. Educated locally, Stark learned frontier skills such as lumbering, farming, trapping, and hunting from his father. He first came to prominence in April 1752 when he, his brother William, David Stinson, and Amos Eastman embarked on a hunting trip along the Baker River.

Abenaki Captive

During the course of the trip, the party was attacked by a group of Abenaki warriors. While Stinson was killed, Stark fought the Native Americans allowing William to escape. When the dust settled, Stark and Eastman were taken prisoner and forced to return with the Abenaki. While there, Stark was made to run a gauntlet of warriors armed with sticks. In the course of this trial, he grabbed a stick from an Abenaki warrior and commenced attacking him. This spirited action impressed the chief and after demonstrating his wilderness skills, Stark was adopted into the tribe. 

Remaining with the Abenaki for part of the year, Stark studied their customs and ways. Eastman and Stark were later ransomed by a party sent from Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, NH. The cost of their release was $103 Spanish dollars for Stark and $60 for Eastman. After returning home, Stark planned a trip to explore the headwaters of the Androscoggin River the following year in an attempt to raise money to offset the cost of his release.

Successfully completing this endeavor, he was selected by the General Court of New Hampshire to lead an expedition to explore the frontier. This moved forward in 1754 after word was received that the French were building a fort in northwest New Hampshire. Directed to protest this invasion, Stark and thirty men departed for the wilderness. Though they did find any French forces, they did explore the upper reaches of the Connecticut River.

French & Indian War

With the beginning of the French & Indian War in 1754, Stark began to contemplate military service. Two years later he joined Rogers' Rangers as a lieutenant. An elite light infantry force, the Rangers performed scouting and special missions in support of British operations on the northern frontier. In January 1757, Stark played a key role at the Battle on Snowshoes near Fort Carillon. Having been ambushed, his men established a defensive line on a rise and provided cover while the rest of Rogers' command retreated and joined their position. With the battle going against the rangers, Stark was sent south through heavy snow to bring reinforcements from Fort William Henry. The following year, the rangers took part in the opening stages of the Battle of Carillon.

Briefly returning home in 1758 following his father's death, Stark began courting Elizabeth "Molly" Page. The two were married on August 20, 1758 and ultimately had eleven children. The following year, Major General Jeffery Amherst ordered the rangers to mount a raid against the Abenaki settlement of St. Francis which had long been a base for raids against the frontier. As Stark had adopted family from his captivity in the village he excused himself from the attack. Leaving the unit in 1760, he returned to New Hampshire with the rank of captain.


Settling in Derryfield with Molly, Stark returned to peacetime pursuits. This saw him acquire a substantial estate in New Hampshire. His business efforts were soon hampered by a variety of new taxes, such as the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts, which quickly brought the colonies and London into conflict. With the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 and occupation of Boston, the situation reached a critical level.

The American Revolution Begins

Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 and the start of the American Revolution, Stark returned to military service. Accepting the colonelcy of the 1st New Hampshire Regiment on April 23, he quickly mustered his men and marched south to join the Siege of Boston. Establishing his headquarters in Medford, MA, his men joined thousands of other militiamen from around New England in blockading the city. On the night of June 16, American troops, fearing a British thrust against Cambridge, moved onto the Charlestown Peninsula and fortified Breed's Hill. This force, led by Colonel William Prescott, came under attack the next morning during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

With British forces, led by Major General William Howe, preparing to attack, Prescott called for reinforcements. Responding to this call, Stark and Colonel James Reed rushed to the scene with their regiments. Arriving, a thankful Prescott gave Stark the latitude to deploy his men as he saw fit. Assessing the terrain, Stark formed his men behind a rail fence to the north of Prescott's redoubt on top of the hill. From this position, they repulsed several British attacks and inflicted heavy losses on Howe's men. As Prescott's position faltered as his men ran out of ammunition, Stark's regiment provided cover as they withdrew from the peninsula. When General George Washington arrived a few weeks later, he was quickly impressed with Stark.

Continental Army

In early 1776, Stark and his regiment were accepted into the Continental Army as the 5th Continental Regiment. Following the fall of Boston that March, it moved south with Washington's army to New York. After aiding in bolstering the city's defenses, Stark received orders to take his regiment north to reinforce the American army that was retreating from Canada. Remaining in northern New York for much of the year, he returned south in December and rejoined Washington along the Delaware.

Reinforcing Washington's battered army, Stark took part in the morale-boosting victories at Trenton and Princeton later that month and in early January 1777. At the former, his men, serving in Major General John Sullivan's division, launched a bayonet charge at the Knyphausen regiment and broke their resistance. With the conclusion of the campaign, the army moved into winter quarters at Morristown, NJ and much of Stark's regiment departed as their enlistments were expiring.


To replace the departed men, Washington asked Stark to return to New Hampshire to recruit additional forces. Agreeing, he left for home and began enlisting fresh troops. During this time, Stark learned that a fellow New Hampshire colonel, Enoch Poor, had been promoted to brigadier general. Having been passed over for promotion in the past, he was incensed as he believed Poor was a weak commander and lacked a successful record on the battlefield.

In the wake of Poor's promotion, Stark immediately resigned from the Continental Army though he indicated that he would serve again if New Hampshire was threatened. That summer, he accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the New Hampshire militia, but stated that he would only take the position if he was not answerable to the Continental Army. As the year progressed, a new British threat appeared in the north as Major General John Burgoyne prepared to invade south from Canada via the Lake Champlain corridor.


After assembling a force of around 1,500 men at Manchester, Stark received orders from Major General Benjamin Lincoln to move to Charlestown, NH before joining the main American army along the Hudson River. Refusing to obey the Continental officer, Stark instead began operating against the rear of Burgoyne's invading British army. In August, Stark learned that a detachment of Hessians intended to raid Bennington, VT. Moving to intercept, he was reinforced by 350 men under Colonel Seth Warner. Attacking the enemy at the Battle of Bennington on August 16, Stark badly mauled the Hessians and inflicted over fifty percent casualties on the enemy. The victory at Bennington boosted American morale in the region and contributed to key triumph at Saratoga later that fall.

Promotion At Last

For his efforts at Bennington, Stark accepted reinstatement into the Continental Army with the rank of brigadier general on October 4, 1777. In this role, he served intermittently as commander of the Northern Department as well as with Washington's army around New York. In June 1780, Stark took part in the Battle of Springfield which saw Major General Nathanael Greene hold off a large British attack in New Jersey. Later that year, he sat on Greene's board of inquiry which investigated the betrayal of Major General Benedict Arnold and convicted British spy Major John Andre. With the end of the war in 1783, Stark was called to Washington's headquarters where he was personally thanked for his service and given a brevet promotion to major general.

Returning to New Hampshire, Stark retired from public life and pursued farming and business interests. In 1809, he declined an invitation to attend a reunion of Bennington veterans due to ill health. Though unable to travel, he sent a toast to be read at the event which stated, "Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils." The first part, "Live Free or Die," was later adopted as the state motto of New Hampshire. Living to the age of 94, Stark died on May 8, 1822 and was buried in Manchester.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General John Stark." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Revolution: Major General John Stark. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General John Stark." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).