Published: April 7, 2022

The first lottery in America was organized in 1745 to pay off military debt

What was a town to do when money was tight, but roads needed to be upgraded? In the past (specifically the Colonial and post-colonial period) it was common to raise funds through a lottery. 

The first lottery in America was organized in Boston in 1745 to pay off military debt. It may seem odd that stoic Puritanical New Englanders would resort to (gasp) gambling to pay the bills, but lotteries became common methods to finance all sorts of things.

The New Hampshire State Archives has a list of lottery petitions for the period 1756-1817 in which there are 121 different lotteries. The bulk of these were to raise funds for bridges – a continuing infrastructure bugaboo even today. After that, roads were the most common reason to run a lottery. Schools, libraries, iron works, canals, causeways, river improvement, piers and even a silver mine make up the requests. Harvard requested a lottery in New Hampshire to raise funds. Imagine Harvard needing money. 

There are numerous petitions to authorize participation in the Union Canal lottery. One of the largest and longest lotteries, the Union Canal lottery was authorized by the state of Pennsylvania in 1811 to finance the 80-mile canal that would help connect Philadelphia to the Susquehanna River. Inland waterways were key to the vision of improving transportation across the nation. Industrialization was on the horizon, and this would require both a means to move materials and enormous amounts of fuel – at this time primarily wood. As most of the settled parts of the country were largely deforested, timber would need to be transported over longer and longer stretches. 

New Hampshire wasn’t immune from the canal craze. There were hopeful plans in 1817 to dig a canal that would connect Rockingham County to the Merrimac River at Hooksett falls. 

“It is thought that this canal may also connect with a direct navigation to Portsmouth by means of Exeter River. The distance from this place to Newburyport by water will not much exceed forty miles; that to Boston through Middlesex canal is nearly one hundred miles. In the vicinity of the route of this contemplated Canal, especially in the towns of Chester, Candia, Allenstown, and Deerfield, are large quantities of excellent timber, which would be enhanced in value in proportion as it is brought nearer to a market.” (Exeter Watchman, Feb. 11, 1817). This canal was never built, but it didn’t diminish the seemingly solid investment potential of canals in general.

Joseph Boardman, merchant in Exeter, became a local ticket seller, or “receiver.” Lotteries were designed with a fixed number of tickets. In the case of the fifth class of the Union Canal lottery issued in 1817, there were 25,000 tickets available under the supervision of three managers. Boardman received his tickets to sell from them. He sold the $5 tickets for $5.50. Top prize was $12,000, but there were an additional 8,640 cash prizes awarded during a long, slow drawing. Often, it would take over a year to find out the winners, but the odds weren’t bad. An advertisement Boardman ran in the Exeter Watchman in 1818 has the money raised as $125,000, out of which $95,000 was awarded in prize money. 

These schemes weren’t viewed as gambling – at least not until the mid-19th century when laws began to change. Purchasing a lottery ticket was seen as an investment and a civic duty. Sure, you might not win a premium, but then again, the chance to win your investment back was better than paying taxes. Boardman advertised that a list of prize winners was available “to be seen gratis” at his establishment. Eager “adventurers,” as lottery players were called, would arrive to check the lists. They’d won – Boardman advertised prizes for the Springfield Bridge Lottery and the Sixth Class of the Plymouth Beach Lottery – or maybe they’d buy a ticket for another lottery. Adventurers included women. There were no rules excluding the ladies and many eagerly invested in the dreams of lotteries.

Lotteries were made illegal in New England in the 1890s. Capital improvements are mostly funded through municipal bonds today – something most investors find to be secure but dull. Stocks, bonds, insurance, lotteries all have risks. T.J. Tomlin, in his article, “Lotteries and Overlapping Providences in Early America,” reminds us that reformer’s concerns about vice didn’t apply to these early games. “Lotteries, however, were not wrapped up in these debates until, roughly, after 1815. Before then, their propriety and role in funding public works and the common good largely obviated their connection to the morally precarious world of gambling.” 

Barbara Rimkunas is the curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member. Join online at

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