The primary settlement in town, where 10,345 people resided at the 2010 census, is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as the Durham census-designated place (CDP) and includes the densely-populated portion of the town centered on the intersection of New Hampshire Route 108 and Main Street and including the university which dominates the town.
The town is named after Durham, County Durham, England, from whence came two of its earliest settlers, William and Henry Hilton. They were two of four sons. Their father had lent Charles of England money and he knew he would never get it back, so he offered to forgive the debt if Charles granted two of his sons land in the New World. They arrived from England in a well-provisioned ship called the Providence.
During King William's War, on July 18, 1694, the English settlement was attacked in the Raid on Oyster River by French career soldier Claude-Sébastien de Villieu with about 250 Abenaki Indians from Norridgewock under command of their sagamore, Bomazeen (or Bomoseen). In all, 104 inhabitants were killed and 27 taken captive, with half the dwellings, including the garrisons, pillaged and burned to the ground.
The community would rebuild, however, and by 1716 Durham was a separate parish, named after Durham, England. Incorporated in 1732, Durham once included portions of the present-day towns of Madbury, Lee and Newmarket. Because of its arable land, the town would develop as a farming community.
A descendant of an early settler, Benjamin Thompson bequeathed his assets and family estate, Warner Farm, to the state for the establishment of an agricultural college. Originally founded in 1866 in Hanover, the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts moved to Durham in 1893 and became University of New Hampshire in 1923. Thompson Hall, built in 1892 with an iconic clock tower, is named in his honor. Designed in the Romanesque Revival style by the Concord architectural firm of Dow & Randlett, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
A police force of some manner has served Durham since at least 1848. Durham Police Department is made up of 20 full-time and part-time officers and provides service 24-hours a day.
The Police Department's Adopt-A-Cop program was instituted in 1999 to improve relationships between University of New Hampshire fraternities. Each fraternity is assigned a police officer who attends house meetings and events and acts a liaison between the fraternity and the community.
The first fire department organization in Durham was organized in 1927 and the first salaried firefighter was employed in 1934.
The Durham Fire Department is one of the few fire departments in the country that is funded by both a municipality and a university.
In addition, McGregor Memorial EMS is a regional, non-profit organization delivering emergency medical services and education to the New Hampshire Seacoast area since 1968.