Settlers first arrived in Northfield in the early 1700s. Initially Northfield was incorporated as part of Canterbury when that town was established in 1741. At the time it was a frontier town protected by a garrison fort erected on a hill close to Canterbury Center and commanded by Capt. Jeremiah Clough. Tradition has it that the first settlers of the "north fields" of Canterbury came from the scouts from this fort who patrolled the area in the 1740s.
The north fields of Canterbury prospered. Farming was the principal industry. Additionally, dams along the Winnipesaukee and Merrimack rivers and several brooks powered early sawmills and gristmills. By the 1770s there was a substantial population in the north fields of Canterbury.
By 1780 the residents of the north fields found it increasingly difficult to travel to the center of Canterbury to attend to town business. On March 30, 1780, they filed the following petition with the State of New Hampshire (spelling left as printed in 1780):
Canterbury, March 30, 1780
The petition, signed by 43 residents, was approved by the state legislature, and the Town of Northfield was born.
In 1848, the Boston, Concord and Montreal Railroad opened to Northfield, helping it develop symbiotically with Tilton across the river as a mill town. The Winnipesaukee River provided water power for mills, and by 1859, when the population was 1,332, Northfield had a woolen factory and a wrapping paper mill.
Northfield continued to combine a strong industrial base with a healthy agricultural community throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. Early sawmills and gristmills gave way to large textile and paper mills. As these industries died out in the area many old mill buildings were torn down. Others were used for the manufacture of other items, including optical lenses and lead batteries.