It isn’t much, but it’s all we have – a gull-streaked monument to the man who named New England. Here is the most detailed description of the memorial at the Isles of Shoals, including its history in an exclusive series of historic photographs covering the life of the monument.
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JOHN SMITH MONUMENT
Location: Star Island, NH, Isls of Shoals
Honors: Captain John Smith (1580-1631) First European to map & name
Dedicated: 1864, rededicated in 1914
Artist and Sponsors: Allen Treat, Portsmouth Monument Worker with Rev. Daniel Austin of Portsmouth, NH and Rev. George Beebe of Star
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Few characters in American history can match the colorful and controversial Captain John Smith. Best known as the a leader of the 1607 British colony at Jamestown, VA, Smith has ties to New England as well. It was Smith who first referred to this region as "New England" in his famous published map of 1616 -- the map that finally set off the European drive to invest in the profitable colonization of America.
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Smith, never modest, named the Isles of Shoals "Smith isles" during his visit in 1614 and vowed to return to colonize his favorite New England area. According to local lore, Smith actually came onto the Isles and early tourists were told that he built a cairn of rocks there. This story, popular with island tourists during the booming hotel era, may have inspired "shoaler" Rev. George Beebe to build a more significant monument to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Smith's visit in 1864 during the close of the Civil War. Celia Thaxter's family hotel was active at this time on Appledore Island next door. It would be a few years before the Oceanic Hotel, a competing business, was built here on Star Island, kicking off the "hotel era" of the island, and the end of the Gosport Harbor era of this fishing village ten miles out to sea. Prominent Portsmouth clergyman Rev. Daniel Austin was the donor. The site of the Smith monument is near one of the remaining stone cairns and near the Beebe cemetery on Star island.
Smith Monument Seemingly an odd subject for two ministers, the triangular base and cap of the monument symbolizes the "three Turks heads" that John Smith decapitated during his early days as a soldier of fortune on the Crusades in Transylvania. (This was before his trip to America and meeting with Pocahontas.) Originally the monument had a tall marble or wooden column in the center and that was topped with carvings of three Turkish "bashas" whom Smith reportedly defeated in one-on-one combat. A photograph, possibly from 1890, shows all three heads missing from atop the monument, although the reinforcement wires that held them in place are still visible. An earlier Davis Brothers stereo card shows one carved head still visible. The extensive inscription on all sides of the original monument were thought to be lost for years until an account of them was found in an early newspaper.
By the turn of the 20th century the column too had washed away in an Island storm leaving the monument, according to a 1907 news article, was little more than "a sad ruin." Still it remained a tourist attraction and pictures of the crumbling monument appeared on postcards and in guide books until it was patched up in 1914. At that time a large granite obelisk was built to honor another Shoals minister, Rev. John Tuck with money from the philanthropic Tuck family. Media reports mentioned the dilapidated condition of Smith's tiny memorial nearby, and a group called the Society of Colonial Wars volunteered to repair the Smith monument to coincide with the Tuck dedication and the 300th anniversary of Smith's visit. The group added a granite cap with a bronze plaque and again covered the stepped monument with cement.
Time, salt, ice, wind, water and seagulls have, in the 20th century, reduced the monument to its worst condition ever. There has been, in recent years, some discussion of who actually owns the monument. In seven editions of the popular guidebook "Ten Miles Out", visitors read that the monument is the only plot of land on the island not owned by the Star Island Corporation. Instead, it appears, that line refers to the Tuck Monument that is maintained by the NH Historical Society. With 2014 approaching, the 400th anniversary of Smith's visit to the Shoals, another preservation effort is needed - assuming the toppling structure can last that long.
Written by J. Dennis Robinson. Updated 2006 by SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved. First appeared here in 1999.
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