The Ugliest Monument in New England
  • Print
Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Smith Monumnet, Star Island/

When is a monument not a monument? When it’s in grave shape. That is currently the status of the John Smith Monument on Star Island at the Isles of Shoals. It is weathered, ruined, broken and covered in seagull droppings. Even the organization that repairs it has grown too old to function. But still, deep inside, a tiny pulse beats.



SEE HISTORIC PHOTOS of the 1864 monument

The sorriest sight on the Isles of Shoals is a monument to Captain John Smith. It cowers on the southern point of Star Island, patched and cracked and thick with chalky white gull guano. If Smith was half the man he claimed in his thrilling autobiography, the poor guy deserves better. This is, after all, a monument to the explorer who gave "New England" its name, a man more responsible for us being here than Columbus. Without Smith, an 18th century Shoals historian wrote, we would likely be living today in "New France".

Where It Is

Captain John Smith from an early 20th century postcard / To pay homage to Captain Smith, one must charter a boat to Star Island and trek to the far side beyond the Oceanic Hotel. It takes just 10 minutes across the sweeping stone surface. Except for a few pitiful shrubs, this island was barren rocks from Smith's time until the middle of the 20th century. Today, in summer, the rocks are thick with knee-high poison ivy and dotted with fuzzy, gray baby gulls, all but camouflaged against the white-streaked stone. As you walk, adult seagulls swoop up behind, screeching and dive-bombing trespassers. Veteran "Shoalers" know to carry a long stick held high above their heads to create a decoy target.

Typically visitors mistake the towering granite obelisk at the back of the island for the Smith monument. It isn't. That one was built in 1914 in honor of Rev. John Tucke who preached to the wayward drunken Shoalers through much of the 1700s. For his efforts, he became the wealthiest clergyman around, paid by his subjects in "quintals of fish".

Smith's monument is just up a low rise along an all-but-invisible path with the panoramic view of White Island lighthouse to the right and Cedar to the left. The setting is spectacular. Northward the open ocean foams against the ragged shore. To the South, the curiously beautiful array of Star Island structures, little stone cottages and the Gosport Chapel hunker against the white wooden wall of Victorian buildings that make up the Oceanic Hotel complex. The view and the hotel are all but unchanged since the late 1870s when the tourism industry first flourished here and at Celia Thaxter's Appledore Hotel nearby.

How It Got There

John Smith Monument, Isles of Shoals / SeacoastNH.comThe Smith monument was one of the island's first manufactured tourist attractions. The original monument was a tall pillar set on a triangular base atop a series of steps surrounded by granite supports and a sturdy iron railing. Built in 1864 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of John Smith's visit, the memorial once projected a quiet dignity. It was built near a stone cairn that, legend says, Smith himself constructed. Not likely, but the story read well in 19th century guide books. At the top of the original obelisk were three carved faces, representing the severed heads of three Turks that Smith lopped off while in mortal combat during his stint as a soldier of fortune in Transylvania. Beheadings, for those new to terrorism, were committed by both sides in the Crusades.

Unlike his cutesy portrayal in the Disney cartoon "Pocahontas", Captain John Smith was a real Rambo -- inventive, contemplative, adventurous, romantic but ready to hack, shoot or bludgeon when provoked. It may seem odd to us that the monument was built by two local ministers, but since Smith only diced up infidels and heathens, his deeds were socially acceptable to a Victorian-era clergy. Rev George Beebe of Star Island, whose children are buried nearby, conceived the idea for the memorial. Rev. Daniel Austin of Portsmouth helped pay the tab.

How It Fell Apart

Situated on the harshest bit of real estate in the region, the Smith monument weathered quickly and badly. Only a few years after its dedication an old stereopticon photo shows just one of the three carved heads clinging by a twisted wire. Then the large pillar came crashing down in a fierce ice storm. By the beginning of the 20th century souvenir postcards already pictured it as the "ruin" of the Smith Monument.

A club called the New Hampshire Society of Colonial Wars came to Smith's rescue in the nick of time for the 300th anniversary celebration of his historic visit. In 1914 the volunteer history group capped off the wounded monument, cemented over the cracks and added a granite pedestal. Because the lengthy inscriptions on the original marble pillar had long ago washed away, they added a new bronze plaque. The minute they departed, Nature resumed her attack with salt, sun, ice, water, wind and seagull droppings. Today the Smith monument has never looked worse.

Ruins of Smith Monumnet in 1999 /

In 1919 the Star Island Corporation of Cambridge, Massachusetts officially purchased Star for use as a religious retreat along with Appledore island. Except during World War II, day trippers and summer conferees have continued to visit Star Island. Through much of the 20th century it was unclear exactly who owned Smith's moldering monument.

Through its first seven editions the Shoals touring bible, "Ten Miles Out", informed visitors that Smith's Monument is the only spot on Star Island not owned by the Star Island Corporation. Oops! The venerable guidebook got it wrong. A quick deed search proves that the giant Tuck Monument and the land around it is owned by the New Hampshire Historical Society which maintains the Tuck obelisk, but not the Smith site.


Fall of the John Smith Memorial (continued)

1914 Plaque added to 1864 Smith Monument

The Old Caretakers

Poor John Smith. He's been called "the founder of the British nation overseas," and the "Admiral of New England." But times have changed for the man with the fastest scimitar in the East. Pocahontas gets all the headlines now. Her monument in Virginia is maintained by the Pocahontas Foundation there. A handsome 1909 bronze statue of John Smith at Jamestown is cared for by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

So what happened to members of the NH Society of Colonial Wars who volunteered to help out nearly a century ago? Like the monument, they too are fading. The New Hampshire chapter was founded in 1894 and, like many early genealogical membership societies has dwindled with its aging membership. Fixing up old monuments is not a high priority among younger Americans.

The group did do a little maintenance back in 1999. L. Forbes Getchell of Newmarket and Ellsworth Cabot of Jackson, NH ferried out to Star with two gallons of water and some cement-patching compound.

"We simply mixed and plugged holes, and that's the whole story," Getchell said back then. "Ideally what we should do is take the top off and build a new base. The base is the thing that's shot."

"What we did was slap-dab maintenance," Getchell admitted. "You need to get out there and break up that base, but I'm in my 80s."

Time is catching up with the Society of Colonial Wars, a lineage organization in which members must show a genealogical link to ancestors who arrived before the American Revolution. Applications from new members are all but nonexistent and the group consists of a dozen active members, most of them well over 65.

"They did the best they could," Society governor Donald Richards of York, Maine said following the 1999 repair job. "You've got to remember that the men that went out there are pretty old. They're not professionals in any sense of the word. They said they did a little work and a lot more needed to be done."

Richards noted in 1999 that the organization officially "takes responsibility" for maintaining the Smith Monument, and ten others from as far away as Nova Scotia. But restoring or replacing the ruined monument will be costly, and beyond their means. The group is reputedly willing to pass the job to a new team.

"Nobody, I guess, is responsible for the Smith Monument," says James Garvin, an architectural historian for the state of New Hampshire and a tireless advocate of historic preservation. Garvin suggests that an historical society or nonprofit agency might "adopt" the orphaned monument.

Detail of deterioirating monument on Star Islamd, Isles of Shoals /

Looking Toward 2014

Tour boat guides never tire of telling visitors that John Smith named the Isles of Shoals "Smith Isles" after himself. The 400th anniversary of that historic visit is in the year 2014. At its present rate of deterioration, the Shoals monument may not survive to the celebration.

So who picks up the torch? The monument rests on the most eastern tip of New Hampshire, a state not well known for investing in its own history, a fact that troubled Donald Richards, a former history teacher and private school headmaster.

"My family has been in New Hampshire since 1623," he said, "but I'm afraid now that I'm ashamed of my home state."

The solution may come from the new-improved Star Island Corporation. Back in 1999 the nonprofit group was struggling to complete a costly waste-treatment plant mandated by state regulations. Since the nonprofit organization moved its headquarters from Boston to Portsmouth a few years ago, it has tackled major island projects including massive repair of the granite pier, a redesigned electrical system and restoration of the 1875 Oceanic Hotel. A reverse osmosis system now allows the island to supply its own water instead of having it hauled in daily by boat.

With all that heavy lifting, Star Island President Irene Bush admits that John Smith has had to wait in line. His memorial is "neither beautiful nor well maintained" she agrees. But since Captain Smith’s shrine is clearly on Star Island turf, it is the organization’s responsibility to fix it, she says.

In January 2006 the Star Island Corporation welcomes Amy Lockwood, who replaces Paul Jennings as Executive Director. Bush points out proudly that Lockwood majored in history at Oberlin College in Ohio and has a great deal of experience in the maintenance of historic buildings. The group has a new Island Heritage and Artifacts Committee and they are "poised to work with Amy," Irene Bush says.

Dan Fenn, chairman of the new committee, says Smith will not get lost in the shuffle this time around.

"I can think of only a few items more important than the Smith monument," Fenn told "Clearly we must join together to save it."

"I am sure we will be making appropriate plans for the Smith Monument in time for its 400th anniversary, " Irene Bush says confidently. Until then, Captain Smith’s memorial grows uglier by the day.


Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. First posted here in 1999. Additional research assistance for this article provided by Debra Childs, Maryellen Burke, Sharon Stephan, Stephanie Nugent and the Star Island Corporation. Photographs and artwork in this article used courtesy of the Isles of Shoals collection housed at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

View from Star Island by the Smith Monumnet toward sea/ J. Dennis Robinson

The monumnet in 1999 /