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How NH Was Settled by Mistake

Ming dynasty ruler in the early 1600s

New Hampshire founder John Mason lost a fortune on his New Hampshire colony. Its settlers were supposed to find gold and plant vineyards for wine. That didn’t work. He hoped that his Piscataqua River connected him with Indian traders on the Great Lakes. And in a perfect world, his river went all the way to China.




If you don’t know much about the founding of New Hampshire, join the club. Historians too are uncertain about exactly who landed where, when and why. But one curious fact is clear. New Hampshire’s seaport, Portsmouth, was founded by mistake. Captain John Mason, the primary English investor in the colony at Strawbery Banke, pinned his hopes on bad information. Mason was looking for a shortcut to an imaginary place called "The Lake of the Iroquois." where he hoped to make his fortune trading in Indian furs. Mason hoped too that New Hampshire’s Piscataqua River was the secret "northwest passage" to the Indian lakes, and possibly, to China itself.

Like his investment partner Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Mason was convinced that the rivers in the New World were the gateway to the riches of the Orient. Gorges, the Governor of Plymouth, England funded George Weymouth’s 1605 expedition to find the elusive passage to the East. Weymouth returned, instead, with five kidnapped Maine natives, the first Indians ever seen in England. Weymouth presented three of them – Tisquamtum, Manida and Skidwarres – to Gorges, who entertained, housed and studied them for three years. Gorges presented the Indians to the English court as a public relations tool to drum up investors for high-stakes New World exploration. His PR campaign led, in part, to the creation of the London Company of investors who started Jamestown at Virginia in 1607.

Early incorrect directions to New Hampshire from England/ Art by

The Plymouth Company, a second group of investors run largely by Gorges, formed at the same time. Their early voyages to "Northern Virginia", later called New England, are largely ignored by American history texts because they did not lead to "permanent" settlements. The groups first voyage misfired, ending up in Puerto Rico. Gorges group quickly launched another, bigger mission with 124 men, two ships and a prestigious leader named Sir George Popham. This group settled near the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine just ahead of the southern expedition that set foot at Jamestown in 1607. The Popham Colony survived just over a year, abandoning a sophisticated fort and leaving behind the body of leader George Popham who died during the frigid winter in Maine. But this failure did not kill Ferdinando Gorges’ hope that he was on the right track. Before his death, Popham wrote to Gorges saying that the local Indians had assured him there was a great large sea only seven days journey from their fort.

"This cannot be other than the Southern Ocean, reaching to the regions of China," Popham wrote back, "which unquestionably cannot be far from these regions."

Whether Popham’s sources were talking about nearby Sebago Lake or Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire or the distant Great Lakes is unknown. While the idea of sailing up the Piscataqua to reach the East Indies seems ridiculous today, it was downright logical to English entrepreneurs like Gorges and Mason whose explorers had scarcely pierced the skin of the mysterious American continent, and whose Indian guides spoke of great lakes to the west. When Henry Hudson discovered his giant Hudson’s Bay deep in the Canadian wilderness the following year in 1610, he assumed, at first, it was the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t, but the game was on. Hudson’s voyage opened a lucrative new European fur trade with North American Indians.


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Thursday, February 22, 2018 
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