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Misty Legends of Sam Haley

Haley House

History Exclusive: 
King of the Isles of Shoals

He built an island kingdom, but only one house remains. Did he really find pirate treasure? Did he bury frozen shipwrecked sailors? Did his father spend the American Revolution isolated on Smuttynose Island?




VISIT: Our Smuttynose Murder sectionSmuttynose Ale
SEE ALSO: Haley House Before Restoration

They Called it Haley's Island

You know Samuel Haley's squat wooden house from the label on bottles of Smuttynose Ale lined up in the supermarket. For years it was considered the oldest house in Maine. It is not, and the building date remains a mystery like so much of Sam Haley's life. Some books say the two-room cape was built before the American Revolution. Others say afterwards, as late as 1790.

In the 19th century the Haley House hunkered among a dozen buildings all clustered near the cove at Smuttynose island. The others have been torn down, burned or carted away, but Haley's sturdy cape clings like a barnacle to the rocky hill. We know it was moved at least once since the granite front steps, flanked by wild rose bushes, are now 30 feet away.

The building has been abandoned and adapted, ransacked and renovated over at least two centuries. The roof blew off in the hurricane of 1938. The ruined cottage was fully restored in the 1990s by a traveling carpenter who offered his work in exchange for chance to spent time there each summer. Today a group of Smuttymose Stewards maintain the house and island for the owners who are descended from the Thaxter family. Yet the cottage looks much as the original owner left it, still without running water, insulation or electricity.

Haley's IslandI spend a week of every year living under Sam Haley's roof, wondering much of the time, who he really was. Poet Celia Thaxter did the same. As a young girl in the early 1840s she used to sit on a lookout platform once attached to the roof of the house. Thirty years later Celia recalled Haley in h her book Among the Isles of Shoals (1873):

I used to think how many times he [Haley] had sat there with his spyglass, scanning the horizon and all within it, while the wind ruffled his gray hair and the sun shone pleasantly across his calm old face.

Celia is actually talking about Sam Haley's son, Captain Sam Haley, Jr., since the first Sam Haley died in 1811, aged 84. His son died in 1839 at age 76 when Celia was just five years old, so her memory must have been strong indeed. Both men are reportedly buried in the family cemetery on a rise just in back of the house. Each summer I clear the tall grass from the tombstones there with a gas powered weed whacker and wonder what lies beneath the thin skin of peaty soil stretched over the rocky core of Smuttynose Island.

It was Celia's father Thomas Laighton of Portsmouth who bought Smuttynose from the Haleys in 1839. Besides the Haley Cottage, a pier and other buildings, the Laighton's purchased the Mid-Ocean House of Entertainment. Running this two-story summer guest-house apparently inspired Thomas Laighton to build his expansive hotel on Appledore Island nearby starting in 1846.




Mid Ocean House

A rugged entrepreneur, Sam Haley turned his island into a self-sustaining kingdom. At its peak Smuttynose had a dock and warehouse, a rope walk, a granary, distillery, brewery, cherry orchard, salt-works, boat house, hotel, bakery, cooper’s shop, brick-works, blacksmith shop and a windmill. When he died the compound was valued at $3,000. But son Sam Jr. said he could pay only $2,000 for the island, which he did, paying each of five other Haley children $400 each for their shares.

But the famous Thaxters left behind hundreds of photographs and letters, while the Haleys left only legends, rotting buildings and a few legal documents. Rosamund Thaxter mentions Samuel Haley on just a single page in "Sandpiper", her loving biography of her famous grandmother Celia. Rosamund or "Aunt Rozzie" later inherited a portion of Haley's Island and her 1950s-era cottage is the only other building standing on the island today. Despite all their industry and fecundity, the Haleys have been swallowed by the Laightons.

The Haley legacy on the Shoals is made up largely of anecdotes, some of them possibly false, that the Laightons promulgated to attract summer tourists to their island resort. Here's what I could gather up:

Haley COve, late 1800s

When Did the Haleys Arrive?

Very early records indicate that an Andrew Haley, a fisherman, came to the Isles of shoals as early as 1629. Like most seasonal fisherman of that era, he probably also left the Shoals as soon as he had the chance. There are a number of Andrew Haleys on record and someone by that name purchased land in York Maine in the mid-1600s and then sold it soon after.

Haley descendents sometimes conclude that Sam Haley, born a century after Andrew Haley's arrival, must therefore have been a native Shoaler, but connecting the dots of history is not that simple. A visit to Haley family genealogy web sites shows a confusing web of names. But according to Shoals historian Bob Tuttle, Samuel was born in nearby Exeter, New Hampshire in March of 1727. He married Mary Orne (born December 1732) of the Isles of Shoals in 1756. So it was his wife, not Samuel, who was the true islander.




All Hail King Haley

In his book "Old Kittery and her Families" historian Everett Stakpole notes that Andrew Haley was called "King of the Shoals" in the 17th century. I doubt that. Celia Thaxter says Samuel Haley was nicknamed "King Haley" more than a century later since he was the patriarch of a large family that dominated Smuttynose Island. That makes more sense. Shoals historian Lyman Ruttledge expands this to say that Haley "was long known as King of the Islands". Here again, amateur genealogists wanting to connect the dots have imagined a Haley dynasty that dominated the entire Shoals for over 300 years, but it just was not so. More likely, Stackpole just got it wrong. Another historian suggests that Haley's full name was actually Samuel King Haley, but I've been unable to substantiate that one.

The Revolutionary Warrior

History tells us that the inhabitants of the Isles of Shoals were routed off the islands during the American Revolution, but exactly when or by whom is unclear. Mainlanders apparently feared that the poor and independent Shoalers might offer aid to the British for the right price. Local historians like to think Sam Haley Sr. refused to leave Smuttynose, having built up his self-sustaining island kingdom. Shoals historian Bob Tuttle tells me that the most accepted story is that Samuel Haley arrived at Smuttynose in 1750. Why he came to this barren place is still unclear, but this makes sense considering his marriage to a Shoaler six years later. This may also mean that the Haley Cottage was built before the Revolution.


Super-Sizing the Haley Clan

Thaxter and Ruttledge and others continually note that Sam Haley had two sons who carried on his little empire. What they fail to note, Bob Tuttle points out, is that Samuel and Mary also had nine daughters. One of them married the minister on Star and the Haley clan grew rapidly. Celia Thaxter grows rapturous in her description of one of Haley’s descendants – a pretty, slender brown-eyed girl, modest and sweet, and with "the clear light of intelligence in her eyes". Celia attributes the girl’s "unconscious dignity and grace" to her excellent breeding, much in contrast to most of the intermarried, drunken, heathen Shoalers that she seems to find on Star Island.

Burying the Spanish Sailors?

Captain Haley is well remembered for leaving a light in the window of his cottage to warn approaching ships of the treacherous Shoals. Yet in January 1813, a ship crashed onto Haley’s Island and, over the next few days, 14 bodies were found. In Celia’s romanticized version old Sam Haley (already two years dead himself) finds the bodies frozen in their last desperate attempt to crawl towards his house.

The discovery must have been made by Captain Sam Haley Jr, who supposedly buried the Spanish sailors in a shallow grave marked by rocks just down the walking trail today from the Haley cemetery. He requested a fee from the town for his burial work. There are rocks there, for sure, but archeologists with ground-penetrating radar discovered not human remains, not even disturbed topsoil in the area of the supposed graves.

Bars of Pirate Treasure?

According to the most famous legend, a few years after the Spanish shipwreck, Captain Haley found four silver bars under a flat rock. He cashed them in and used the money to build or repair the breakwater between Smuttynose and Malaga island nearby around 1820. This tale, wrapped in rumors of Blackbeard's treasure, has lured fortune hunters, divers and prospectors with metal detectors to the island ever since. Although the story has never been authenticated, and Celia admits it is derived from tales told by Star Island fishermen, it is still recited with authority by tour boat guides and treasure-hunter web sites.

Shoals history tends to get recycled like pieces of furniture on an island. New authors slap new paint on old stories and then pass them along. Gosport records are sparse and sometimes unreliable, even Celia admits. She herself was home schooled on the islands from the age of four, taught by her father Thomas and her future husband Levi Thaxter. Her primary source was the oral history of native Shoalers who she herself described as often drunk, lazy uneducated, quarrelsome and untrustworthy. Yet her work is often taken for fact. The result is a ghostly portrait of two Samuel Haleys that may never grow clearer.

Samuel Haley grave

Opening photos courtesy of Smuttynose Brewery. Photo of MidOcean House courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum. Haley Covr photo courtesy of Peter Randall/UNH Special COllections. Photo of Sam Haley's tomb by J. Dennis Robinson.


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