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What Martin Pring Was Really After

The Search for Sassafras


SassafrasBrewster mentions the search for sassafras which he admits was the prime reason for Pring’s 3,000 mile journey from England in two small sailing ships, the Speedwell and the Discoverer, with combined crews of 56 men and boys. He describes the slender tree with the orange-brown bark as "that valued tree whose medical virtues in that age were regarded as the elixir of life". Brewster was, after all, a devout church-goer, a loyal husband and the dedicated father of eight children. VD was not on his radar.

To make a short story even shorter, Pring found no sassafras here. Indeed, there is no positive evidence that Pring was here at all. His account describes a spot along the coast with four rivers, of which only one was deep and wide enough to penetrate about 12 miles. Historians agree that it sounds as if Pring passed the Saco, the Kennebec and the York rivers and traveled in the smaller boat down the fast-lowing Piscataqua, beyond "the Narrows" and into Great Bay. If so, he passed back out quickly and traveled south to Cape Cod where his men found and harvested sassafras trees for the next six weeks.

Pulitzer prize winning biographer Ola Elizabeth Winslow devotes an entire chapter to Pring in her 1966 book for children "Portsmouth, the Life of a Town". Again, of course, the sassafras story gets a G-rating. And the story doesn’t really get interesting until Pring arrives in what is to become Massachusetts. There we get an amazing picture of pre-colonial contact with Native Americans. Scores of Indians, attracted to the odd sight of white men digging up 20-foot tall trees, cluster around the group’s wooden barricade. When a young sailor begins playing his guitar, the Indians danced in a circle, made "savage" gestures and sang "la, lo, la, lo, la, la, lo". The guitar player received tobacco, pipes and a six-foot dried snake skin from the hospitable Indians.

Pring Engraving


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Friday, December 15, 2017 
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