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Which Bartlett is Bartlett Street?


Ronan Donohoe at Portsmouth Atheneaum/ Photo

Circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but the case for Josiah Bartlett was growing strong, and I was running out of time. The rabbit hole next led me to Strawbery Banke Museum. As if changing the streets isn't confusing enough, at Strawbery Banke, they move entire houses to different locations. In a brick building near the end of Court (formerly Pitt) Street was a little-known research room used largely by museum staff. At this writing the little library is being scrutinized. Some of it may move into the new Carter Center currently being constructed. Exactly where all the materials will end up is still uncertain.

A few years back the former librarian gave me an introductory tour of the Thayer-Cumings Library Archive. Like the Athenaeum, there was a photo file there of Portsmouth houses arranged by street. The librarian and I reviewed the city maps, photos and directories again, but nothing we found supported or deflated the Josiah Bartlett theory.

Next stop, the Whaley library at St. John's Lodge. Many of the Bartlett's were Masons and this is a superb research site for Masonic history, but drat, the library was closed. It’s only open one day a week by appointment.

With a deadline looming, I called David Goodman, a researcher then working on a list of all historic records owned by the City of Portsmouth. The list with Goodman's report runs to 400 pages and should eventually be part of the city's online resources. These are not the original manuscripts, mind you, just a gigantic list of about 5,880 documents that exist and where to find them.

David suggested that -- if I really wanted the answer to my question -- I should go down to City Hall and comb through the minutes of the mayor and Board of Alderman and the notes from the Common Council of the city from 1876 to 1877. (Insert yawn here.) There might be a statement on the record there indicating exactly which Bartlett was being honored with his own street. But ... maybe not. Once I located an exact date of the meeting, David said, I could possibly track down a report in one of the newspapers of the period.

That sounded like hours on the old microfiche machine back at the public library, spooling through projected images of old newspapers. Sorry, gentle reader, I leave that superhuman work for braver researchers. I was about to throw in the towel when someone said, "Hey, do you know about Nancy Grossman's book?"

Nancy was then working on a book about the origin of every street in Portsmouth! She offered a few street-naming anecdotes from her research. She favors the story about a nice guy, a poet and a philanthropist in the 19th century who planted elms along a Portsmouth roadside. Then he went off to war and got himself killed. Richards Avenue is named in his honor.

"But what about Bartlett Street?" I whined. My time in the rabbit hole was up. I could see the White Rabbit with his giant pocket watch waving at me from the opening.

"I haven't gotten to that one yet," Nancy said.

Double-drat. But not to despair Rich Collins of Bartlett Street. Nancy’s book eventually came out, published by Back Channel Press, a company she owns with her husband and book-designer John Grossman. According to Placenames of Portsmouth, Bartlett Street was formerly Cambridge Street. Okay. Nancy suggests, in print, that the street was "most probably named for" President Josiah Bartlett. Huzzah! I had come out of the rabbit hole exactly where I went in, and boy were my arms and legs tired from all that digging. But I will dig no more. Nancy Grossman’s book tracks the derivation of 466 Portsmouth street names. Whatever she says about any street in town goes double for me.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

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