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Finding the First House in New Hampshire

Great_House_bad_sketch by J. Dennis RobinsonHISTORY MATTERS

Every year at this time I ask my readers to pause, solemnly bow your heads, and stop thinking about those dang Pilgrims from Massachusetts.Their funny hats and fat turkeys and pious ways and Plymouth Rock are largely fictional.  Yet New Hampshire never gives a cranberry for its own unique founders. There are no decent monuments to the 1623 settlers at Rye or the 1630 founders of Strawberry Bank that later became Portsmouth. (Yes, We focus on our role in the American Revolution as if the first 150 years of the province of New Hampshire never happened. (Continued below)

We have abandoned our founding narrative for two reasons. For one, the New Hampshire story is fuzzy. The first European characters are indistinct. The formative documents are sparse and scattered, while the original land grants are vague and overlapping. Secondly, the Pilgrim-lovers beat us to the punch. In the early 1800s the first historians of New England, many of them white Christian ministers, needed a wholesome role model for a rocky, not-yet-great nation of immigrants to emulate. Through rose-colored glasses, the Plymouth Pilgrims and the great wave of harsh Puritans who followed became the imagined architects of America’s “shining city on a hill.” The true story was simply too diverse and too complex to handle.

Early New Hampshire historians did their best to cast our founders into the Pilgrim mold, but without success. Our motley collection of fishermen, farmers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, artisans, enslaved Africans, indentured servants, and ex-military types did not inspire sonnets and statues. It wasn’t until Piscataqua men lay siege to the French fort at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia and later defended Bunker Hill that historians found the local heroes they were looking for.

pannaway Manor imagined sketch

Pannaway Manor

A search for Portsmouth’s first house quickly demonstrates how complex our story is. The first European-built structure was almost certainly in modern day Rye at Odiorne State Park. David Thompson (also spelled Thomson) and his wife Amais arrived from England in the spring of 1623 with 10 unnamed fishermen.  Within four years David was dead or missing and Amais would remarry a man from Massachusetts. The Hilton brothers who established the town of Dover (near Bloody Point on the Newington border) may have arrived with the Thompsons in 1623, as some historians believe, or arrived later in 1628 when they received a land grant.

At least three key historic figures reported visiting the Thompsons at “pannaway” or “Pascataaway,” so we can safely assume they lived somewhere near the modern Seacoast Science Center. Portsmouth historian Charles Brewster reported seeing the stone foundation of Pannaway in the mid-1800s, but it could have been any structure ruined over two intervening centuries. The area has been farmed and used as a coastal defense site with concrete bunkers and anti aircraft gun installations. So there is little hope of finding any archeological evidence of New Hampshire’s first house. When Captain John Mason of Portsmouth, England gained a patent through the Laconia Company a few years later, he decided to build his plantation three miles further up the Piscataqua River. Mason sent out an exploratory group under Captain Walter Neale to scope out the region.

Neale, an English army officer, reportedly arrived with eight or ten ex-military adventurers aboard the bark Warwick in the spring or summer of 1630. As acting governor, Neale had wide-ranging powers. He set up operations at Pannaway Manor. David Thompson’s fortified stone house, fish-drying operation, a small fleet of ships, the farm, and saltworks all appear to have been largely abandoned. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, so the Laconia Company grant was quickly amended to include this area and the lucrative fishing posts at the Isles of Shoals.

It is very unlikely that Thompson’s “stone house” was built of stone, but was more likely a wooden house with a stone foundation.

“If you told me that David Thompson built a stone house here in 1623,” says 17th century scholar and archaeologist Emerson Baker of York, Maine, “I would have laughed. But having seen the latest digs going on in Newfoundland and the stone structures there, it gives me a little hesitation. Who knows?”


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018 
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