Finding the First House in New Hampshire
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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?”


The Great Houses

While Captain Neal was encamped at Pannaway, chasing pirates, and off searching for precious stones in the White Mountains , the first European structure was being built at Portsmouth, then called Strawberry Bank. Historians usually refer to this building as the “Great House,” but the term is confusing. By 1631 John Mason’s men had taken possession of  Thompson’s fishing operation and owned a successful new fur trading post at Newichwannick, now South Berwick, Maine.  Although Mason’s largest dwelling was at Strawberry Bank, the phrase “great house” seems to have been used to refer to all three Piscataqua settlements interchangeably. To drive historians crazy, the same properties are sometimes known as “Mason’s Hall,” the “Manor House,” “Rendezvous,” “The Great Hall,” “Mason’s Manor House,” and more. Our 19th century forebears from the “colonial revival” era desperately wanted to believe that their past was grand, even when it was not.

The term “great house,” confusing to modern readers, refers to any large manor house usually occupied by the reigning landlord in a highly class-conscious society. Important English families lived in big houses, although not huge by modern standards. Prof. Baker points, for example, to the foundation of the Gov. John Winthrop Great House discovered during excavations for Boston’s “Big Dig” in Charlestown, MA.  Built in 1629 (and later expanded into a tavern) the original Winthrop manor was about 18 x 40 feet and is now visible in Charlestown City Square.

GREAT_HOUSE_1660_Map / Portsmouth, NH

At Strawberry Bank

Only one precious miniature sketch of the Great House at Strawberry Bank survives on a hand-drawn map of the Piscataqua region from the 1660s.  Now in the British Museum, the map shows a two-story structure with two end chimneys separated by four peaked gables along the front of the roof.  Similar early houses were built of timbers squared by hand, probably oak, since that was wood familiar to skilled English carpenters. Initially, at least, the Great House would have been an all-purpose space with a large downstairs room similar to a medieval “great hall” that functioned as communal living space, trading post, and storehouse.

No written description of the Great House at Strawberry Bank survives, but a look inside a 1640-era manor at Cape Elizabeth offers clues. Plantation owner John Winter described his manor there as 40 by 18 feet with a large fireplace, an attached room near the kitchen, storage for twenty tons of casks, a steward’s room, and a sizeable eating area. Each room had doors and locks. Of the two large chambers, one was big enough to sleep all the men working at what is still called Richmond Island.

According to Charles Brewster the first Portsmouth arrivals in 1631 numbered about 80. They came in stages, many indentured to work for a specified time. Two centuries later Brewster copied the names of all the men from early records into his history column in the Portsmouth Journal, noting as an afterthought, that there were also twenty-two unidentified women. How many of these settlers actually arrived on the Pied Cow (often spelled “Pide Cowe”), Portsmouth’s bland equivalent of the Mayflower, is uncertain.

Mason’s relationship with his settlers was a slow tug of war with long months lagging between each transatlantic conversation. Mason’s agent usually begged for more goods made in England – shoes, nails, beer,  Mason, in return, promised to send more supplies as soon as the colonists could produce something he could sell in England to pay back his investors. While furs and fish came from the settlement in South Berwick, the Great House here produced very little. Strawberry Bank and Pannaway were, initially, failed investments.  In 1635 as he was outfitting a ship to visit his colony for the first time, John Mason died. The Laconia Company folded soon after that, abandoning the New Hampshire colonists to fend for themselves. Puritan businessmen from England quickly took over at Strawberry Bank.

Despite the constant complaints from the early residents of the Great House, life was better here than the early years at Jamestown or Plymouth where half the new colonists died. A precise and extended inventory of all three plantations made after John Mason’s death offers a look inside the great houses where everything belonged to the proprietor. The inventory shows scores of items, including: guns (161), swords (61), shirts (80), pairs of stockings (204), iron kettles (23), rugs (40), musical instruments (17), sugar (610 lbs), corn (140 bushels), pine planks (1,151), livestock (155 head), and bibles (1). Clearly Portsmouth was not founded for religious freedom.

CONTINUE First House in NH

Will we ever know more?

Little has changed in our knowledge of Portsmouth first houses since histories written in the 1800s. In fact, according to Richard Candee, an expert in first period architecture, we actually know less because much of the history we rely on is inaccurate.

Early_English_ship“They [early Portsmouth historians] made a bunch of assumptions,” Candee says, “that often turned out not to be true. They thought we started living in log cabins.”

More likely the Great House was a post-in-ground structure like the mid-1600s Humphrey Chadbourne site excavated by Emerson Baker in South Berwick. Baker also excavated a 1636 site in York, Maine. Data accumulated from these modern scientific digs, Candee points out, give us more detail from which we can speculate about Portsmouth’s first houses. We are fairly certain where that the Great House stood on the crest of a hill that sloped down to the sea and to the tidal inlet or “cove” that gave Puddle Dock neighborhood its name. The cove, now filled in, was an attraction to the early settlers.

One of its old chimneys and the southern wall of the Great House were reportedly still standing in 1695. Historians generally agree that the Great House, the first European-built structure in Portsmouth, sat near what is now the southeast corner of Court and Marcy streets (formerly Pitt and Water streets). That puts it across from the modern entrance to the Memorial Bridge end of Prescott Park. Strawbery Banke Museum today is literally in the “back yard” of the original Great House. The area that is the museum may once have been used as an orchard. The Laconia Company’s original thousand-acre grant to John Mason included much of what is currently downtown Portsmouth.

For now, the possible location of the Great House is patiently waiting future exploration. Archaeologist Martha Pinello believes the building may have been located near the community garden site at Strawebery Banke Museum. The raised gardens there are purposely above ground to preserve what ever may be hiding below.

“We all think it’s somewhere between the water and the knoll of the hill,” Pinello says today. “It would have been at the higher point.”

Years ago, Pinello says, diggers found a cluster of stones with a wooden stake in the center. That could be the corner boundary marker of a 17th century building.

“It would be a logical place to do some limited test excavations,” Emerson Baker says. “But it’s like a needle in a haystack.”

For now, if there are archaeological clues to Portsmouth’s first house, they remain safely buried beneath the earth. And don’t hold your breath.

According to Strawbery Banke Museum president Lawrence Yerdon, “We have no current plans” to go looking for the Great House. Maybe next Thanksgiving?


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books available for holiday gift-giving on They include UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER: Portions of this essay are adapted from Strawbery Banke: A Seaport Museum 400 Years in the Making by Robinson