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Finding the First House in New Hampshire

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

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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