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Finding the First House in New Hampshire

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 SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books available for holiday gift-giving on Amazon.com. 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

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