Fishing Adventures at the Isles of Shoals
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Richard_Henry_Dana_in_1842HISTORY MATTERS

Portsmouth is staking its claim once again as a literary capital. Bestselling authors are lining up to speak at the Music Hall and Riverrun Bookstore. Back in the 19th century top authors like Whittier, Hawthorne, Twain, Emerson and Thoreau visited New Hampshire’s only seaport. Most were en route to poet Celia Thaxter’s summer literary salon on Appledore Island. (Continued below)

But one literary lion has all but escaped notice. Richard Henry Dana slipped into town alone on August 23, 1843 aboard the steamer Telegraph bound from Salem, Massachusetts. After a refreshing night at the Rockingham Hotel the Boston author and lawyer hired a boat to take him to the Isles of Shoals for a week of fishing. His brief journal, published half a century later, is packed with details of island life that was soon to disappear.

Richard Henry Dana's Shoals Journal

READ ALSO: Hawthorn's complete Shoals journal

If you know Richard Henry Dana at all, it is likely from his one important book. Two Years Before the Mast (1840) is an American classic. Dana’s vivid memoir offers a rare view of life along the largely unexplored West Coast that would become California before the Gold Rush changed everything. Dana drew attention to the hardships of sailors at sea. A champion of the rights of common workers, Dana describes the fishing families of the Shoals with equal empathy and detail. Those families would be wiped out by the "gold rush" of island tourism that soon followed.

Richard Henry Dana’s adventure began the moment he passed Whaleback Light in Portsmouth Harbor. On learning that his paying customer was an experienced sailor, Captain Jackson, owner of the Temperance, handed the tiller over to Dana. The captain pointed out the mist-covered Isles of Shoals in the distance, and then went to sleep in the bottom of the boat. Dana narrowly missed colliding with a large wooden sloop that cut across his bow just off Duck Island.

CONTINUE Richard Henry Dana

Richard Henry Dana's Shoals Journal (continued)

Life on a Star

They arrived intact at Star Island, a barren rocky spit of land officially known then as the town of Gosport, NH. The cove was thick with discarded fish heads and bones and the ancient village reeked of rotting fish. "You won’t stay here more than a day or two," Capt. Jackson said, but Dana lasted a week. He was fascinated by the primitive lifestyle of roughly 100 villagers, most of whom lived in the 20 weather-beaten shacks that dotted the isolated spot six miles off the mainland.

Dana was not the first tourist at the Shoals. The Mid-Ocean House of Entertainment on Smuttynose Island may have opened as early as 1813, but was apparently closed that summer in 1843. The large Appledore Hotel would not be built until 1847 and the original Oceanic Hotel, predecessor to the white wooden structure that still dominates Star Island, did not appear until 1873. Dana lodged with "Old Joe" and "Aunt Sally" Caswell and was pleased with their rustic accommodations.

The Caswells were considered the wealthiest and most refined family among the impoverished inhabitants of Gosport. The Shoals fishing industry began in the early 1600s and peaked before the Revolutionary War when all but a couple dozen hard-bitten Gosportians moved to the mainland. What Dana encountered was the wreckage of a once populous civilization, a tribe in decline. The last of the villagers are often depicted as lawless, godless inbred and perpetually drunk, but the early 1840s marked an era of sobriety in town. Most Shoalers had taken the "abstinence pledge" to avoid liquor. Most attended Sunday services in Gosport Chapel. On weekends, Dana reports, the fisherman cleaned out their boats, put on fresh clothes, and took their families sailing – one of the few pleasures available to them.


A chance encounter

In fact, the greatest danger to the Shoalers at this moment was a newcomer named Thomas Laighton. A discouraged politician and newspaper editor, Laighton abandoned life ashore to become the keeper of White Island lighthouse in 1839. By 1843 Laighton had purchased Smuttynose and Hog (Appledore) islands and locals feared that his plan was to sell hard liquor to the fisherman across Gosport Harbor. Instead, he built the Appledore Hotel that attracted thousands of Boston-area tourists annually to the gorgeous scenery, fresh air and hearty meals on Appledore.

On Friday, August 18, 1843 Dana went sailing with Joseph Cheever, Laighton’s brother-in-law, who was then managing the lighthouse with his wife and three children. Dana and Cheever landed in the sheltered cove on Smuttynose Island. History has left us only snippets about the craggy character named Thomas Laighton whose influence turned the Shoals into a tourist Mecca. No clear photograph has been located. His sons Oscar and Cedric eventually ran the Appledore Hotel and the Oceanic, while his daughter poet Celia Laighton Thaxter made the Isles of Shoals famous with her romantic writing. Celia was just eight years old when Dana met her father brooding on Smuttynose.

"He was seated on the pier, dressed in the roughest manner, with a coarse, dirty handkerchief about his neck, chewing tobacco, and whittling a stick with a jackknife," Dana recorded in his journal.

Initially Laighton spoke only in "unintelligible" grunts, but the charming young Harvard lawyer was determined to draw him out. As their conversation blossomed, he discovered a man frustrated by the cut-throat partisan politics of his era. Every republic in history had been a failure, Laighton said, and he feared that the United States would soon tear itself to pieces with political wrangling.

"I found that he had read a great deal, and was a sagacious man," Dana wrote, "but had strong prejudices and a dislike of established laws and orders, and of any persons who has positions other than his own."

CONTINUE 1843 Gosport Journal

Richard Henry Dana's Shoals Journal

More Shoaler adventures

During his visit a sudden northeaster whipped through the island community. Dana was stunned by the ferocity with which the storm lashed the tiny Isles, and then just as quickly dissolved. When the storm abated he hiked over the rocky shore to where Star Island meets Cedar Island.

"I never saw so large seas break on any shore before," Dana wrote. "They rushed over rocks of the height of forty or fifty feet, and sent their spray far higher into the air."


Dana was amazed when a group of Gosport boys brought a large Newfoundland dog right to the edge of a cliff. Then suddenly the dog jumped into the crushing surf. It foundered, nearly drowned, and then struggled onto a flat slippery rock. The dog, however, "wished to go off again" and the boys had to restrain it from leaping back into the pounding ocean surf. Years later a woman who worked at the hotel was washed off the same rocks. A week passed before her body was discovered in York, Maine.

When Mr. Cheevers new sailboat swamped in the storm, Dana and Caswell tried to gather a crew of Shoalers to help, but none would go. The seas were too risky they said, and besides, the lighthouse keeper was a federal employee. If he wanted help, he should contact the government.

Later that same day the Gosport fishermen went out in their small wooden boats to catch mackerel that had been stirred up by the storm. Ever the adventurer, Dana borrowed a boat from Caswell and went along. The steep waves turned the boats almost perpendicular in their wake, he wrote.

"The rollers were so high and so pitched the boats about that only a quick helm with a stiff breeze kept them from being capsized or swamped… My boat being small, we were pitched and tumbled about at such a rate that it completely confused me and made me dizzy and in a short time I felt seasick and vomited a little. Yet I kept at fishing and caught several mackerel."

Richard Henry Dana paid Joseph Caswell exactly $2.50 for the week’s meals and lodging at Gosport. The Caswell’s would not take a penny more, even for renting their boat. Dana convinced them to keep the fish he caught and secretly tipped their daughter 50 cents to spend the next time she visited the big city of Portsmouth. Dana went on to become a prominent lawyer, fought against slavery and for the rights of working men and women. He died while traveling in Rome in 1882.

We have few such colorful glimpses of Gosport life. There are often dull reports from as many as 30 missionaries who attempted to Christianize the fishing families. Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, stayed a week at the Appledore House in 1853 and left an interesting journal. We have reliable reports from a few amateur historians who stopped by around the time of the Civil War.

And, of course, we have those clever anecdotes about the quirky Shoalers from writer Celia Thaxter and her brothers Oscar and Cedric. But the story stops dead in 1873 when a wealthy Boston investor bought up all but one of the lots on Star Island. He built the luxurious Oceanic Hotel far out to sea. A few years later, on the 14th of March, 1876, the uninhabited town of Gosport held one final symbolic meeting and disappeared into history.

KEY SOURCE: Gosport Remembered, edited by Peter Randall and Maryellen Burke, Portsmouth Marine Society, 1997.


Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is owner of the history Web site and his column appears here every other Monday. His latest history book for children is Striking Back: The Fight to End Child Labor Exploitation.