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How Harvard Helped Portsmouth and Vice Versa

Six years after the first Strawberry Bank settler arrived on the Piscataqua River, Harvard College was born. The two colonial experiments strugged along together in the New World, growing up and sharing the wealth. Then the Portsmouth economcy flagged and faded as the elite Boston school hit its stride. But that wasn’t the end of their connection. (Read full article below)


My father went through Harvard. Or at least, that’s what he told us kids. We knew it was a gag. It was cheaper to get into Heaven than Harvard back then, and at $55,000 per year today, little has changed.

To be precise, my dad walked from one side of the Cambridge campus to the other one afternoon. Then he enlisted in the Marines right out of high school and fought at Iwo Jima in World War II. He’s 88 this week and still sticking to his Harvard story.

In my father’s footsteps, I lectured to Harvard students last week. To be precise I spoke to the Harvard Club of New Hampshire. These august alums meet annually. This year they gathered on the Seacoast and invited me to give the keynote address. I was surprised to discover how often the histories of Portsmouth and Harvard overlap.

Crimson vs Big Green

Nathaniel Adams mentions Harvard 34 times in his Annals of Portsmouth (1825), the earliest written history of the Port City. Adams graduated from Dartmouth, so it is fair to assume that his first reference to the nation’s oldest college contains a whiff of sarcasm. It reads:

"On the second of June (1638) there was a severe shock of an earthquake. It appeared at first like distant thunder; as the sound approached the earth began to tremble and with so much violence as to throw down dishes and plates which stood upon the shelves. Many were afraid that their houses would fall. Harvard College may date its origin from this year."

Ivy League rivalries never die. When I mentioned to my Harvard hosts that I had previously spoken to the Dartmouth Alumni Club, one of them quipped, "We’re exactly the same, except that our group will understand the jokes."

In fact, it was Portsmouth-born John Wentworth who helped found Dartmouth College in 1769. John Wentworth held both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard, but that didn’t save him from the American Revolution. Five years after kick-starting Dartmouth, New Hampshire’s last royal governor was kicked out of the country, never to return.

His predecessor, Gov. Benning Wentworth (Class of 1715), was quite the party animal. According to an article in Harvard Magazine, "Wentworth evidently stood out mainly for his high spirits; he set a college record of fines for broken windows and other damage consequent upon undergraduate hell-raising." Wentworth must have learned something from his alma mater. He went on to become one of the richest men in New England. His rambling 1760s mansion still stands at Little Harbor.

HARVARD IN NH continued  

 Rev_Tucke_Memorial on Star Island/ J. Dennis Robinson photo

Doing God’s work

Initially called "New College" Harvard dates its official founding from 1636, just six years after the "plantation" named Strawberry Bank erected its first building across from modern Prescott Park. Like most early American institutions, Harvard was founded on religious principles. Its original Latin motto translates as "Truth for Christ and the Church."

Andrew_PeabodyPolitics and religion were inseparable in England during the colonial era, and we can see those tumultuous times mirrored here on our shores. The first missionary to the Isles of Shoals in 1643, for example, was an Anglican minister and Oxford graduate from England named Joseph Hull. When the Puritans took over the English monarchy and lopped off the king’s head, Hull was replaced in 1653 by a Puritan preacher named John Brock – an early Harvard grad.

Rev. Joseph Moody, a Harvard alum, became Portsmouth’s first minister in 1658. Locals were not all thrilled by Moody’s lengthy Puritan sermons. To keep them in line city selectmen ordered that a metal cage be built to punish those who slept or took tobacco on the Lord’s Day. After the monarchy was restored in England, Edward Cranford -- one of NH’s first and least-loved royal governors -- had Rev. Moody imprisoned. Portsmouth grew to like Moody and, to keep educated literate ministers and doctors coming, the city of Portsmouth agreed in 1673 to donate the whopping sum of 60 pounds to support Harvard for the next seven years.

Harvard missionaries frequently tried to tame the rowdy fishing families at the Isles of Shoals. Many abandoned the barren islands quickly, but Rev. John Tucke stayed 40 years on Star Island until his death in 1773. The monument erected in his memory, the tallest tombstone in New Hampshire, is visible with a good pair of binoculars from the mainland today. Tucke served the Gosport natives well, but made out handsomely in return. He was paid in "quintals of fish" that sold for a high price on the market. Tucke became one of the richest ministers in New England.

In a religious revolution Harvard was dominated by liberal men of the Unitarian faith in the early 1800s. It was sometimes called the "Unitarian Vatican". In 1832 Andrew Peabody became Harvard’s youngest graduate at age 15. The following year he took over as minister of the Unitarian church in Portsmouth, NH. It was a rocky start for the teenaged minister, but he became a beloved leader in a town previously dominated by the Episcopalians o f St. John’s Church and the Congregationalists of North Church.

In early April 1847, the bells of all but one Portsmouth church rang out in celebration. The United States had bombed the city of Vera Cruz into surrender in the Mexican-American War. Only the bells of the South Church remained silent in protest. Rev. Andrew Peabody, a pacifist at heart, refused to honor the invasion and bravely turned his sermon to the topic of peace.

Keeping history alive

As the port of Portsmouth profited in the 18th century, it became fashionable for wealthy successful families to send their sons to Harvard. The education gained was often just a bonus to the elite social connections made there. The roster of Harvard alums from this era include the most influential names in town, now largely forgotten except on street signs. They included Jaffrey, Shaeife, Sherburne, Atkinson, Blunt, Livermore, Langdon, Hackett, Haven, Hale, Treadwell, Pierce, Wibird and Waldron.

As the Portsmouth economy tottered and fell in the early 19th century, so did the powerful families that once occupied the city’s great mansions. And with them, it seems, went the bulk of the city’s Harvard grads. But our Harvard connection does not end there. Boston’s elite families still liked to travel, and while they rarely lived in the blue-collar confines of Portsmouth, they remained fascinated by the faded glory of "The Old Town by the Sea". The upper crust summered at nearby York, New Castle, Kittery Point and Rye. As Portsmouth threatened to tear down its architectural jewels, they stepped in to preserve them.

Wallace_NuttingI’ve noted often that it was largely outsiders, not Portsmouth residents, who contributed the funds that saved most of the city’s historic homes. From the early 20th century locals did the day-to-day work. They ran the museums, gave the tours and maintained the buildings. But the financial support frequently came from wealthy benefactors living elsewhere. They preserved the finest buildings, often at the 11th hour, from being torn down by Portsmouth residents, businesses and government officials who wanted to modernize the city.

A quick check of the donor list shows that many of those saviors were, you guessed it, Harvard graduates. Wiliam Sumner Appleton of Boston preserved the 1664 Jackson House from modernization. The artistic family of J. Templeman Coolidge kept Benning Wentworth’s mansion standing at Little Harbor. Antiquarian Wallace Nutting bought and renovated the Wentworth-Gardner House and, in the process, saved the home of Tobias Lear next door (Lear was George Washington’s secretary and a Harvard grad.)

The list goes on. Barrett Wendell was a Harvard grad and professor with ancestral Portsmouth connections. His wife came up with the $10,000 that prevented the 1714 Warner House, perhaps the oldest brick home in New England, from being turned into a gas station in the 1930s. And it was William and Muriel Howells, summer residents of Kittery Point, who donated millions of dollars and countless hours to preserve the "slum" housing at Puddle Dock – slated for destruction by urban renewal in the 50s and 60s. There would be no Strawbery Banke Museum today without their support and others like them. I was privileged to be present when Dr. William White Howells, the noted Harvard grad and anthropology professor, dedicated a plaque in his wife’s honor at the museum’s visitor center a few years ago. He died at age 97 at his Kittery Point home in 2006.

There are still Harvard grads around town, maybe more coming as the city regains its national stature. The ones I know work tirelessly to preserve and promote Portsmouth history, continuing a relationship nearly 400 years old. They tend to operate under the radar. It isn’t dignified to flash one’s Ivy League credentials. And even though my family went through Harvard University too, they still won’t divulge the secret handshake. 

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.

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