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How Massachusetts Almost Ate New Hampshire

Mass Bay Puritan BrandHISTORY MATTERS  

Before I die I would like to write a really good history of Portsmouth. I'd also like to win the lottery, climb Everest, and cure cancer. All of the above are equally daunting. But as we approach our 400th city anniversary in 2023, someone has to tackle this killer task, and it has to begin now. All of our existing city histories (classic books by Adams, Brewster, Gurney, and Brighton) are currently out of date and out of print. (Continued below) 


You'd think, after decades of studying this little city, that I have a leg-up on The Portsmouth Story. That's what I call the book that has been gestating in my brain. I can see it now. It's a beautiful two-volume boxed set with hundreds of photos. It's the kind of book you bequeath to your grandchildren (who really wanted a new jetpack).   It reads like a detective novel, a real page-turner. It will take years and years of intense effort to complete, providing, of course, that I ever get started.

But just when I think I know this city cold, someone sends me back to kindergarten. Case in point, the current lecture and exhibit series on the 1713 Treaty of Portsmouth. I mean, who knew about that? The more I study the English peace treaty signed by Native Americans at Portsmouth (actually modern-day New Castle) the more confused I get. But two things seem clear to me. First, the Indians got the short end of the peace pipe as usual. Europeans continued to subjugate the Wabanaki Indians and to steal territory that the "People of the Dawn" had inhabited for over 10,000 years. Second, the end of the bloody Indian raids on the seacoast helped turn New Hampshire's only seaport into a boomtown for the next century. 

Mass Bay Puritans take over Northern New England 


The Puritans are coming!  

Jere Daniell, a Dartmouth history professor emeritus, has been explaining the painfully complex founding of New Hampshire to its residents for decades. Now 81, Daniell has lectured about colonial New Hampshire in two-thirds of the state's 234 towns and cities. He's spoken in Portsmouth a dozen times since his first appearance here in 1963. I heard him last week at Strawbery Banke Museum as part of the ongoing Treaty lecture series.  The 1713 Treaty was "almost an act of creation" for Portsmouth, Daniell says. But to understand why it matters, we need to remember that New Hampshire, during much of its first century was a frontier town under the thumb of the Puritan government in Massachusetts.

Mass Bay seal"The history of Northern New England," Daniell told us, "is the story of how we kept Massachusetts away."

In a nutshell, New Hampshire began as four separate English settlements that became the towns of Portsmouth, Dover, Hampton, and Exeter. This was a scary world back in those days. Starting in 1630 some 30,000 disenfranchised Puritans arrived on the shores of New England, centering at Boston. Historians call it the Great Migration

"New England was founded by the biggest collection of religious freaks that England could provide," Daniell says. "They were all dissenters and didn't agree with each other at all."

 In 1642 the four New Hampshire towns, with no stable government, asked the more populated and powerful Massachusetts Bay Colony to protect them. Maine was also under Puritan "usurpation" by 1650 and, once the Bay Colony got control, it didn't want to let go.

Back in England, the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell took over the British government and beheaded King Charles I in 1649. By 1660 Cromwell was dead and the monarchy restored in England under Charles II who wanted to limit the expansion of  the troublesome Massachusetts colony. In 1677 the Mass Bay Colony secretly purchased the grant to what is now the state of Maine from the descendants of the original founder.



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Monday, February 19, 2018 
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