How Massachusetts Almost Ate New Hampshire
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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 All of our existing city histories (classic books by Adams, Brewster, Gurney, and Brighton) are currently out of date and out of print.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.




A NH buffer zone

So here's where the story heats up. The aggressive and intolerant Puritans had been encroaching on Maine since 1650 under Cromwell. Now they had taken legal control according to British law. Charles II, restored to the throne, was very unhappy.

King Charles II restored to the Monarchy"The English government was so pissed off at them [Massachusetts Bay Colony] that they created New Hampshire," Daniel says.

New Hampshire was a centralized New England neutral area or buffer zone where Royalists could come and go unmolested. Charles II set up John Cutt of Portsmouth as "president" of the new royal colony of New Hampshire in 1679. That temporarily removed this region from Mass Bay control. It didn't last long.

John Cutt died. Charles II died. It gets really confusing for a couple of decades here. The heirs of Captain John Mason in England, who held the original English charter, tried to reclaim control of New Hampshire.  And the next king, James II, tried to turn all the New England charters in one big happy royal colony and then govern it from 3,000 miles away. That was called "The Dominion of New England" with included New Hampshire, but the concept was a flop.

Even though the Mass Bay charter was revoked, they continued to govern weak little New Hampshire anyway. Then James II was branded a Catholic, fled from England, and was replaced by monarchs William and Mary. By then England and France were in a protracted war. Indian attacks, spurred by the French, crippled the New England area as the natives tried to push English settlements back to where they started. It's a real mess, historically, and that's why few residents understand early Granite State history.

Jere Daniell passed around a map showing the high-water mark of Massachusetts expansion. In 1691 King William III reorganized the map with a new "crown colony." The charter created a monstrous new "Province of Massachusetts Bay" unified the old Mass Bay Colony with Plymouth Colony, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, the district gigantic of Maine, plus all of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in modern day Canada.

"That was all Massachusetts!" Daniell said, handing out maps to everyone in his audience last week. "New Hampshire was only a pimple."


 Old grudges die hard

Canada was Massachusetts land only in theory. The northern territory, including parts of future New Hampshire and Maine, was by rights Wabanaki land, but the imaginary borders shifted as war raged between France and England. The Massachusetts map quickly retracted as the French, who got along better with the Indians, regained title to Nova Scotia in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.  (Americans would later make many attempts to invade Canada in the coming wars with England.)

Are you still with me? That European Treaty of Utrecht is important. It ended 24 years of hostilities between England and France. But it meant that the Wabanaki now had to work things out with the king and queen of England. And where was the royal English safety zone in New England? That's right, New Hampshire.

It was just three months after the Treaty of Utrecht that Wabanaki leaders agreed to come together to sign another peace treaty with the British. The ceremony and the negotiations were important to the Indians. The British were all about the paperwork, the land boundaries, and the fine points of the law. They wanted the Indians to bow down to the English king, to admit defeat, and behave. The important three-day peace negotiations were held, not in the Province of Massachusetts, but in the burgeoning Province of New Hampshire. Portsmouth was finally on the map.

"If the war between France and England had gone differently," Jere Daniell speculates, "New Hampshire probably would have been re-absorbed into Massachusetts."

But Portsmouth eventually slipped free of the Mass Bay grip. You can thank the Indians for making this an important meeting place. And you can thank the trees for making the province profitable. New Hampshire, which at this point extended as far west as New York, had valuable forest resources. The English kings needed the tall straight pine that came from seemingly endless forests. The white pine made ideal masts for the ships in the expanding British navy.

With the Indian threat reduced, the population of Portsmouth expanded. Some of its merchants, entrepreneurs, and sea captains grew rich.  They built big mansions along the Piscataqua River. Visitors to the 1716 Warner House on Daniel Street can still see colorful wall murals depicting life-sized Native Americans, although they are Mowhawk, not Wabanaki.

Between 1741 and the American Revolution, New Hampshire got two full-time royal governors. Both were named Wentworth, and they were only too happy to provide the tall timber, for a fee, shipped from our only seaport.

Massachusetts held onto Maine until it became a state in 1820, but northern New Englanders are still a tad resentful of the Puritan attempt at New World domination. We still call that place "Taxachusetts." We act like Bay State tourists are an invasive species and we've booby-trapped the Massachusetts border with a string of state liquor stores.

Old grudges die hard. I was biking to the public library just yesterday to pick up a copy of Jere Daniell's book Colonial New Hampshire. I still have a lot to learn from him.

I was riding through Market Square traffic when the driver of a big SUV blasted his horn at a couple of pedestrians inching along the crosswalk by the North Church.

"Must be a Massachusetts' driver," one of the women laughed. "They think they own everything."

Which reminds me of that joke about the  four guys from New England who were riding in the back seat of a car speeding down the highway. The guy from Maine had a big crate of potatoes with him. "Ah, we got too many potatoes in Maine," he said, and chucked the spuds out the window. The guy from Vermont, who had many jugs of maple syrup, said, "And we got too much maple syrup in Vermont." So he tossed the jugs out the window. The guy from New Hampshire, seeing this, thought for a moment. Then he tossed the guy from Massachusetts out the window.


Copyright © 2013 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 He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores.