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How We Created the Isles of Shoals Exhibit



Under the Isles of Shoals opening at Discover Portsmouth /

They came by canoe

Nate’s students discovered for the first time that prehistoric Native Americans hunted at the Isles of Shoals as early as 6,000 years ago. The diggers found the arrowheads to prove it. The Indians had to come by canoe, either made of birch bark or hollowed out logs.

“I know a guy named Rob Sanford who has an old birch bark canoe,” Nate said a few months later.

“Can you get it?” I asked.

“I think so,” Nate said. “And we have half of a dugout canoe at the University of Southern Maine.”

“How big are they?” I asked.
“About 12 feet each, “he said.

“Awesome,” I said. It was that simple.

These canoes were not made by prehistoric Indians. One was built around 1900 and the dugout may be 250 years old. But they are big and they make the point that Indians frequented the Shoals even though the history books say they didn’t.

Making flakes and rolling barrels

Under_the_Isles_of_Shoals_CoverHistorian Ray Brighton was right. The first settlers to this region came to fish, not to pray. We have clay pipe fragments dating to the 1620s that prove it. So far 9,500 pipe fragments have been unearthed in just 42 cubic meters of soil. We have fish hooks, fish bones, musket balls and gun flints. The diggers have proven that Smuttynose was a very important fish factory in colonial times. As many as 600 fishermen worked on the Shoals in season. They dried cod on wooden racks and sailed back to get top dollar in an insatiable European market.

I asked Karen Carpenter, a volunteer, if she could build a replica of the “flakes” used to dry cod at the Isles of Shoals.

“I can try,” she said. Karen studied early drawings of colonial fishing factories. She cut fresh saplings and then, with her husband and son, Karen assembled an authentic replica of the drying rack. It made the whole story come alive, but something was missing. So I asked Greg Gathers, the talented actor and costume designer of Pontine, if he could sew a 17th century fisherman’s smock.

“It was probably made of canvas-like material,” I told Greg in an email, ‘and it had a hoodie and a leather apron.”

A week later Greg delivered the outfit, and it was Maryellen who had the idea to draft John Paul Jones into service as a seasonal Shoals fisherman. He stands beside a display of old wooden barrels – the third portion of the exhibit. Historians Peter Lamb and Thom Hindle loaned me a few barrels, but I’m still looking for more. They represent, for me, the first hundred years that European settlers and their families actually lived on the Shoals. The first record of a woman living there is 1642.

Everything used to come in barrels in this age before refrigeration. Liquids were measured in hogsheads (85 gallons), pipes (two hogsheads), and tuns (two pipes.) Shoalers paid their debts in quintals of fish (about 100 pounds).  The Piscataqua was an important exporting site for “staves” used by coopers to make the countless barrels needed for world trade.

Nate Hamilton’s research hints at the possibility that “fish waste,” the byproduct of the fish drying process, may have been transferred in barrels to the West Indies, possibly to make food for enslaved populations. Chemical analysis of redware clay pipes unearthed at Smuttynose indicates that the clay came from tropical locations. Perhaps clay was packed into the same barrels and shipped to South Carolina where the smoking pipes were manufactured. Those same pipes now litter the front lawn of Smuttynose Island where an early tavern once stood.



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Saturday, January 20, 2018 
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