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Miss Nancy Underhill Swept Off Star Island in 1848

Man standing on Cliff at Star IslandHISTORY MATTERS


We'll never know exactly what happened to 34-year old teacher Miss Nancy Underhill on Star Island at the Isles of Shoals in September 1848. But a closer look at the facts of this legend, like others, may offer added clues. (Click title to read more) 




We’ve all heard the legend. In 1848 a young teacher was reading a book high atop a granite cliff on Star Island at the Isles of Shoals. Suddenly an enormous rogue wave swept her into the sea. End of story. A rock formation, still popular with island visitors,  was named Miss Underhill’s Chair in her honor.



“Is that story true?” Wes Fisher asked me.


The California filmmaker had me under the lights for three hours last month. I was wired up with three microphones and framed by two digital cameras. Fisher had come from San Francisco to shoot a documentary on the legends of the Isles of Shoals. His short film will appear in a West Coast festival this winter.


Miss UNderhill's Chair stereoview card by Davis Brothers, Isles of Shoals



Dubious legends


My job was to separate fiction from fact, and I was debunking one legend after another. There is not a shred of evidence, I told Wes, that  the pirate Blackbeard ever set foot on the Isles of Shoals. He certainly did not bury treasure in an island made of solid rock, washed by heavy waves, and devoid of soil.



Nor did he abandon his fourteenth wife to guard the treasure. Her ghost does not  chant “He will come back! He will come back!” These are fun tales we tell around a campfire or to entertain the tourists.



Paranormal TV shows, treasure-hunting books, and haunted tours that claim otherwise, I told Wes, distort the fascinating facts about real local pirates and privateers like John Quelch and Dixie Bull, whose lives bore no resemblance to Disney characters or the imaginary pirates of Treasure Island.  


Cross at Miss Underhill's Chair at Isles of SHoals


I’m also doubtful that Betty Moody’s Cave, another rock formation on Star Island, was named for an historic event. There was a real preacher named Moody who visited the islands. And there may have been a brief Indian “raid” in 1724 during which a few fishing boats were stolen, but no deadly attack was recorded.  


Shoals lore says Betty Moody smothered her infant son to keep him quiet during the raid. Similar stores abound in colonial history. Another account suggests that Betty Moody may have been drowned, or perhaps -- although there is no evidence of this -- kidnapped by Indians. Another Victorian account says she strangled her two boys "in a fit of terror" and then drowned herself.



Another horrific version of the same story, printed  in McBride’s Magazine in 1871, identifies Betty Moody as the grandmother of two small boys who were crying loudly. Fearing she would be discovered by Indians, the grandmother “put an end to the noise by dashing their brains out against the rocks.” The Indian threat, however, turned out to be a false alarm. This appears, without further evidence, to be more fable than fact.



After years of research, I sincerely doubt that Maren Hontvet, the surviving victim of the 1873 Smuttynose murders, hid herself at a spot now called Maren’s Rock. Maren was barefoot one icy night in March where there were safer places to hide nearby.



We often attach dramatic stories to physical locations. Consider the origins of Witchtrot Road in South Berwick, Viking Street in Hampton, Bloody Point in Newington, and Devil’s Den in New Castle. All are great names, but none mark the site of an actual battle, witch, devil, or Viking.



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