Miss Nancy Underhill Swept Off Star Island in 1848
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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.

 

Continue MISS UNDERHILL'S CHAIR


 

 

 

Man on Miss UNderhill's Chair, Portsmouth Athenaeum

 

A tragic true tale

 

“But what about Miss Underhill’s Chair?,” Wes Fisher pressed me, cameras rolling.

This legend is a different kettle of fish, I told the filmmaker. It is based on gruesome truth. There really was a Nancy J. Underhill and she did suddenly disappear near the rock formation that bears her name. Genealogical records indicate that she was the second of six children of William and Elizabeth (known as Betsey) Underhill. Born in 1814, Nancy grew up in Chester, NH.

 

 

Celia Thaxter knew Miss Underhill. At age 12, the future "Poet of the Shoals" wrote a letter to a friend in Boston. The letter from Hog Island (later Appledore Island) is dated October 15, 1847. This was the very year that the Appledore Hotel was being built and Celia complained of the noise of the construction workers. In exquisite penmanship the home-schooled island girl wrote:

 

"We have a very amiable lady here who is employed in sewing the bedding of the new house. Her name is Miss Underhill. She is a most excellent lady. I wish you could see her Martha, I know you would like her."

 

 

Some obituary records list Nancy Underhill as a teacher from Portsmouth, NH. We know she spent two years in the region, possibly sailing back and forth to the Shoals in season to teach students. A month before her death, Nancy Underhill wrote to a missionary group in Boston to report that the Gosport school "will not suffer in comparison" to any other school on the mainland. She loved her job.

 

 

A Portland newspaper reported a “MELANCHOLY DISASTER” on September 12, 1848. On the previous evening, according to the paper, the 34-year old Methodist missionary and teacher went out on the granite cliffs of Star Island, accompanied by a few friends. They visited a spot where Nancy often sat to contemplate “the sublime works of God.”

 

 

Modern storytellers inevitably claim that the teacher was suddenly swept off a rocky promontory on a calm day. Not true. The 1848 report suggests that, against the warnings of her friends, Nancy Underhill descended into a rocky “declivity” and ventured dangerously close to the sea during a rising storm. At 7:30 pm, according to the press, Miss Underhill was “launched into eternity” by the tide. "The wave struck her," a witness recalled, "and in a moment she was dashed out from our sight."


The Oceanic Hotel opened on Star Island in 1873, drawing in tourists and utterly destroying the centuries old fishing village on the island. Two years later, in 1875, an early coastal tour guidebook by Samuel Adams Drake offered an expanded version of the tragedy.

 

 

According to Drake, Nancy's father, a Quaker, refused to sanction his daughter's marriage to a Methodist. The engagement was broken and the man married another woman. Nancy threw herself into missionary work and became a beloved teacher of students at Gosport, NH on Star Island. Drake contends that, on the day she died, Nancy's friend was also swamped by "a tidal wave of unusual magnitude," but he was able to keep his footing on the slippery rocks, and survived.

 

 

By 1885 a cross marked the spot. Visitors to Star Island could “read aloud an inscription” at the site claiming that Miss Underhill had been washed off a 50-foot high rock by a great wave. A minister visiting the nearby Appledore Hotel during the same era, however, was skeptical. “The sea must have been at the very topmost of its raging to reach her at that height,” the minister wrote in a letter.

Postcard Miss Underhill's Chair, Isles of Shoals

 

  

Stranger than fiction

 

Why did Nancy Underhill, against the warning of her friends, venture so far out onto the storm tossed rocks? An 1848 copy of the Nashua Telegraph may offer a clue. A small notice entitled “A Singular Coincidence” suggests that Miss Underhill died “within sight of the same spot” where her fiancé, a man named Roby, had died 10 years earlier. A Methodist minister, also from Chester, Roby “was drowned in a similar manner” at the Isles of Shoals.  

A valiant search was in vain. A week later the body of Nancy Underhill was discovered on a beach in York, Maine. "There was not the least disorder in the ill-fated lady's dress," Drake wrote. "The bonnet still covered her head, the earrings were in her ears, and her shawl was pinned across her breast."

 

A York resident placed a notice in the newspaper and one of Miss Underhill's brothers retrieved the body that is buried at Village Cemetery in her hometown of Chester. Drake reports the rumor that Nancy's "old suitor" was drowned at the shoals while swimming years later.

 

 

Broken hearted or suicidal? Write your own romantic ending. But history hints that Nancy J. Underhill was an energetic teacher with missionary zeal. I imagine a woman, full of life, who took one bold step too many.

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel.  His latest, Mystery on the Isles of Shoals, closes the controversial Smuttynose ax murder case of 1873. (See SmuttynoseMurders.com) and is also available from Audible.com narrated by actor Adam Grupper .