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Miss Nancy Underhill Swept Off Star Island in 1848




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 and is also available from narrated by actor Adam Grupper . 


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