New Monument for the Man Who Named New England
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Smith map compass roseHISTORY MATTERS

I feel much better now. Back in the 20th century I wrote an essay entitled "The Ugliest Monument in New England." You can Google it. I was horrified by the state of the memorial to Captain John Smith that faces the open sea on the Isles of Shoals. Capt. Smith mapped our region in 1614 and named it "New England." Smith's sad memorial, dedicated 250 years later in 1864, had since toppled, cracked, rusted, and was smeared with a thick coating of gull guano. (Click title for full article)

The old sailor deserved better, I complained in article after article. Someone should do something, I wailed, before the upcoming quadricentennial in 2014. And someone did. Next month, at long last, Smith will get, not one, but two monuments on the New Hampshire seacoast.  

“Your characterization in the newspaper of an orphaned obelisk coupled with the impending 400th anniversary of Smith’s explorations were the impetus for Star Island Corporation to take action," says development director Angela Matthews.

Thanks to a $22,000 grant from the Samuel P. Hunt Foundation, Smith's brass plaque is being cleaned and refurbished, his granite posts and wrought iron railings are being replaced, and the stone base of his memorial is being restored. The repairs should secure the monument until Smith's 500th anniversary in 2114. A public celebration and rededication is planned for August 22 on StarIsland.

 “Hopefully, those who read the very brief tribute to Smith will be moved to learn more about this very colorful, audacious explorer and come to appreciate that his map and books were the catalyst for successful colonization of New England, which he aptly named,” Angela Matthews told me.

And there's much more. (Continued)

Smith Monument sketch



Smith 2014 Monument Rye-State Park

New Hampshire pays tribute

David Campbell loves American history. A native of Newport, NH, Canpbell is a Harvard grad, an attorney, and a long-time state representative from Nashua. Like most Americans, he knew about Capt. John Smith from the explorer's 1607 connection to Jamestown, Virginia and to Pocahontas, the Native American princess. Then he made a discovery. Smith had been here too.

"You were my mentor on John Smith in New England," Campbell tells me on the phone. "Your articles about him on the Web were definitely where my early research started."

Suddenly aware that the 400th anniversary of Smith's visit to the Isles of Shoals was looming, Campbell took action. He proposed a brand new monument, paid for by state and private funds, and erected in a highly public spot on the mainland.  Last fall, through the Committee on Public Works and Highways, Campbell was able to appropriate $40,000 for the memorial, and then raise additional private funds.

Smith's new monument, like the original one on StarIsland, is an obelisk, this time made of New Hampshire granite, not wood. It will stand 16 feet, 14 inches, and weights 36,000 pounds. An inscription will tell RyeHarborState Park visitors a surprising tale. Smith's widely-read book A Description of New England urged investors to  and adventurers to discover this region's "teeming fish banks, abundant game, clean waters, vast forests, and native people."

Smith obelisk manufactured

John Smith Monument 2014 continued


John smith portrait

A very different New England

Smith himself intended to return to New England to start a colony, perhaps nearby. He named the Isles of Shoals "Smith Isles" and correctly predicted their enormous economic value as a fishery. But his attempts to return were thwarted, first by bad weather and a shipwreck, and later by pirates. We can only imagine how different New England would be under Smith, a Royalist and savvy entrepreneur  who had considerable experience with Indian cultures.

But as the inscription on the new memorial proclaims, Smith's map of the region also guided the Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620 and led John Winthrop to settle at Boston in 1630. It may have directed the first fishermen to Rye in 1623 and the settlers to Strawberry Bank in 1630. Smith's enthusiastic reports from his 1614 voyage encouraged the investors who bankrolled trip after trip to the region.

Campbell is especially proud of the embossed bronze plaque that will give visitors a detailed view of Smith's influential map of New England. At 26 by 30 inches, the map will be nearly twice the size of the original. Campbell obtained a high-quality digital image of the map from the Boston Public Library. The ornate "compass rose," an icon on the map used to designate directions, has been etched into the granite of the memorial.

          "After we commissioned the map I had nightmares that it would come out blurry," Campbell says. But the finished plaque is beautifully reproduced and should stand the test of time.

The obelisk shape also echoes the design of the monument to Rev. John Tucke on StarIsland. Tucke was a Harvard-educated Hampton native who dedicated his life as missionary to the island fishing families prior to the Revolutionary War. The new monument at Ragged Neck Point is just over six miles away, the closest point between the mainland and the Shoals.

An historic day

Does John Smith really matter to New Hampshire? You bet. At one level he reminds us of how accidental all history really is. A shift in the wind and we might be living in Port Smith instead of Portsmouth. Smith's treatise and map also remind us that America was founded primarily for territorial and economic reasons, rather than the popular claim that New England was a haven of religious freedom. Smith reminds us that European explorers criss-crossed the Atlantic Ocean well before the Pilgrims at Plymouth.

History has not always treated John Smith well. Critics have labeled him a boaster, a self-promoter, an opportunist, and perhaps a liar. His adventures in the Crusades, in Jamestown, and on the high seas sometimes seem beyond belief. But during his stay at MonheganIsland in Maine and his travels south to Cape Cod, Smith offered surprisingly accurate details. His assessment of the potential value of local fish, whales, and fur turned out to be brilliant. And his map was the best one available for decades.

At the upcoming dedication re-enactor Paul Strand will make a case for the colonization of New England using Smith's own prophetic words. Award-winning Portsmouth writer W. Jeffrey Bolster will tell us why history matters. Rep. Campbell will be on the podium along with local senators Nancy Stiles and Martha Fuller Clark. Governor Maggie Hassam is an invited guest.

Captain John Smith would expect nothing less. He was, after all, the man who named New England. And while Smith has long been a celebrity in Virginia, it has taken New Hampshire 400 years to get his monument right.


Copyright © 2014 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 AMERICA'S PRIVATERR: Lynx and the War of 1812.