Portsmouth and Dover Still Feuding Over 1623 NH Founding Date
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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Wait a minute. Before you start designing your company float for the city's humongous 400th anniversary celebration in 2023, answer this one question -- Was Portsmouth really founded in 1623? And no, that big rock with the carved date at the foot of Market Street does not prove a thing. Rocks can lie. Historians have been debating this question for over 200 years, and their answer is -- well, sort of. (Continued below)
There was no "Portsmouth," by that name, at least, until 1653. That's when the local citizens decided to toss out the original name of Strawberry Bank and re-brand. But first they had to get permission from the Court of Massachusetts that was, at that time, running the show in New Hampshire. Here is the exact request, although the spelling has been modernized:
"And whereas the name of this plantation at present being Strawberry Bank, accidentally so called by reason of a bank where strawberries was found in this place, now your petitioners humble desire is to have it called Portsmouth, being a name most suitable for this place, it being the river's mouth & a good harbor as any in this land, & your petitioners shall humbly pray."
Was it Rye or Portsmouth?
But let's back up. The original "owner" of what was to become Portsmouth was Captain John Mason, an ex-soldier from Portsmouth, England. His Laconia Company was granted a patent to what the settlers here called Strawberry Bank, located a couple of miles down the Piscataqua River at what is now Prescott Park and Strawbery Banke Museum. (This assumes you accept the notion that a group of Englishmen and a king could give Mason legal title to land in the New World that they did not actually own, but let's not go there.)
Mason sent another ex-soldier, Captain Walter Neale, with an advance team to scope out his new property in 1630, the same year Puritan settlers started what was to become Boston and 10 years after the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth. The first real wave of rag-tag adventurers, indentured servants, and planters who settled into a communal Great House at Strawberry Banke arrived a bit later in 1631.
The first thing Captain Neale did was head to Little Harbor at what is now Rye, NH. Neale wanted to check out a well-known "plantation" set up there in 1623. The large fortified house was known as Pannaway. Neale found it virtually abandoned, and his men promptly took control of the property. The original owners, David and Amais Thomson, had arrived under a separate British patent to set up a fishing operation there seven years before. But within three years, they had moved on. David Thomson was presumed dead by 1627. His wife moved to Massachusetts and remarried. Their son, likely the first child born in New Hampshire, eventually claimed title to a small island in Boston Harbor.
So New Hampshire began in Rye? Yes, and no. There was no Rye or Portsmouth in 1623 or in 1630. Captain Neale took over Pannaway (now Odiorne's Point State Park) and John Mason added the region to his Strawberry Bank patent. That ultimately gave him title to the land that currently includes New Castle, Greenland, Rye, and Newington. So when Strawberry Bank changed it's named to Portsmouth in 1652, the site of the first New Hampshire settlement at Pannaway, became part of Portsmouth. By then the area of the first settlement was known as Sandy Beach (settled in 1635). Eventually Rye and the other surrounding parishes broke away from Portsmouth to form separate towns.
So, we can accurately say that the first known European settled in New Hampshire in 1623 at what became both Rye and Portsmouth. Rye, apparently, has no hard feelings about Portsmouth appropriating its founding date. Langdon Parsons, author of the extensive History of Rye, wrote in 1905: "The settlement at Pannaway has always been treated by historians as the first settlement of Portsmouth, as indeed it was" because Rye was "a part of Portsmouth." Case closed. Or is it?
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