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Portsmouth and Dover Still Feuding Over 1623 NH Founding Date

Was NH founded in 1623 and where?HISTORY MATTERS  

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?

Early colonial NH seal / SeacoastNH.comBut 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?

CONTINUE NEXT PAGE  

Fishing artifacts from the 1600s discovered at the Isles of Shoals / SeacoastNH.com

Who's on first?

"Settled in 1623, Dover is the oldest continuous settlement in New Hampshire and seventh oldest in the United States," according to the Dover Chamber of Commerce Web site. The reference is to a proposed 1623 settlement at Hilton Point in what is now Dover. If you don't believe that, check Wikipedia for a list of the oldest cities in North America. The list shows Dover founded in 1623, but there is no mention of Portsmouth at all. If it's on the Internet, it has to be true, right?

The battle for "oldest" city in the United States is a slippery slope that Portsmouth should avoid. According to the same unverified Wikipedia page, Dover is currently in 13th place behind Native American settlements in Illinois, Arizona, and New Mexico dating to 650 AD.  Childersburg, Alabama claims to be "The Oldest City in America" with European founders dating to 1540. Then there is St. Augustine in Florida (1565), Roanoake (1585) and Jamestown (1607) in Virginia, plus Pemaquid Colony (1607) in Maine, and others.    

Dover has wisely refined its claim to being among the oldest "continuously settled" cities in the United States. This may beat out Portsmouth, since there appears to be a three to four year gap between the departure of the Thomsons by 1626 and the arrival of Captain Walter Neale at Pannaway in 1630. Yet there is some daylight here for hair-splitters. Neale reported to Captain Mason that Pannaway was virtually abandoned when he showed up. But certainly some fishermen remained. The Pannway site, according to an early account, then included the largest house in New Hampshire with a sizable fish drying and salting operation, six large shallops, five fishing boats, and 13 skiffs. Hard to imagine it was totally unoccupied, even after Neale himself left the plantation in 1633.    

Doubting the Dover claim

Not to pick an old scab, but Dover's claim to a 1623 founding appears to be either false or unsubstantiated. That is the verdict of  published historians like John Scribner Jenness and Elwyn L. Page who studied early documents and reports extensively. The historians first established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the Thomsons were indeed settled at Pannaway in 1623, probably by April of that year, with as many as 10 men working their fishing station.

17th century New England fishermanWe know Thomson was here because his contemporaries said so in report after report. Pilgrim fathers William Bradford and Edward Winslow mentioned Thomson in their journals. Thomson delivered fish to Plymouth Plantation in July 1623 with military captain Myles Standish, so his house was clearly built before that time. Explorer Christopher Levett, after visiting the Isles of Shoals, stayed with Thomson at Pannaway for an entire month late that same year. During that time they were visited by Robert Gorges, son of the founder of Maine, who held the title Governor of New England, making him the highest ranking official in the region. None of these men mention a settlement at what became Dover.

That same winter in 1624 Levett traveled up the Piscataqua River to the point that would later become the Strawberry Bank settlement. He spoke to a Native American sagamore who said there was better farming land further up the river, but who mentioned no white man's colony already there. Historian Elwyn Page, who was also a judge from Concord in the early 20th century, found it unthinkable that an expert explorer like Levett, having traveled 3,000 miles to stay at the only house in New Hampshire, would not even mention a second settlement at Hilton Point just a few miles further up the Piscataqua. Jenness pointed out that, while there are many documented references to Thomson, no contemporary account of any kind mentioned the existence of a Dover settlement until years later when the Hilton brothers, William and Edward, apparently settled at Dover Neck.

The error, according to Elwyn Page, began in 1680 with the publication of A General History of New England by  Rev. William Hubbard. Historians often considered that, because Hubbard wrote the earliest account, that it is the most accurate. Jenness, however, called Hubbard "the careless historian," and Page noted that Hubbard was notoriously incorrect and loose with facts. Hubbard speculated that the Hilton brothers, because they were fish mongers, came over with David Thomson in 1623 and "probably" set up their own fishing operation at Dover at the same time, or a little later. Hubbard's apparently false assumption has been woven into local history and legend ever since. Most references to a 1623 Dover settlement can be traced back to Hubbard, who did not have the documents that later historians have used. 

"There is not a shred of proof," Page wrote, "that the William and Edward Hilton came over with Thomson." Page confirmed that there was a William Hilton living at Plymouth, Plantation as early as 1621, and he was still there in 1624. William Hilton appears to have left Plymouth by 1627 and first shows up in Dover records in 1631. Edward Hilton first appears in the Plymouth accounts in 1628, so if he was simultaneously operating a second plantation in 1623 all by himself, no one in New England knew about it.

While David Thomson is mentioned in patents from the Council of New England as early as 1622, the Hiltons did not officially receive their patent until 1629-30. The patent for Wecnacohut (Hilton's Point, later Dover) noted that the Hiltons "have already built some houses and planted corn" at Hilton's Point prior to 1629. How much prior, is not stated. Page theorized that the wording of the patent indicates a recent settlement, most likely 1628 or 1627. Had the Hiltons already been settled there, deep in Indian territory for long six years, Jenness wrote, they certainly would have said so in their patent.  

In their detailed studies, Elwyn Page and John S. Jenness methodically debunked, point-by-point all other "evidence" that Dover was founded in 1623. Both concluded that the Hilton brothers probably established what would become the town of Dover in 1628.

"So to Dover, whenever planted," Page wrote, "belongs the honor of being our oldest plantation with an unbroken history. That is honor enough."

 

ALL THESE SOURCES can be found in full online with a Google search: (1) "AD 1623" by Elwyn Page in Granite State Monthly, 1922; (2) A General History of New England by William Hubbard, 1680; (3) Notes on the First Planting of New Hampshire by John Scribner Jenness, 1878; (4) History of the Town of Rye by Langdon Brown Parsons, 1905.   

Copyright © 2013 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 SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on Amazon.com and in local stores.

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