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Portsmouth and Dover Still Feuding Over 1623 NH Founding Date

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

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

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