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The Fall and Rise of Portsmouth NH

Rising Portsmouth Nh Economy 1810-2010

So far the current economic crisis is a bed of roses compared to the NH crash 200 years ago. Portsmouth is only now recovering fully from the devastating days of early 1800. Could we be entering the Second Golden Age of New Hampshire’s only seaport – now an historic destination?



Economy Looks Good Compared to Past

History will certainly clump this year’s fiscal crisis with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Bank Panic of 1873. Both events happened in the fall and led to years of economic depression nationwide.

Portsmouth weathered the earlier disasters largely because the region was already in the doldrums. Our local economy peaked around 1800. It went bust a few years later and, by my reckoning, is finally reaching its second heyday now – 200 years later.

I’m no financial wizard. In fact, asking a history writer about money is like asking a homeless person about the current mortgage meltdown. At least that’s what I told Jesse Devitte, founder of Borealis Ventures when he asked me to speak about the Portsmouth economy to a group of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Devitte sees the Seacoast as ripe for the creation of a host of hot new high-tech companies. We’ve got a beautiful environment, rich heritage, smart people, great quality of life, low taxes. And I know how we got this way.

On second thought, maybe the homeless know best about real estate disasters, and we historians can track economic trends. So following a sumptuous fish dinner at Pesche Blue, here, in a nutshell, is what I recently said to Devitte and his band of business optimists.

The first investors

People wince when I say that the first European entrepreneur who "discovered" the Piscataqua River in 1603 was seeking a cure for venereal disease. The textbooks put it more delicately. Explorer Martin Pring, they say, was looking for sassafras, a homeopathic cure for "the French Pox", better known as syphilis. He did not find it here, and sailed on to what became Massachusetts.

I wince in return when people say that pilgrims seeking religious freedom founded America. Some were, but most early settlers were seeking their fortunes. Or they were employed, indentured or enslaved by investors back in England. And even the Puritans, once they got their bearings, were ruthless capitalists.

Billionaire Warren Buffett advises modern investors not to buy anything they don’t already understand. Capt. John Mason, founder of New Hampshire, could have used that advice in 1630. He got some very bad intel. I am convinced, after studying early documents, that Mason believed the Piscataqua River was the fabled Northwest Passage to China. It wasn’t. Mason also hoped to find gold or other precious metals, raise livestock here, and start a profitable winery. The great Portsmouth investment lasted five years. By 1635 Mason was dead and his venture capitalists had turned out the lights and split.


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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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