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The Fall and Rise of Portsmouth NH

What can we sell?

To create an economy, the orphaned Portsmouth settlers had to find something to sell. They bartered with the local Indians for animal pelts. But the fur trade was limited, and as many as 90% of Native Americans died in a great pandemic that swept the Atlantic coastline due to the arrival of European diseases. A few prominent families got rich in the fishing industry. Great cod reportedly weighing hundreds of pounds were easily caught, dried, salted and shipped back to Europe. The Isles of Shoals served as a great fish-processing factory for decades, possibly even before those famous pilgrims settled at Plymouth. But we fished out the giant cod, drove off the Natives, and needed more stuff to sell.

While the southern colonies discovered tobacco, the money up north grew on trees. Think of the tall white pines that once dominated this region as oil and you will get the picture. English investors felled the great forests, colonizing as they went. Provincial New Hampshire, a huge slice of land stretching all the way to New York, had only one port city. A sawmill economy quickly evolved along the river.

As the British market gobbled up the raw lumber and ship masts, the wealth of the entire colony funneled through Portsmouth. The city quickly evolved a maritime economy and an aristocratic social capital. Portsmouth developed its own shipbuilding industry, created a merchant fleet, and blossomed into a world trade center. The King gave New Hampshire its own royal governor whose wealthy relatives built the elite Georgian mansions that survive today. Raw goods went to England and manufactured stuff came back. White merchants dabbled in the slave trade or kept African servants as status symbols. The waterfront was thick with tall ships, wharves and warehouses.

Boom to bust

In 1775 America went to war with its best customer. Wealthy patriots like Gov. John Langdon drove out wealthy Loyalists like Gov. John Wentworth, building mansions of their own. For two decades Piscataqua shipping flourished. Then our best customer struck back. President Thomas Jefferson enacted a trade embargo in 1807 to protect American shipping, but ended up strangling trade. A second war with England followed in 1812. By the time it was over, Portsmouth’s maritime economy was on the skids, never to reach such heights again. Three massive fires devastated the once bustling downtown and generations of young people abandoned the decaying "Old Town By the Sea" for the pulsing new industrial cities and the Western territories.

Portsmouth continued to build sleek clipper ships and experimented with whaling. But with the exception of Frank Jones Brewery, a button factory, a hosiery and a paper mill, the faded colonial capital never really got the hang of manufacturing. Only the Portsmouth Navy Yard flourished, and then only when a series of American conflicts called for ships of war. The downtown struggled and the waterfront decayed as waves of immigrants settled into a blue-collar economy.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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