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The Unsung Columbus of New Hampshire

Marting_Pring_00HISTORY MATTERS  

Granite-staters don’t talk much about explorer Martin Pring, the “Christopher Columbus of the Piscataqua” region. No monuments mark his arrival. We don’t celebrate Martin Pring Day. The textbooks skirt the facts about why this young adventurer was here. Perhaps we can’t handle the truth. (Continued below) 



The first known European to sail down the Piscataqua River was searching for sassafras, a tree native to this region that can grow to 90 feet. Sassafras was one of the first cash crops exported to England by early explorers for use in making a root beer-like beverage, for tea, and as a curative reported to ease every ailment from insect bites, headaches, and fever to stomach problems and the common cold. 

Sexual healing 

One 19th century New Hampshire historian has suggested that Pring and his financial supporters believed that sassafras had “the power of prolonging life indefinitely.” Truth is, Pring had no such delusions. He was searching the Piscataqua for sassafras as a treatment for syphilis.  

Martin Pring of Bristol England, most scholars agree, “discovered” the Great Bay region of seacoast New Hampshire in 1603 while searching for a medicinal plant rumored to cure venereal disease and genital herpes. Sassafras was so valuable that investors were willing to underwrite a 6,000 mile round trip journey to an unexplored continent to find it.  

Most early New Hampshire historians tend to blur this simple truth, but Pring was quite specific. In his own published report of the 1603 voyage to the New World he wrote that sassafras was “a plant of soveriegne vetrue [sovereign virtue] for the French Poxe.” Apparently there were plenty of English customers waiting for this costly balm. 

The French were not well-loved by many British in the 1600s. The French had beaten the English to Norembega, the early name for the New World. French settlers had established outposts in Canada, and even in modern-day Maine by 1590.  

Pring’s visit, beyond the search for sassafras, was also an early attempt to establish British influence in the unclaimed area between French territory to the north and Spanish claims to the south. It worked. Portsmouth is an English town to its roots. It was named for an English city, as are most of the towns in the New Hampshire coastline – Hampton, Durham, Exeter, Dover, Newmarket, New Castle, and so on. 

What’s in a name?  

So the English naturally named an irritating, sometimes deadly sexually transmitted disease after their frequent enemy, the French. (Syphilis was also called “the French disease.”) Baldness produced by syphilis was called a “French crown.” English condoms were later called “French letters,” while English speakers using obscene or profane language often excused themselves with the phrase “pardon my French.”  

The French, in turn, named the disease after the Italians. The Russians named it after the Poles. The Japanese named it after the Portuguese.  Even in the 1600s, it seems, venereal disease was always someone else’s fault.  

Nathaniel Adams, Portsmouth’s first official historian, was unaware of Martin Pring’s visit. His 1824 Annals of Portsmouth begins with John Smith, the ultimate English explorer, who charted this region in 1614, It was Smith who changed the region from “Northern Virginia” and renamed it “New England.”  

MARTIN PRINT Continued next page

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