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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


Martin Pring Discovers the New Hampshire Seacosat in 1603 

sassafras

Dumbing down the facts  

But by the mid-1800s, Portsmouth journalist Charles Brewster had included Martin Pring’s search for sassafras in his two-volume anecdotal history Rambles about Portsmouth. Brewster pictured Martin Pring as the first white man to step on Portsmouth soil. He described the imagined moment with all the drama that modern historians use to describe Neil Armstrong’s first footstep on the Moon.


Brewster mentions Pring’s search for sassafras which he admits was the prime reason for his long, dangerous journey from England. Pring’s two small sailing ships, the Speedwell and the Discoverer, carried combined crews of only 56 men and boys.  Brewster describes the slender tree with the aromatic, orange-brown bark as “that valued tree whose medical virtues in that age were regarded as the elixir of life.”  Brewster does not, however, tell his readers why sassafras was such an important product.  

A brief failed stopover  

To make a short story even shorter, Pring found no sassafras in the Portsmouth region. Indeed, there is no precise evidence that Pring was here at all. Some suggest Pring first explored the Casco Bay region. (Sassafras still grows in southern Maine.) His account then describes a spot along the coast with four rivers, of which only one was deep and wide enough to penetrate about 12 miles. 

Most historians agree that it sounds as if Pring passed the Saco, the Kennebec and the York rivers and traveled in the smaller boat down the fast-flowing Piscataqua, beyond “the Narrows” and into Great Bay. If so, he likely passed back out quickly and traveled south to Cape Cod where his men found and successfully harvested sassafras trees for the next six weeks.  

Pulitzer prize winning writer Ola Elizabeth Winslow devoted an entire chapter to Pring in her 1966 children’s book Portsmouth, the Life of a Town. Winslow also gave the sassafras story a G-rating by neglecting to mention its intended use.  

On beyond Portsmouth  

Pring’s adventure gets more interesting when he leaves the Piscataqua and arrives in what became the colony of Massachusetts. There we get an amazing picture of a close encounter between early English traders and Native Americans. Scores of Indians, Pring reports, attracted to the odd sight of white men digging up 20-foot tall sassafras trees, clustered around the group’s wooden barricade. When a young sailor on Pring’s ship began playing his guitar, the Indians danced in a circle, made “savage” gestures and sang “la, lo, la, lo, la, la, lo”. The guitar player received gifts of tobacco, pipes and a six-foot dried snake skin from the hospitable Indians.  

Pring’s account offers brief but exquisite detail of the Natives and of local plant, bird, fish, animal life, plus soil and seed-growing conditions. In the end things went badly. Pring reports that 140 Indians surrounded the English barricade, but were frightened off by a warning cannon blast and by two fierce mastiffs brought from England. We even know the dogs’ names – Foole and Gallant. Pring’s men quickly packed both Speedwell and Discoverer with the coveted sassafras trees. The white men then stole a 17-foot birch bark canoe from the Indians and returned to England.  

Pring’s legacy  

The Bristol merchants who sponsored the trip gained a huge return on their investment. Pring made two more trips to the New World, but not to the Piscataqua. The sassafras craze quickly faded when the remedy proved ineffective. The plant, apparently, has some dangerous qualities too. Sassafras tea was banned by the United States Food and Drug Commission in 1976 as carcinogenic. Pring, for the record, died in 1626, three years after David Thomson became the first white man to officially settle in New Hampshire at “Pascataway,” now Odiorne Point in Rye.  

Martin Pring’s first voyage rarely rates more than a paragraph or two in the thick biographies of European explorers who sailed these waters before 1620. His name is lost among others whose trips made deeper dents in the British mind – names like Gosnold, Weymouth, Champlain, Cabot, and Smith. If Pring’s voyage proved anything special, according to New England histories, it was that safe, profitable sorties into the New World were possible.  

Today Pring reminds us that our region was a popular destination for European visitors long before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth. Europeans had been buying fish from the waters off Newfoundland since 1502. Historian David B. Quinn estimates that at least 650 European fishing and trading ships made the transatlantic journey to North America between 1492 and 1612. Captain Martin Pring was among them. Pring didn’t find what he was seeking along the Piscataqua River, but he proved as early as 1603 that there were valuable resources in the New World – on land as well as in the sea.  

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the regional history Web site SeacoastNH.com where this article can be found online. His essays on local history appear in the Herald every other Monday. .

 

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