Thomsons were First NH Settlers in 1623
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Portsmouth, NH Settled in 1623 /

Portsmouth loves to flaunt its founding date. A big new chunk of granite at the corner of Deer and Market Streets welcomes visitors to the city, settled in 1623. One might infer from the carved stone that the first European settlers climbed ashore at this very spot. They didn’t. (Full article below)

As far as we know, David Thomson [also Thompson], his wife Amias, and a party of perhaps seven to 10 indentured servants landed their ship Jonathan at what is now Odiorne Point in Rye in April of 1623.

The claim is arguably correct. Rye and other surrounding towns were once part of the New Hampshire settlement officially named Portsmouth in 1653. Rye and New Castle split off in 1769. Portsmouth didn’t think much about its birthday until Plymouth, Massachusetts held a big bicentennial celebration in 1820. Not to be ignored, Portsmouth threw its own founder’s day festivities three years later in 1823, branding the 1623 settlement date in the process.

NH’s Forgotten First Family

But while Portsmouth loves its birth date, it doesn’t give a cranberry for its founding family. They are rarely mentioned or memorialized today. The Thomsons established a small plantation, trading post and fish drying factory near the entrance to Little Harbor called Pannaway and – if you don’t count 10,000 years of Native American occupation -- they built New Hampshire’s first house there.

We have an eyewitness description of Pannaway from Samuel Maverick, a Royalist who came to Boston Harbor in 1624. He says Thomson built

"a strong and large House, enclosing it with a large and high Palizado [a defensive wall made from poles] with Mounted Gunns and being stored extraordinarily with shot and Ammunition was a Terror to the Indians."

So New Hampshire’s first home was an armed fort erected on well-defended high ground. There was likely a salt works, wooden racks or "flakes" for drying fish, a blacksmith shop and possibly quarters for the "lustie young fellows" who did the heavy lifting. A later witness described Piscataqua House (Pannaway) as made of stone, but historians suggest that the stone may have been a tall and sturdy foundation. No trace of the original Rye settlement survives.

In 1631, John Mason of Portsmouth, England sent an advance team to settle at Strawbery Banke two miles up the Piscataqua River, now Portsmouth’s South End. They found Thomson’s house at Rye largely abandoned, claimed it, and moved in. Then they built a large wooden Great House across from what is now Prescott Park for a rag tag group of about 75 settlers. No trace of that structure survives either.

CONTINUE The First Family of New Hampshire



Thomson was likely born in Scotland, though some historians have claimed an English ancestry. He first pops up in Plymouth, England records in 1613, the year he married Amias Cole, the daughter of a Plymouth shipbuilder. He was roughly 23 and either an apothecary or clerk to an apothecary. Records of their children are unclear. One child may have died young. A daughter was probably left behind when they traveled to America.

Thomson was well connected with the Council of New England, the influential group responsible for handing out a confusing array of overlapping land patents in the New World, including the grant that landed the Pilgrims at New Plymouth in 1620. Thomson is described as an "agent" and an "attorney" for the Council.

John Mason and his Laconia Company received the key patents for New Hampshire. Sir Ferdinando Gorges, a governor of Plymouth, England, gained patents for what became southern Maine. Gorges had been involved in promoting the earlier expeditions in 1607 to Jamestown, Virginia and the failed effort at Popham Colony in Maine (originally Northern Virginia). Both men were important figures in the Council that granted David Thomson his own patent in November 1622, and the right to claim 6,000 acres and the island of his choice. Thomson, clearly a man of some status and education, could write letters and rub shoulders with the elite, It is probable that Thomson had traveled to the New World on a previous voyage. Contemporaries described him as a "gentleman" and as a "scholar". He may even have held some legal and governmental authority for the Council in the early days of New England.

thomson01Thomson had three business partners back in England and was obliged to them to make a go at the Pannaway plantation for five years, a commitment he did not live to complete. We know he was at home for at least two years, since a number of early travelers wrote about visiting his plantation at "Piscataway". Robert Gorges, son of the powerful Sir Ferdinando, visited briefly in the autumn of 1623 with a group of indentured servants and "gentlemen" including Samuel Maverick. Robert, who served briefly as the Council’s governor to the scattered New England settlements, quickly returned home and died the following year.

Thomas Weston, whose shallop wrecked off the New Hampshire coast en route from Monhegan to Plymouth, was kindly treated by the Thomsons when Indians stole his clothes. After stopping at the desolate Isles of Shoals, explorer Christopher Levett lodged with the Thomsons for a month during their first winter. Miles Standish, military leader for the Plymouth Colony visited in 1623 to buy food for the starving Separatists.

According to visitor Phineas Pratt, the Thomsons kept an enslaved Native American, presented to them by a local Indian leader. They reportedly had a good spring of fresh water and an abundance of wild game, birds, and more fish than they could salt and store. Levett said that he "fed very plentifully" at Pannaway, but that despite the wealth of timber, the rocky land was not fit for farming. Further up the Piscataqua River, an Indian Sagamore told Levett, there were good harbors and fertile soil.


Pannaway Manor in Rye, NH 1623 (c) Matthew Thompson/ Peter Randall Publisher


The End of the Beginning

Within a year of his arrival at Rye, David Thomson was touring the untamed harbor at Boston where he had his eye on an island of 157 acres off modern day Dorchester. He likely built a house on the eastern end of "Thompson Island" around 1625 or 1626. The stone foundation, discovered in the 19th century, has since eroded into the harbor. According to some accounts, son John Thomson [Thompson] was born at Pannaway in 1625. Other writers speculate that John was born in England, or that the Thomsons had already moved to Boston by the year he was born.

David may also have helped his unmarried friend Samuel Maverick build a house on Noddle’s Island nearby in Boston Harbor. Thomson wrote a lengthy intimate letter to the Earl of Arundel around this time complaining about the sale of guns to the Indians by colonists. This may be a reference to the infamous Thomas Morton of Merry Mount, a Massachusetts neighbor. Morton was a free-thinking colonist who considered the Puritans, who were arriving in larger numbers, to be oppressive tyrants. Morton later wrote that David Thomson was an adventurer with much knowledge of the Natives and "a man of good judgment". The Puritans, in turn, considered Morton to be a Royalist agitator and later arrested him for trading guns and ammunition to the Indians and for lewd and heathenish behavior, including dancing naked around a maypole.

By 1626, the Thomsons appear to have abandoned the trading post at Pannaway to the fishermen and fur traders in favor of the more fertile island in Massachusetts. By the close of 1627 David Thomson was dead.

Because Thomson was a staunch Royalist, amateur historians have hinted that his early death may have been the result of foul play. The settlers at Plymouth also had dibs on Thompson Island. And Thomson apparently hoped to get a patent for valuable land at Cape Ann, also attractive to the Plymouth colonists. But his dealings with Plymouth appear to have been largely amiable and commercial. He knew the region and the Indians better than most and served as consultant and guide. In what must have been New England’s first yard sale, Thomson reportedly accompanied Plymouth founders William Bradford and Edward Winslow to Monhegan Island where the goods and livestock from a failed colony were being auctioned off. Most likely, despite the heady religious and political rivalries of the era, David Thomson died from accident or illness.

Ignored by NH

A widow alone in a strange land, Amias Cole Thomson married Samuel Maverick within a year of her husband’s death. Their Church of England nuptials, some suggest, was the first religious wedding ceremony in New England. (For Puritans, marriage was a civil contract.) Amias moved from Thompson Island to Mavericks fortified home in Chelsea, and then to Maverick’s second house on Noddles Island --, the one her first husband may have helped build and now the site of Logan Airport. .

Amias Maverick failed to retain her property for her young son. Thompson Island was quickly claimed by Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, just as the Strawbery Banke colonists were settling in on the Piscataqua. John Thomson went on to captain his own fishing boats. Using his father’s 1622 patent from the Council of New England, he was eventually able to prove his title to Thompson Island in 1650. A few years later, however, John lost the property when it was seized for an unpaid debt. When a Native American petitioned the court a few years later claiming that white settlers had stolen the island that was his birthright, he was not even granted a hearing. Thompson Island became home to a boy’s preparatory academy in 1814. Today it is home to an Outward Bound program.

John Thomson went on to become a founder and prominent citizen of Mendon, Massachusetts. When Native Americans burned Mendon in 1675, Thomson was among the first settlers to return and rebuild. History strongly suggests that John Thomson was the first Englishman born in New Hampshire and, therefore, the first white settler born in Portsmouth. Thomson apparently never tried to reclaim his parent’s property at Pannaway. He died at Mendon in 1685.

Ignored by history, obscured by time, the Thomsons get no respect around here, except perhaps, in the dusty chronicles of Rye. In his 1905 history of the town, author Langdon Brown Parsons reminded us that it was the Thomsons of Rye-- not John Mason, not the Laconia Company, and not the early arrivals at Strawbery Banke -- who give Portsmouth the right to loudly proclaim it was "settled in 1623".


SOURCES: (1) History of the Town of Rye, New Hampshire (1905) by Langdon Brown Parsons; (2) "David Thomson, Scottish Founder of New Hampshire" (2003 online articles) by Genevieve Cora Fraser; (3) "Notes on the First Planting of NH and on the PIscataqua Patents" (1895 pamphlet) by John Scribner Jenness; (4) The First Yankee (1979) by Ralph and Matthew Thompson; (5) History of New Hampshire (1896) by John Norris McClintock (6) The Four Thompsons of Boston Harbor (1966) by Raymond W. Stanley.

Copyright © 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of the regional history web site His column also appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald.