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Three Lives of the Portsmouth Marine Society

Portsmouth Marine Society 1808HISTORY MATTERS


December should be spelled with a dollar sign. We will spend a bundle on consumer goods this month, but we will also be very generous to people in need. That blend of commerce and charity defines the holiday season. That also describes the Portsmouth Marine Society, founded in 1808. Three groups have borne that name. Their stories are rarely told. (Click title to read more)



Today New Hampshire's key industry is tourism. Before that, beginning in the mid-1800s, we were a manufacturing state with an emphasis on textiles. Turn the clock back even further and, for its first two centuries, New Hampshire was a maritime economy. It all began with fishing, but by the 1700s, our primary export was trees, sold as tall straight masts, or cut into boards, shingles, and staves. Piscataqua sailors traveled to distant ports, returning with rum, sugar, molasses, earthenware, cloth, dried peas, beans, and corn.



Our honor wounded


As the state's only seaport, Portsmouth reached its heyday soon after the Revolution. But without a significant navy, American merchant ships were constantly harassed  by Barbary Pirates and by the French and British, who were engaged in a lengthy war. Locals were incensed in June 1807, when the British warship HMS Leopard attacked and boarded the frigate USS Chesapeake off the Virginia coast.

 Maine privateer pensioner courtesy of Judy Pitchforth  & Biddeford Public Library


The nascent nation felt dishonored. Its sovereignty had been violated. A "large and respectable meeting" of Seacoast residents was held the following month to address the threat to maritime trade. They unanimously condemned the "treacherous, unprovoked, and dastardly attack" on American shipping.  


President Thomas Jefferson saw the "Chesapeake Affair" as second only to the infamous British attack at Lexington and Concord. Jefferson struck back with the Embargo Act of 1807. It banned American exports. The goal was to punish Britain and France by cutting off their supply of raw materials from the United States.



Initially Piscataqua businessmen supported the President's actions as wise, prudent, and dignified. "We will cheerfully submit to any sacrifice," they proclaimed. But the embargo backfired, choking off the shipping economy along the Atlantic coast. Locals would come to curse Jefferson's embargo, and the War of 1812 that followed under President James Madison. One treasonous young Portsmouth lawyer by the name of Daniel Webster went so far as to suggest that New England should secede from the United States in protest. The Port of Portsmouth began its sad decline, devolving from a world trade center to a shadow of its former self. It would take almost 200 years for the "Old Town by the Sea" to reinvent its burgeoning economy, this time by substituting trees and the lucrative West India Trade, for tourists.





1808 Membership form for Portsmouth Marine SOciety 

Planning for hard times

In the summer of 1808, a year after the Chesapeake Affair, "several gentlemen who had followed the sea or were engaged in maritime pursuits" took action. They incorporated the fraternal Portsmouth Marine Society. These prominent ship captains and ship owners agreed to consolidate their knowledge about navigating domestic and foreign ports. Upon returning to Portsmouth from their voyages, captains were required to write down the latest info about distant currents, tides, water depth, dangerous rocks and shoals, and "other things remarkable."

By networking and data sharing, the Portsmouth Marine Society functioned like an early chamber of commerce. They were also a sort of private insurance company and nonprofit charity created to address difficult times.

The goal was to accrue a bank account of up to $5,000 annually, a significant sum at the dawn of the nineteenth century. They set up bylaws and elected officers. Maritime members, those who had the most to gain, paid $21.50 to join. Honorary members contributed five dollars. A portion of the group treasury was doled out to “decayed and disabled maritime members.” 

John Langdon, governor and privateerLife at sea was dangerous. Between $100 and $200 was distributed annually to needy mariners, or to their widows and orphans. Members took care of their own. In 1826, for example, the society issued $21.50 to the daughter of the late Capt. John Nobel, so that his daughter could travel from North Carolina to Portsmouth.

“A nobler race of shipmasters [and] honorable merchants never gave worth to any city of the world,” a nineteenth century Portsmouth newspaper remarked of the Marine Society members.  A similar maritime group in Salem gave birth to what is now the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in that sister seaport.

Members initially met at the Old Bell Tavern downtown. In later years, they gathered at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, founded in 1817, where their records survive today. The city’s influential ship builders, merchants, and captains included famous local men named Langdon, Marcy, Coffin, Blunt, Chauncey, Shapleigh, Haven, Boyd, Sheafe, Shaw, Goodwin, Salter, and Whipple. The original president was Thomas Thompson, well known as the captain of the Continental Navy frigate Raleigh. But Thompson had "gone aloft" and died in 1809.

No one knew in 1808 that the city's shipping economy was in permanent decline. Portsmouth Harbor companies would continue to build great ships. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, established in 1800, evolved from sails to atoms, and remains the gold standard of nuclear submarine work today. But as the nineteenth century progressed, accurate navigation charts became available. Steam engines replaced sails. The once fragrant and bustling wharves that lined the Portsmouth waterfront were rotting and falling into the river.

By 1872 only a dozen out of 120 members of the Portsmouth Marine Society were still alive. In 1895 as the Age of Sail gave way to the Industrial Age, the ancient seafaring club gave up the ghost. Today most of its members are known only for their names on street signs or plaques on historic houses.

The original society

The 1808 group was actually the second of three Portsmouth Marine Societies. The first was formed in the stormy days leading up to the American Revolution. It included 22 men of diverse wealth and age. They were a powerful association of Piscataqua ship owners and shipmasters. (Fourteen of them were Masons from St. John's Lodge.) They included Woodbury Langdon, Titus Salter, Gregory Purcell, John Moffatt. All are still associated with historic Portsmouth houses. Nathaniel Adams, the city's first historian and an Athenaeum founder, was also a member. 

The men of the first Portsmouth Marine Society met in New Hampshire’s first state house, a building that once stood in the center of Market Square, between what is now the Portsmouth Athenaeum and the North Church. Their main goal was clear. In 1765 they petitioned Royal Governor Benning Wentworth to construct a lighthouse at the mouth of the harbor in New Castle. But Benning was by this time an unpopular governor. He resigned to his mansion at Little Harbor two years later.

It was the next governor, Benning's nephew John Wentworth, who later authorized the construction of a wooden lighthouse at Fort William and Mary. The beacon from that lighthouse was the last glimmer of New Hampshire that John Wentworth and his family saw from aboard HMS Saratoga when they were exiled from Portsmouth at the dawn of the American Revolution, never to return under penalty of death.

The society reincarnated

The third Portsmouth Marine Society was a new thing altogether. It was conceived as a 20th century plan to preserve the city's seafaring past. Joseph Sawtelle, a real estate developer and owner of Mariner's Village, was an avid collector of maritime artifacts. Sawtelle joined forces with publisher Peter Randall, antiquarian Joe Copley, and historian Ray Brighton. There was a haunting sense of continuity when the four incorporators met within the hallowed walls of the Portsmouth Athenaeum in the early 1980s.

          Under Sawtelle’s guidance, the nonprofit publishing group produced impressive hardcover volumes focused on Piscataqua maritime topics. The series has become an indispensible resource for scholars, students, residents, collectors, and the merely curious. The illustrated books, now managed by the Portsmouth Historical Society, includes 33 titles on tugboats, gundalows, submarines, clippers, whalers, warships, and much more. Refitted for the twenty-first century, the Portsmouth Marine Society Press continues to tell 400 years of our seafaring stories.  

For more information on the Portsmouth Marine Society Press contact Discover Portsmouth at 603-436-8433 or visit

Copyright © 2015 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book Mystery at the Isles of Shoals, closes the case on the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders. 


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