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What We are Learning about the Isles of Shoals


Projectile_point_2012HISTORY MATTERS

Consider yourself warned. My exhibit “Under the Isles of Shoals” closes forever on August 31 at Discover Portsmouth. The good news is that Cornell University has asked to move the displays and artifacts to its museum for a run in Ithaca, New York. I truly hope you will bring the family – kids especially – before we dismantle this important exhibit and ship it out of town. Why important? Let me count the ways. (Continued below)


Five years of scientific digging have changed the way we see the Isles of Shoals. I was on Smuttynose Island this June when a student unearthed the neck of a bellarmine or “Bartmann” jug, what archaeologist Nathan Hamilton likes to call “the Coke can of the 17th century.” Hard-drinking English fishermen all carried them. Originally created in Germany in the 1500s, these stoneware jugs were decorated with the face of a bearded man.

The young archaeologists were ecstatic to find the entire neck of the bottle with the face intact – a rare discovery. Barely an hour later, the students found an ancient arrowhead in the deepest strata of marine clay that had been locked between bits of bedrock for eons.

This latest arrowhead reconfirms the presence of prehistoric Native Americans on Smuttynose island, a fact proven by Hamilton’s students only three years ago. We now have dozens of stone tools and thousands of discarded “flakes” from the manufacture of arrowheads and spear points. We know that prehistoric Indians made at least seven visits to hunt and fish at the Isles of Shoals as far back as 6,000 years ago.

Bearded man of bellarmine jug at Smuttynose / J. Dennis Robinson photo

They really came to fish

The “bearded man” jug reinforces the message that European fishermen were also here, and not just casually. On just two acres of land at Smuttynose, in just 50 cubic meters of excavated soil, over 10,000 fragments of clay pipes dating to the 1620s have been found, preserved, and catalogued. Last week, as I was interviewing Hamilton in the field by telephone, a digger found the first fully intact smoking pipe. This astonishing density of pipes – plus fishhooks, gunflints, hand-made lead bullets, thimbles, glassware, and ceramics – indicate that the island was teaming with fisherman for decades in the second half of the 1600s.

Under_the_Isles_of_Shoals_CoverThe more we find, the more we know. Last year, based on the huge density of artifacts, Hamilton’s team concluded that a tavern, only briefly mentioned in the historic record, really did stand at the entrance to Haley’s Cove on Smuttynose Island.

This year, based on the volume of dried brick unearthed nearby, Hamilton says they may have also found the site of a seventeenth-century church building. Smuttynose, according to a few accounts,, was originally called Church Island.

SEE ALSO: How we created the SHOALS exhibit

“This has been a really great summer, “Hamilton says. The diggers produced another 50,000 artifacts this year, bringing the total to about 300,000. Among the most important items are the shells of gastropods (aka periwinkles) that are being studied by Robin Hadlock-Seeley of the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore. Her work, Hamilton says, may have a profound impact on what we know about climate change and global warming.

This summer students also recorded another 2,500 artifacts on Star Island in front of the manager’s cottage near the dirt path that leads up to the familiar stone Gosport Chapel.  At the bottom of a meter of soil the diggers found more evidence of the early fishing industry dating to about 1640. That means there were seasonal fishermen from England on Star as early as those on Smuttynose.

“It’s a very strategic vantage point,” Hamilton says of the digging site on Star. “When you stand there and look around, it is the place with the best ventilation for drying fish. You can look out to sea and see where the other fishermen would have been living on Appledore and Smuttynose.”




Our fishy founders

Perhaps this is part of the fishing operation owned by Richard Cutt who arrived from Wales in the 1640s with his two brothers. Richard apparently made his fortune fishing at the Shoals when the prized, protein-rich white meat of the dried Atlantic cod was at peak value in the European marketplace. Cutt ran his fishery on Star, historians believe, and invested his profits into real estate at Strawberry Bank, the colony that would soon be renamed Portsmouth. Richard purchased the North End of town, now dominated by modern hotels, while his brother Gov. John Cutt bought up what became the South End of the city. A third brother became a shipbuilder in Kittery.

It was Richard Cutt who complained to the General Court in 1647 that another fisherman named John Reynolds had broken an unwritten law by moving his wife and his hogs and goats to nearby Hog Island. Reynolds wife was allowed to stay on Hog (now Appledore), but the livestock that was fouling the wells and eating the fish stock had to go.  This is our first written record of the presence of women at the Shoals.

Fishing on the Isles of SHoals 1650 (c) Bill Paarlberg / Portsmouth Marine Society

What happened here?

“There’s such an intense occupation from 1640 to 1680,” Hamlton says of the artifacts at Smuttynose, “but after the 1690s things just pare right down. It’s like there’s hardly anybody here. Before that we have so much stuff. Something happened that changed the way this island was used.”

The small test dig on Star Island this year also yielded 25 more cod “otoliths,” a small preserved structure found in the head of fish. Almost 600 otoliths have been found so far on Smuttynose. When examined in the laboratory this coming winter, these artifacts can tell us, not only the age of each fish, but the season in which it was caught and killed. The depth of the strata of soil in which it was found will tell us the year. This information will help historians clearly determine the fishing seasons and the size of fish caught through the busy1600s at the Shoals.

The pieces are slowly coming together. Thanks to an earlier dig in 1988 by archaeologist Faith Harrinngton, we know where William Pepperrell built his house on Appledore Island. His fishing operation appears to date from 1676 to 1680, after which Pepperrell moved to the mainland at Kittery and became a wealthy landowner. Pepperrell’s departure coincides with the decline of the population Hamilton has documented on Smuttynose. That is the same year that Massachusetts raised taxes on its territory in Maine. Half of the nine Isles of Shoals are in Maine, so in protest, legend says, many fishermen moved over to Star Island on the New Hampshire side, or moved to the mainland, bringing their homes with them.

The fishing operation at the Shoals may also have been affected by two periods of Indian retaliation against white settlers in New England. Historians know these conflicts dating from the 1670s to the 1690s. as King Phillip’s War and King William’s War.

“This has to be a safe place out here [on the Shoals], relative to what was happening up into the river valley back then,” Hamilton told me by phone from Smuttynose.  “This has to be a pretty risk free place because it’s so far offshore.”


Haley_Cemetery on SMuttynose Island /


Penetrating underground

But as the Indian threat faded, so did the population on Smuttynose. The fishing village of Gosport, New Hampshire was officially established on Star Island in 1715. Back on Smuttynose, Hamilton says, there seems to be little activity until the arrival of Captain Sam Haley and his wife Mary in the mid-1700s. Haley and his son (also Sam Haley and married to a woman named Mary) ruled Smuttynose for decades, operating a variety of family businesses. It was the Haleys who built the stone pier and the breakwater to little Malaga Island. They also built the Mid-Ocean House Hotel, now gone, and the Haley Cottage, one of only two buildings still standing on Smuttynose.

This year Hamilton’s group used ground penetrating radar to map the front lawn of the island. The archaeologists walked 375 “lines” each one-half meter apart. This gives researchers a detailed map of what lies under ground down to the bedrock. That allows them to find deposits up to a meter thick on a rocky island where the soil is often only inches deep.

The high-tech mapping process showed three foundations and a stone wall buried beneath the front lawn. This data proves, for example, that the Revolutionary-era Haley Cottage, where the island stewards live each summer, was moved a few yards to its current position at the top of the hill. Hamilton suggests that the building was moved around 1873 to allow guests at the small hotel on Smuttynose to see the enormous new Oceanic Hotel that opened that summer across Gosport Harbor on Star Island.

The year 1873 also marks the infamous double homicide on Smuttynose. The ax murders by fisherman Louis Wagner form the backstory of the highly fictionalized novel Weight of Water by Anita Shreve (who will visit the Shoals later this month). With ground penetrating radar the archaeologists were able to map the precise footprint of the Hontvet House, now gone, where the murders occurred.

Honvet_House site on Smuttynose (photo of Bill Roy by J. Dennis Robinson)

Connecting the dots

Meanwhile this summer an Eagle Scout named Nathaniel Purdy cleared the site of the Bowditch Cottage on Appledore Island. Nathaniel Bowditch was a famous navigator and early Shoals tourist. His descendants built a large cottage near the Appledore Hotel. Both burned in 1914. Purdy research the Bowditch family and designed an historic marker that now stands on the site.

“He did a fantastic job,” Hamilton says of Purdy’s work. As a follow-up Hamilton wants to uncover the site of three other historic Appledore cottages next year. The work on Smuttynose has re-ignited interest in doing more archaeological work on Star and Appledore, and Hamilton has a long list of potential sites worth exploring, including the studio of famed Impressionist painter Childe Hassem. Back on Smuttynose, Hamilton wants to examine the Mid-Ocean House, the Colley House, the possible church site, and the legend of the 14 shipwrecked Spanish sailors whose graves have never been found.

Future digs, student research, and laboratory testing will help us continue to connect-the-dots from this rich database. Ongoing analysis of the chemical composition of smoking pipes found on Smuttynose, for example, are yielding surprising information about how our ancestors carried on commercial trade in the 1600s. Hamilton hopes to spend an upcoming sabbatical from the University of Southern Maine filling in more missing details.

In time, the Shoals will give up more secrets. But for those who plan to see the exhibit that Nate Hamilton and I created, time is running out.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest books are America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 and Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island.


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