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What We are Learning about the Isles of Shoals


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.”


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Friday, January 19, 2018 
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