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What We are Learning about the Isles of Shoals
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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