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Central Portsmouth Before the Fire

firematch.jpgBREWSTER’S RAMBLES #125

By the mid 1800s Portsmouth citizens had largely forgotten what the city looked like before the last great fire of 1813. Reporter Charles Brewster painstakingly recreated the scene in a series of essays, describing the city street-by-street. Tough sledding to readers today, it remains the only public record of its kind.





First Jewish Family and a Forgotten Portsmouth Poet


ABOUT Charles Brewster 

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. The Abraham Isaac house mentioned here still stands across from the John Paul Jones House Museum on State Street.The city's only temple is located firther up State Street now far from the Shapiro House exhibit at Strawbery Banke Museum.  -- JDR



Central Portsmouth before the Fire of 1813. -- James Sheafe's Residence -- Abraham Isaac, the Jew -- Jonathan M. Sewell, the Poet.

NEXT (see previous article) west of Davenport's hotel on State street, were the premises of Hon. James Sheafe, who occupied the family mansion of his father. The house was large, of two stories and an ell. It somewhat resembled in appearance the Whipple house, the residence of the late Alexander Ladd, Esq. on Market street, and was built at about the same time. The house was on the site of the present residence of J. M. Tredick, Esq. and connected with it was the large garden, now owned by Mr. Tredick.

brewsterslogo.jpgMr. Sheafe owned the whole of the square south of the Market, excepting the corner lot, on which a building was, after the fire, erected for the N. H. Union Bank, and now occupied by Albert R. Hatch, Esq. and C. N. Shaw & Co. At the time of the fire, on this corner lot was the Adams house, where resided the mother of Nathaniel Adams, the collector of the Annals of Portsmouth. In this house at the time of the fire were shoe shops of Lewis Bruce and Mendum Janvrin. Between this house and James Sheafe's residence, was another double house belonging to him, and occupied in one tenement by Dr. J. H. Pierrepoint, the beloved physician, and in the other by the widow Rachel Isaac, as a variety store and residence.

Abraham Isaac and his wife were natives of Prussia, and Jews of the strictest sect. They were the first descendants of the venerable Jewish patriarch that ever pitched their tent in Portsmouth, and during their lives were the only Jews among us. He was an auctioneer, acquired a good property and built the house opposite the Rockingham House on State street, now owned and occupied by Mrs. M. P. Jones. Their shop was always closed on Saturday, and on almost any other day in pleasant weather, Mrs. Isaac might be seen at the counter or looking over the half door by which the shop was entered. In front of the house, within a foot of it, was a pump. The well is still kept in order for fires, and it may be seen on the outside of the present sidewalk, near the cross pavement which leads to the Episcopal chapel. Mr. Isaac died on the 15th of Feb. 1803, aged 49, and on the stone which marks his grave in the North burying ground, may be seen the following model epitaph, written by our poet, J. M. Sewall:

Entomb'd beneath, where earth-born troubles cease,
A son of faithful Abra'm sleeps in peace.
In life's first bloom he left his native air,
A sojourner, as all his fathers were;
Through various toils his active spirit ran,
A faithful steward and an honest man
His soul, we trust now freed from mortal woes,
Finds, in the partiarch's bosom sweet repose.

A better epitaph can rarely be found. Rachael, his widow, for ten years after his death continued her variety store in this house, and after its destruction in 1813, having no children of her own, took up her residence with an adopted son who lived near New Ipswich, in this State. He was the agent of one of the first cotton factories in that vicinity, and at her death, in that place, all her property became his by bequest.

Repassing again the Adams corner, we go up what is now the front of Exchange Buildings, under the shade of large beautifully spread elms, and nearly on the spot where the Rockingham Bank now stands we can see a large white gambrel-roofed house, back to the market, end to the street, approached by a lattice gate. In general appearance, position, and garden on the south, very nearly resembling the mansion of Samuel Lord, Esq., on Middle street.

This house was the property of John Fisher, Esq., who owned the land on which the Market was built. The Fisher family went to England after the

Revolution. About seventy years ago this house was occupied by Jonathan Goddard, Esq., the first husband of Mrs. Robert Rice. It was afterwards occupied by Dr. Josiah Dwight until the fire.

The brick market checked the fire in this direction. It was a truly dismal sight the next morning from this stand-point to see a spot cleared which contained one-fourth at least of all the buildings in Portsmouth, and nothing intervening between the market and Portsmouth Pier but naked chimneys and smoking ruins!

We will turn from this scene for a short ramble to Gates street.

Prominent among the poets of the Revolution, whose verses carried spirit into the camp, and stirred up the patriotic fires of those who performed the

statesman's duties at home, was that philanthropic man, JONATHAN MITCHELL SEWELL, Esq., whose home was in Portsmouth, and whose last place of abode was the house on Gates street nearly opposite that of Capt. Joseph Grace.

An enquiry has been made who was the author of "The Versification of Washington's Farewell Address, by a gentleman of Portsmouth, N. H., printed in 1798."

This Versification we have before us. It was written by Mr. Sewall and published, with the author's characteristic modesty, without his name. The poem, if such it may be called, occupies forty-four octavo pages, and is almost a literal presentation of the original in rhyme -- the author endeavoring to shun any of the tinsel decorations of poetic ornament, "not indulging to his own fancy on such momentous subjects, handled before with such masterly perfection."

Mr. Sewall was born in Salem, Mass., in 1748, and died in Portsmouth in 1808. He studied law with Judge John Pickering of Portsmouth, became a member of our bar, and was of high standing as a lawyer, but no less eminent as a statesman and poet. He was the writer of the stirring song of the Revolution entitled "War and Washington," beginning "Vain Britons, boast no longer," &c., which was sung in every camp throughout the country.

One of our venerable citizens has recently given us a pamphlet containing a Fourth of July Oration delivered at Portsmouth in 1788, "By one the inhabitants." There is no clue in the book to show who that inhabitant was.

The title page presents as a motto and apology for withholding his name, the following expressive quotation from Pope:

"Who builds a church to God, and not to fame,
Will never mark the marble with his name."

This was the first 4th of July Oration delivered in Portsmonth after the Declaration of Independence. The modest author was Jonathan M. Sewall. It was a patriotic production of much higher literary merit than many public addresses which have their author's names in conspicuous capitals.

Charity casts a veil over the weaknesses of his latter years, since the record of his whole life showed him an honest man, the advocate not only of the cause of his country, but also of the injured, however humble their situation. His grave stone bears the following epitaph:

In vain shall worth or wisdom plead to save
The dying victim from the destined grave;
Nor charity, our helpless nature's pride,
The friend to him, who knows no friend beside;
Nor genius, science, eloquence have pow'r,
One moment, to protract th' appointed hour!
Could these united his life have repriev'd,
We should not weep, for Sewell still had liv'd.

ext scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999 


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