Four American History Myths Busted in Portsmouth
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


Throw away those old schoolbooks. Your history teacher got it wrong.  From Columbus to Plymouth Rock, US history is peppered with false notions. Historic Portsmouth, NH offers a salty alternative to the standard stories. With scores of restored homes, New Hampshire’s only seaport clings to its colonial charm. And the locals are itching to reveal the fascinating truth you didn’t get in class. (continued below)  



 For more information on all these historic sites and many more visit the Discover Portsmouth Center in Portsmouth, NH. 


Myth 1:
Pilgrims seeking religious freedom founded America

THE TRUTH: While some early settlers were motivated by their religious beliefs, Portsmouth, like most early American cities, was founded by capitalists. Wealthy English businessmen bankrolled early exploring, fishing, and fur-trading ventures here on the AtlanticCoast. Adventurers, laborers, and indentured servants were among the first to arrive, some devout, some not. Early NH investors even hoped that the PiscataquaRiver was the secret passage to a lucrative trade route to China. In 1630 a group of men and women settled at what is today StrawberyBankeMuseum. They dug for gold, searched for precious gems, and tried making wine without success. Yet many colonists still got rich harvesting tall pine trees for the masts of Royal Navy ships. 

SEE MORE:  The site of the early settlement in the river is now home to Portsmouth’s PrescottPark, scenes of outdoors plays, concerts, festivals and a flower garden. Over two-dozen Portsmouth homes from 1695 to 1830 still stand on their original foundations in New Hampshire’s oldest neighborhood at Strawbery Banke Museum inthe South End of town. 




Myth 2:
Slavery was a Southern problem only

THE TRUTH:  Because Portsmouth was a successful seaport in the infamous “Triangle Trade” with the West Indies, merchants here in the North also bought and sold human slaves. The first known enslaved man in Portsmouth arrived in chains aboard a ship from Guinea in 1645. Africans were traded as cargo, sometimes in ships built on the PiscataquaRiver. By the mid-1700s most of the city’s wealthy families had Black slaves or freed servants. The New England industrial economy, particularly the cotton trade, continued to depend on southern slavery for cheap labor even as northerners decried the practice. Social discrimination was prevalent in the North for a century after the Emancipation Proclamation.  

SEE MORE: Today Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail markers placed around the city honor famous African-Americans like newspaper printer Primus Fowle and Revolutionary War hero Prince Whipple, both enslaved men. Walk the self-guided Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail that tells the story of African Americans in NH’s only seaport. 




Myth 3:
All Americans hated the British before the Revolution 

THE TRUTH: Most New Hampshire colonists prior to the Revolution were proud to be British citizens and sat on the fence regarding the coming Revolution. They just wanted to be treated with the respect given to other Englishmen. Unlike Massachusetts, New Hampshire liked its royal British governors, many of whom were born and lived in Portsmouth. Benning Wentworth, a paunchy aristocratic leader, is now seen as a snobby Loyalist. But in his day, locals knew that his global business connections also made Portsmouth a wealthy town. His nephew John Wentworth attended Harvard, helped found DartmouthCollege, built the first state house and the first lighthouse, developed the state’s highways system and fought against the hated Stamp Act. But Wentworth and his family were ultimately driven from their Portsmouth home, victims of the American Revolution, never to return under penalty of death.  

SEE MORE:  Portsmouth was a prominent seaport before and after the American Revolution. Patriot John Langdon was a friend of George Washington who visited his Portsmouth home in 1789. William Whipple of the Moffatt_Ladd House in town signed the Declaration of Independence. John Paul Jones sailed the Portsmouth-built RANGER from here in 1777 and the home of Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear is still open to the public. To learn these stories and more visit the DiscoverPortsmouthCenter and get directions to the city’s many historic sites related the Revolution.





Myth 4:
Paul Revere’s first midnight ride was to Lexington and Concord.

THE TRUTH: On December 13, 1774, four months before his famous Massachusetts alarm, Paul Revere galloped into Portsmouth. The British were coming, he warned, to take all the gunpowder and ammunition away from the colonists. Roused to action, 400 local citizens stormed FortWilliam and Mary in nearby New Castle. Shots were fired, but they were not heard round the world. Six soldiers on duty quickly surrendered. Patriots stole the gunpowder from the King’s royal armory. It was later used at Bunker Hill, in a battle where New Hampshire men outnumbered those from every other state.  

LEARN MORE: Located off scenic RouteIA in New Castle next to the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, FortWilliam and Mary is now called FortConstitution. Although modernized during the Civil War with brick and granite walls, the ruins remain open free to the public. Stepping inside the gated entrance, visitors can easily picture one of the earliest – and still unsung – battles for American Independence. While you’re there, be sure to check for days in which the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse is open for tours.  Visit Friends of the lighthouse.    

(c) 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson on, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular regional web site and author of books on Wentworth by the Sea Hotel, Strawbery Banke other other history topics.