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NH Liberty Pole Guide for Idiots

Liberty Pole (c) SeacoastNH.com by J. Dennis Robinson
HISTORIC TOURS

You’ve seen that pole in Prescott Park, the one with the eagle and the shield. It’ been there now going on 200 years, but why? Sure it stands for "Liberty" Duh! But who put there and what great rebellion in New Hampshire history does it memorialize?

 

 

 

Three Eagles and Counting

The idiot mentioned in the title is me. Despite decades of passing by the Liberty Pole that stands at Prescott Park, I’m only now coming to put the puzzle pieces together. You’ve likely seen the early photographs of Liberty Bridge on Marcy Street that runs between the park and Strawbery Banke Museum. Well, the only bridge on Marcy (formerly Water Street) is at the bottom of the hill by the fish market. I got it into my head long ago that the Liberty Pole used to be down there by the former mill dam that leads to South Mill Pond. I figured the pole was later moved.

Wrong. As you probably know, where the pole now stands was a tidal inlet called the Cove that ran all the way from the river into what is now Strawbery Banke. It all makes much more sense from the air where one can see how the flat lower half of the park (where the flower beds are) flow into the flat empty field at the museum. The pole stands near where the old "swing" bridge used to be. Originally it was possible to take a small boat into the inlet and, at high tide, further on up to South Mill Pond. But activity at the cove got choked with silt and refuse. Eventually the inlet in the Puddle Dock area was filled in with 25 tons of ash and debris around the start of the 20th century and Liberty Bridge ceased to exist. But the pole stayed.

Prescott Park and Liberty Pole (c) Peter E. Randa;; on SeacoastNH.com

CONTINUE WITH LIBERTY POLE ARTICLE
 

HISTORY OF THE PORTSMOUTH< NH LIBERTY POLE 

Here is the rest of the story. This is not deep research, just data I cobbled together to understand what that largely unnoticed memorial stands for.

 -- Liberty Bridge was first built across the tidal inlet at Puddle Dock around 1731. In those days the waterfront was the hub of Portsmouth activity.

 -- Colonists were really ticked off by King George’s Stamp Act that imposed taxes on newspapers, stationery and documents. On September 12, 1765 a mob of Portsmouth, NH citizens hung colonial tax collector George Meserve in effigy in Haymarket Square. Meserve was not in town at the time and, sensing public outrage, quickly resigned his lucrative royal position.

Liberty Bridge and Pole/ SeacoastNH.com -- Locals demanded a public resignation and later surrounded Meserve’s house. They reportedly paraded his royal commission through town on the tip of a sword and shipped it back to King George in England. 

 -- In memory of their act of civil disobedience, a group of local insurgents called the Sons of Liberty unfurled a banner here on a pole in the Puddle Dock area in 1766. The note read "Liberty, Property and No Stamp". Remember, this is almost a decade before the American Revolution.

  •  -- Over half a century later the city was in a huge economic slump, so locals pumped themselves up with patriotic fervor and celebrated Portsmouth 200th anniversary in 1823. The following year they erected a permanent pole 85-feet high at Liberty Bridge with a gilded carved eagle at the top. There is also a "liberty cap" or finial just below the eagle with thirteen silver balls. The original carver is presumed to be Laban Beecher (1805 –1876) of Boston who records show was then doing carvings on the sloop CONCORD. Beecher was only 19 years old at the time.
  •  
  • Puddle Dock and LIberty Bridge (c) SeacaostNh.com -- A wooden shield was added to the pole in 1857. The shield is dedicated to the nation’s "emancipation from tyranny" on July 4, 1776. It includes thirteen stars and thirteen stripes. The carvers are identified as Benjamin Gleason and Joseph Henderson.

  •  -- The pole was replaced in 1872 and by a taller pole in 1899, just as the process of filling in the Puddle Dock inlet began.

  •  -- The neighborhood had begun to look dilapidated by the later 1800s, but the Liberty Pole remained a key element in early historic tours of the city.

  •  -- In his 1890 book Old Town by the Sea. Thomas Bailey Aldrich noted that the view down Water Street to the Liberty Pole remained all but unchanged since his boyhood and said "the weather-stained, unoccupied warehouses are sufficient to satisfy a moderate appetite for antiquity."
  • Newton Ave (c) Strawbery Banke Museum
  •  
    -- Junkyards quite naturally arose on the flat area where the Cove had once been. Selling scrap was a common business and an important source of recyclable material during the first two world wars. Tenement houses arose to accommodate a wave of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century and the road leading through Puddle Dock toward the flagpole was known as Newton Avenue.

  •  -- During the 1930s, Portsmouth historian I.A. Harriman spearheaded an effort to create a New Hampshire state park around the Liberty Pole, while another group tried to create a national park here. Fired by patriotic spirit, Harriman wrote: "Where could be found the length and breadth of our land a shrine that from which radiated so early the true spirit of Liberty? By patriots whose ardor, by their action, not by words alone, but by immortal deeds. Heroes who rallied around this sacred shrine, whose loyalty figured so prominently in the birth of our nation."

    Third Liberty Pole Eagle photo (c) Jim Cerny on SeacoastNH.com
  •  -- The Prescott sisters and their attorney Charles Dale bought and tore down most of the large buildings along the water side of Water Street, many of them former bordellos. The top half of Prescott Park was dedicated in 1939, but the lower section with the Liberty Pole was not completed until the 1970s.

  •  -- Under urban renewal in the early 1960s the junk piles at Puddle Dock were removed. Many buildings were demolished or moved while others were later renovated by Strawbery Banke Museum. Newton Avenue disappeared, but the Liberty Pole remained.

  •  -- In 1978 the original carved eagle and shield were replaced with carvings by George Pitts. The original eagle then hung for two decades in the Portsmouth Library on Middle Street.

  •  -- The Beecher eagle was recently re-installed at the new Portsmouth Public Library on Parrott Avenue. It now hangs on "The Staircase to Enlightenment", named in honor of local auctioneer Ronald Bourgeault who many know best from his appearances on the TV series "Antiques Roadshow".

  •  -- Ron Raiselas carved a third eagle, a duplicate of the original, that now stands at the top of the Liberty Pole. Ron has been the cooper at Strawbery Banke Museum for the last 25 years. He has also maintained the reproduced shield and "liberty cap".

  •  -- The second eagle and the original wooden shield are on display during the summer at the Shaefe Warehouse Museum not far from the Liberty Pole on the Piscataqua River in Prescott Park. The new shield, missing from the pole last year, has just been cleaned and attached once again to the Liberty pole.

So those who love Portsmouth history can now visit all three eagles and both Liberty Shields. And yes, that is the "real" Liberty Pole, except we’ve had to replace it a few times along the way. It is every bit as authentic as the rebuilt Old Ironsides and ten times more real than Plymouth Rock.

Copyright 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

PHOTO CREDITS: Top photo of Liberty Pole by J. Dennis Robinson © SeacoastNH.com. Image of eagle and liberty cap by Jim Cerny © Jim Cerny, all rights reserved. Aerial view by Peter Randalland (c) Peter E. Randall/ All tights reserved. Historical images (c) Strawbery Banke Museum archive. .

J. Dennis Robinson is the editor and owner of the popular regional web site SeacoastNH.com. His book Jesse James: Legendary Outlaw has just been released in paperback and is available on Amazon.com. 

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