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A Quick History of the Isles of Shoals

White Island /

Few islands in New England have been so fully frozen in time. Privately owned, lovingly maintained, each island has its own legends and history. This quick overview Is for first-timers who have yet to discover one of the earliest booming communities in the New World. Today, you can count the year-round residents on one hand. In summer, the Isles are much as they were when Victorian tourists arrived by steamer.


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A 400 Year Capsule History

The "Remarkablest Isles" 

John Smith / SeacoastNH.comThe nine rocky Isles of Shoals have played a larger role in history than their size implies. Because the surrounding cold, deep Atlantic waters yielded an abundant crop of large fish, the treeless Isles were an ideal stopping point for European fishermen. The first documented landings begin at the opening of the 17th century. Because they worked and traded, but did not "settle" in the New World, early fishing and trading outposts are not credited as the first New England settlements. Still, local tradition assigns the record to a group at Londoner's (now Lunging) Island from around 1615 to 1620. Today, with only one private home, the island is far less populated than it was when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Plantation in 1620.

Explorer Captain John Smith even named the "remarkablest Isles" after himself on his 1614 map. While summering at Monhegan Island in Maine, according to his account, fewer than two dozen men were able to hook 60.000 fish in a month. The same abundance was available at "Smythe Isles" in New England. Smith was talking about the northern New England coast when he wrote, "...of all the foure parts of the world that I have yet seene not inhabited, could I have but means to transport a colonie, I would rather live here." Smith did not live here, but made three failed attempts to found his New England settlement.

Smith didn’t mention landing on the Isles although later occupants attributed a stone cairn built there to him. The first documented English landing goes to Christopher Levett, whose crew of about 300 fishermen in six ships found the Shoals a barren camp site in 1623. Eventually a number of famous Seacoast families used the Shoals as a stepping stone to successful businesses on the mainland. The Cutts brothers (1645) and William Pepperrell (1676) founded successful New England shipping and fishing dynasties by starting nine miles out at sea on the Isles, then moving to the mainland. After building Fort Star as early protection against Native Americans – who very rarely visited these distant sacred Isles -- the Isles industry thrived, rivaling other early ports like Boston for sheer volume of exported goods.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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