A Quick History of the Isles of Shoals
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

White Island / SeacoastNH.com

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.


400 Years Brief History (continued)

The Isles of "Schools" 

Rev. Tuck Monument / SeacoastNH.comThe Isles may not be named, as many assume, for shallow water shoals. In fact, the little islands are the result of a great glacier that scraped out an especially deep pocket of water. The alternate dictionary meaning, shoals or "schools" of fish may apply instead. The first European owners of the region were very aware of both fish schools and the nearby fishing shoals. Historians still disagree on the derivation.

Rich English land speculators Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason were granted royal title to all the key colonies in what became coastal New Hampshire and Maine. When the Piscataqua region failed to yield gold, copper, or precious spices, they had to settle for fish -- lots of fish. Eventually Mason and Gorges surgically divided their tiny island property down the center. Half the Isles of Shoals ended up in the royal province of New Hampshire, the other half in Maine, which remained part of Massachusetts until 1830.

The hardy new breed of "Shoalers" quickly grew in number and independence. Trees imported from the mainland became homes to as many as 600 residents by 1645, most living on Hog (now Appledore) and Smuttynose Islands in Maine. Some suggest the summer population may have risen to 1,000 residents, but no documentation proves this. When Puritan Massachusetts presumed to tax the Shoalers, most of the population emigrated to nearby Star Island in the province of New Hampshire -- early evidence of the Granite State’s quirky "live free or die" attitude. There, after much petitioning, they formed the town of Gosport which remained largely ungoverned.

When Harvard-educated Rev. John Tucke of Hampton arrived on the Isles in 1732, he found a hard drinking, hard working population isolated from mainland laws, manners, mores and religion. His missionary efforts to "civilize" the islanders continued until his death in 1773, just before the American Revolution. Unable to protect the Isles from British naval forces, (and likely concerned about the Shoalers political leanings) the province of NH ordered them to the mainland. Most apparently came. Some dismantled their homes and floated them to shore. A number of thosehouses reportedly still exist, scattered from York. Maine to Ipswich, Massachusetts.

The great fishing industry at the Shoals never recovered its pre-Revolutionary status. Those who returned or remained, legend has it, became so isolated that by the turn of the 19th century, their language was unintelligible on the mainland. A few familes, including the Caswells and the Haleys dominated life on the Shoals. Photographs of the Shoalers on Star around the time of the Civil War show the last images of a fading culture. Unlike most coastal towns, Gosport steadily declined from its colonial boom, heading quietly and peacefully toward the 21st century.


400 Years Brief History (continued)

Hotels & Poetry  

Celia / SeacoastNH.comPoet Celia Thaxter was just a child when her father Thomas Laighton left a busy life in Portsmouth and accepted the two-year government post of lighthouse keeper at White Island in 1839. Her memories in books like "Among the Isles of Shoals (1873) made her one of a handful of female writers known throughout the country.

Crude guest houses evolved on Star and Smuttynose prior to the Civil War. In 1847 Celia’s father had the ingenious notion of building a grand hotel on Appledore which he owned. With $2,000 backing from a city visitor named Levi Thaxter, the hotel was begun. Thaxter, aged 21, became tutor to 12-year old Celia whom he married four years later. Celia’s literary skills and Thaxter’s Boston family connections provided the ideal public relations tool, drawing the cream of big city society to the isolated hotel. Among the best known visitors were writers Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Henry Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Greenleaf Whittier, painter Childe Hassam and NH-born President Franklin Pierce.

Their success brought competition. In 1873 the rival Oceanic Hotel, was built nearby on Star Island, dominating the former fishing village. With the two major islands adapted to tourism, the town of Gosport held its last town meeting and one of America’s longest surviving fishing communities faded from history. That same year, Smuttynose, the long narrow island adjacent to Star and Appledore attracted national media attention when two young women were brutally murdered there by itinerant fisherman Louis Wagner. A fictionalized version of that event was adapted into the novel "The Weight of Water".

As her parents aged, Celia’s brother Oscar and Cecil took over management of the Appledore and eventually of the hotel at Star. The Laighton Brothers were never financially successful, but managed to keep the hotels running. The pastoral blend of Celia’s island garden and salon drew the toast of Boston arts. They in turn attracted a steady clientele who came for the summer air, abundant good food and scenic beauty. Although separated from Levi and raising three children, Celia Thaxter continued to draw visitors with fanciful tales of  ghosts, shipwrecks and Blackbeard’s lost pirate treasure.

Bathing at Appledore at the Isles of Shoals / SeacoastNH.com




The Isles Today 

The "modern" Isles of Shoals is largely unchanged from the Isles of 1897 when the "conference" era began. Back then a Unitarian minister agreed to hold his annual church meetings at the Isles to accommodate his wife’s discomfort with hot summers at inland New Hampshire. The summer meetings became so popular that, when the Appledore Hotel burned in 1914, the Unitarian group purchased the surviving Oceanic Hotel for $16,000.

The Star Island Corporation today still owns both islands today and -- except for "off limits" periods during two world wars -- has continued to operate the Oceanic as summer conferences retreat. Star Island has moved its headquarters to nearby Portsmouth and is slowly upgrading the facilities without changing the Victorian appeal. Celia Thaxter’s garden is maintained for limited visitation on Appledore, which now houses the Shoals Marine Laboratory. The unique "hands-on" summer educational program is run by Cornell University in cooperation with the University of New Hampshire nearby.

Smuttynose is owned by descendants of Celia Thaxter who have agreed never to develop the island. Once Church Island, the original 17th century fishing village, Smuttynose today has only two buildings – one dating to the Revolutionary War -- and thousands of seagulls. Visitors are welcomed in season for hiking.

Lunging has one private home. Cedar Island is still occupied by the longest surviving lobster fishing family. The lighthouse at White Island has recently been restored thanks to the fundraising efforts of middle school students and their teacher Sue Reynolds from the town of Rye who raised $250,000 to save the Victorian brick structure. Seavey Island, connected to White, sports a tern reclamation project and terns and seals dominate the rocky ledges of Duck Island. Passing by, or moored in Gosport Harbor, visiting boaters will find no neon lights, coffee shops or city boutiques. By day the Isles of Shoals is much the way Celia Thaxter remembered it. By moonlight it is as silent as an ancient fishing outpost from John Smith’s time.

By J. Dennis Robinson. Copyright © 1997 SeacoastNH.com. Updated 2006. All rights reserved.