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A Quick History of the Isles of Shoals

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.


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