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The Revolutionary Era

George Washington in PortsmouthIT HAPPENED HERE TOO

The heart of the Revolution beat strongly in Seacoast New Hampshire. Four months before Lexington and Concord, Portsmouth had thrown off its British governor. George Washington's secretary Tobias Lear was a local boy. His father built John Paul Jones ship Ranger. NH militia outnumbered all others at Bunker Hill. These are stories still missed by most texts.


Benning Wentworth, political heir to his brother John, had been royal governor for nearly 25 years when the colonial kettle began to boil. He had grown fat and wealthy chartering scores of New Hampshire towns to the west, and keeping a piece of the action for himself. As Surveyor General of the King's Woods, he did a tidy business managing the seemingly endless state forests that, at the time, theoretically stretched from the Seacoast all the way to New York. Historians credit Benning Wentworth's corrupt, yet efficient political machine with shaping Portsmouth into a stylish capital city during a very difficult time in history. But a year later his personal excesses and passage of the unpopular British Stamp Act in 1765 convinced him to step aside in favor of nephew John Wentworth II.

A Portsmouth native and a strong opponent of the Stamp Act, John Wentworth was not in office a year when the Revenue Act, taxing fine goods such as glass and tea, was passed by Parliament. Now disgruntled merchants joined printers, lawyers and other professions in protest. Creating a new country was less on their minds than asserting their rights as "Englishmen." In the process of alienation, they were becoming Americans. When, in 1774, Governor Wentworth disbanded the local citizen's Assembly, they simply moved meetings to a tavern in Exeter where a Provincial Congress was in the making. Tavern owner Nathaniel Folsom and John Sullivan of Somersworth (soon to be New Hampshire's first "president") were elected to attend the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Local militias trained in the town commons. When Seacoast patriots stole 200 barrels of gunpowder from British soldiers at Fort William and Mary in nearby New Castle Island, they crossed a line that could never be uncrossed. No shots were fired in this early revolutionary act, just months before the shot heard round the world at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. Most of the New Hampshire regimen was quickly on hand for the Battle of Bunker Hill. Though rarely credited, the Granite State forces of over 1,000 men outnumbered the combined troops from both Massachusetts and Connecticut at this pivotal point in history.

When Governor Wentworth discovered a mob pointing a cannon at his Pleasant Street home, he took the hint. Wentworth removed his family to Boston and later to Nova Scotia where many towns were founded by fleeing New Hampshire loyalists.. Portsmouth, formerly the premier Loyalist haven, was now the only New Hampshire town without direct British government supervision.

From the orderly public reading of the Declaration of Independence, signed by two local citizens, to the close of the century, the Seacoast remained at the political center of the Revolution. Two of the new nation's first ships of war were built here. Portsmouth residents might had seen John Paul Jones, who lived there 18 months, or Lafayette, Paul Revere, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, even President George Washington striding down the narrow streets. The list of Seacoast dignitaries forms a Who's Who of the nation's founding fathers, now barely known but for the streets and historic houses that bear their names. Yet this is a time when the city grew wealthy from the exploits of privateers and when most of the state's 626 Black slaves (down to 158 in 1790 and to 8 by 1800) lived in the Seacoast. It was a time when public hangings were still possible, when poverty earned a prison term and the equivalent contributions of Revolutionary women are stories still waiting to be told.

Copyright (c) 2005 Text by J. Dennis Robinson, All rights reserved. First appeared here in 1997.

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