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blogbrainsmallSeacoast History Blog #144 
November 13, 2012

Every November we pay lip service to the founders of New Hampshire who have been given the boot by historians and the public alike. The settling of the GraniteState just can’t compete with the largely mythological Pilgrim story. I’ve been kicking the alternative story around for decades and we can begin to see some daylight. Reporters are at least asking questions about what really happened with the Mayflower gang. I got interviewed by New Hampshire magazine a couple of years ago. They did a nice little piece on the founding of New Hampshire. Here is the raw interview I did with a few updates. (Continued below)

 

Why does Plymouth Plantation get all the Thanksgiving publicity?

It all started back in 1820 when somebody figured out that it had been 200 years since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. New Englanders were jealous back then of Virginia, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC getting in all the history books, so we began promoting the Pilgrim story big time. Daniel Webster, born in New Hampshire, attended an anniversary celebrating and announced that it was hallowed ground down there and everyone should visit that sacred spot where the Pilgrims landed. People had largely forgotten who they were, so Massachusetts was able to create fresh new legends about a pious population of white European settlers. This kicked off what we would call today “heritage tourism.” Later they added the imaginary “Plymouth Rock” and built a big temple around it. Very clever. Americans started to think Plymouth was actually the birthplace of America. We needed a mythical origin story as the nation was growing, and the idea that this particular group of immigrants were seeking religious freedom fit the revisionist narrative perfectly. (Of course, they were seeking freedom for their own religious sect, and not for anyone else.) We forgot that there had been European settlements earlier in Florida, in Maine, and elsewhere. We ignored any non-English founding story. Later they built that reproduction of Plymouth Plantation and the replica Mayflower and a really good souvenir shop. (There was a great wax museum, but it’s gone now.) The creation of Thanksgiving (by a New Hampshire resident, no less) really sealed the deal in the late 1800s, and the Pilgrims became “rock” stars and history icons. When the largely Protestant historians (many of them ministers) wrote the early history of the United States, they re-imagined it as a country ordained by a higher power to be greater than all others. This sense of American exceptionalism, the idea that it is our national mission to spread democracy and freedom around the world, has been twisted by neoconservatives who often imply that the United States is somehow morally superior to other countries because of its founding as a religious nation. This attitude has gotten us into a lot of trouble around the world. It’s not the fault of the Pilgrims, but of people who don’t really know much about how the country or even how Plymouth was actually founded. The truth is a much more complex and sensible story and a good place to start is the book MAYFLOWER by Nathaniel Philbrick.

What do you mean by "pilgrim envy"?

Well New Hampshire was pretty jealous of those famous Pilgrims. They beat us to the punch. Then somebody figured out that New Hampshire was first settled in 1623, just three years after the Mayflower arrived. That’s when David Thompson (also THOMSON) and his wife Amais landed at what is now Rye with 10 fishermen. So in 1823 we got Daniel Webster to come back to Portsmouth (where he had once been a lawyer). Daniel gave another big speech about the history of New Hampshire and we started selling our own souvenirs. But the NH story never really got off the ground. The Plymouth story got all the buzz and our story of founding fishermen was ignored, even by New Hampshirites.

READ: No Thanks Given to NH Founders

There's no re-created settlement or replica ship for NH. Any idea why not?

 

Dorothy Vaughan, the first president of StrawberyBankeMuseum, used to claim back in the 1960s that Portsmouth didn’t have to build any replica houses because our old houses were real. The Jackson House in Portsmouth dates to 1664 and the Sherburne House to 1695. The houses in Plimoth Plantation were built in the mid-20th century, but the actors who live in the replica museum village make believe it is 1628. They have detailed records and diaries to go on and the scholarship there is fantastic. We’ve got very little documentation of the 10 people who landed in Rye, or the roughly 75 people who came to Strawberry Bank in Portsmouth around 1630. We don’t have enough data to built replica homes or train re-enactors. Everything would be largely speculative. Our Portsmouth ancestors were rough and tumble types. The New Hampshire story was more about commerce and adventure, and not about religious freedom. That wasn’t what people wanted to hear in the 1800s and early 1900s. Instead of the real story about immigrants arriving from all over (or enslaved or indentured) and looking for ways to make a living, our national mythology stuck to the religious freedom idea which was only partially true. Our early settlers brought a lot of guns and guitars, but only one Bible, and they didn’t get around to building a church and hiring a minister for 20 years. Our founders didn’t have a rock to land on. And our ships didn’t have the coolest of names. The first settlers at Strawberry Bank arrived in the Warwick and the Pied Cow. Is NH going to spend millions for a replica of the Pied Cow? Not likely.

Thompson actually saved the pilgrims from starving, right?

I’ve been writing about this footnote to history for decades. I call it “Turkeygate.” According to the Pilgrim diaries Thompson made a trip down to Plymouth at the request of Myles Standish in 1623 and sold them some fish, I assume salted cod. They complained about the cost. The Pilgrims had no respect for fishermen (or Native Americans, or the King, or the Church of England, or anyone else for that matter) so their version of the story does little to honor the first settlers of NH.

READ: Myles Standish speaks out

Was there an earlier settlement on the Isles of Shoals that pre-dated the Pilgrims?

We’ve been doing archaeology at the Isles of Shoals each summer for five years. My book UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS documents the findings from those digs. The oldest artifacts are 6,000 year old Native American arrowheads. The oldest European item so far are clay pipes that dates right to the 1620s. So technically, we haven’t found any evidence that there were fisherman on islands like Smuttynose before the arrival of the Mayflower. But the fishing operation was contemporary with the settlement of New England. We know that Myles Standish dropped off one rabble-rouser named Thomas Morton at the Isles of Shoals in 1628, so they were already aware by then that the island was a regular staging area for the arrival of fishing boats from Europe. (Either that or they hoped Morton would die there.) There were Eureopean fisherman in Canada in the 1400s and Basque fishermen in Maine in the 1580s, but so far, we haven’t found anything definitive from before 1620 at the Shoals. When we do, boy are we going to make a lot of noise. The early Shoals fishermen were itinerant and fished in season, salted and dried their catch, and sailed home to sell it. Hundreds of men made the 3,000 miles journey on a regular basis, though little is known of their voyages. They most likely lived aboard their fishing boats, but we know settlers were staying year-round by about the 1640s. One nearby Maine fort dates from as early as 1607, but it only makes it into the history books in Maine. The Pilgrims still get all the press. We just don’t get no respect up here.

READ: What We are Learning about the Isles of Shoals

I wonder how many New Hampshire people could name the state's first settler? ...

Precious few. That’s a PR problem that New Hampshire has had from the get-go. I wonder how many Thompsons in New Hampshire even know they share a name with the first settlers. And pity poor Amais Thomson, David’s wife, who had to leave her daughter in England and never saw her again. Then she moved to what is now OdiorneState Park in Rye in 1623 and had to live in a drafty stone house with 10 fishermen. And this is back when Europeans thought it was unhealthy to bathe. Then her husband David Thompson disappeared about three years later. She ended up marrying a guy from Massachusetts and moving down there. We’ve never told their story well.

What was Thompson's reason for coming?

David Thompson wanted to make money. Pretty much everyone who came here in the early days – everyone who wasn’t enslaved or indentured, that is – wanted to make money. Thomson was also an adventurer. He had apparently been here during an earlier voyage and wanted a chunk of land in the New World.

Possibly the Mayflower folks asked Thomson for navigation tips?

The Mayflower Pilgrims were pretty much dumped off in an inhospitable spot at the beginning of winter. They thought they were heading to Virginia. They ended up in Northern Virginia, that Captain John Smith named “New England.” They likely followed his map. Thomson knew his way around the waters here, but the whole place was largely unexplored. He took a trip north to Maine around 1606 with Myles Standish. Thompson disappeared the following year.

READ: Thomas Morton Abandoned on the Shoals

There's supposed to be a marker of some sort at the site at the landing site in Rye, NH. True?

New Hampshire is not much for marking its early history. It takes money to maintain historic sites and, well, you know how that goes. There was a granite monument placed near Odiorne Point in 1898 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. It has been moved around a couple of times. There is also an ancient cemetery across the street that is well maintained, but settlers in the early 1600s did not have carved grave markers, so we don’t know who is buried there for sure. The Thompson’s both moved on before the next set of settlers landed three miles away at Strawbery Banke. It’s pretty pitiful that we don’t care enough to know how our unique state was founded. It’s a very different story from the one in the history books, and I’ve long believed that the founding story of New Hampshire is more representative of the creation of the American nation thant he founding myths of Plymouth. If we taught our children how America was actually founded, that diverse story about people in search of land, freedom, safety, and money offers a more realistic view of what our nation is today. The problem comes when the imaginary view of America clashes with the reality. History holds all the answers if anyone wishes to hear the true story.

SEE: Old Odiorne Point Cemetery photos

Can you still see remnants of the settlement?

No, there’s nothing left to see, other than exhibits at the SeacoastScienceCenter. Historian Charles Brewster thought he saw remnants of an old stone building in the mid-1800s, but there’s no way to know what he saw. As I noted before, there is a very old cemetery, probably New Hampshire’s oldest, in the woods across the street, but there were no carved tombstones back in the 1600s, so no way to know exactly how old it is. The site was a farm belonging to the Odiorne family until it was taken by the federal government in the 20th century and turned into a coastal defense site with cement underground ammunition armories that had huge mounted guns. The more we learn about the actual founding of New Hampshire, the better image we get of the birth of our nation.

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson and SeacaostNH.com. All rights reserved.

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