The email came from Rich Collins, who reads my local history web site. Seems he recently bought an 1820-era house on Bartlett Street in Portsmouth and wants to know something about the Bartlett for whom the street is named.
No-brainer. I guessed Josiah Bartlett. That name is familiar lately from the TV blockbuster "West Wing" in which actor Martin Sheen plays fictional President Josiah Bartlett, a former New Hampshire governor. Unfortunately Sheen cannot pronounce Concord, NH (he calls it con-CORD, like the jet). It's the greatest boost to that family name since the Bartlett pear. The fictional Bartlett is descended from the real Josiah Bartlett of Kingston, NH. Bartlett was a doctor and one of three NH signers of the Declaration of Independence with Matthew Thornton and William Whipple. There are also Whipple and Thornton streets in Portsmouth, further indicating the likely origin of the street.
But there are other contenders. There have been Bartletts in Portsmouth since at least 1693 when John and Abraham Bartlett show up on the seating plan of the first Portsmouth Meeting House. They must have been important because they sat in the front pew area not far from the minister, and not in the men's gallery at the back. If they were influential enough, the street might be named after an ancient Bartlett family farm. Ick, more research!
Street naming is political. There were street naming committees back in the olden days that continue into the present. A few years back there was political flap over whether a road near Pic N' Pay would be called Brewery Street of named after former mayor Eileen Foley. The mayor lost that round.
So we must factor in Ichabod Bartlett, an early Portsmouth lawyer and NH congressman with plenty of political clout. He was a member of just about every men's social club in town and helped found the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Then there was NH Governor John Henry Bartlett who taught school for four years in Portsmouth. There used to be a Bartlett School on School Street, which is now a parking lot. This Bartlett wrote a history of New Hampshire and authored a series of popular tales of local characters called "Folks is Folks." Could Bartlett Street be named for him?
Help! I was spinning deeper into the rabbit hole, so I called for backup. Nicole Luongo Cloutier runs the History Room at the Portsmouth Public Library. There is no simple, central document, Nicole told me, that explains WHY Portsmouth streets got their names.
Her instinct was to check the old city directories to learn when Bartlett Street was named. These are handy tools for historians. The first city directory was written by Wybird Penhallow in 1821. (There is a Wybird Street and a Penhallow Street in Portsmouth - wonder why?) A city directory is a sort of phone book before phone numbers existed. It lists streets and every business on the street by number. It lists the people in town and their occupations. By 1834 we see ads creeping in, slowly filling the pages of city directories, in a time long long before Verizon sales representatives. The ads can be as revealing as the statistics.
Nicole discovered that there was a Barlett Street listed in 1864, then no Bartlett Street, then a new permanent listing starting in 1877. Drat, two Bartlett Streets. The only good news was that we could eliminate John Bartlett as a contender. He was too young and didn't become governor until 1901 long after the street was named.
Local historians, in my view, have a weak track record for truth. We find bits and pieces, make assumptions, but we're looking at the tip of a mighty big iceberg. As with doctors, lawyers, economists and other fortune tellers, the trick is to act like you know more than you do. Toss a few facts around, then run for cover.
Nicole checked the public library's archival boxes containing Portsmouth city annual reports. Those start around 1840. She checked the vertical file under "Bartlett" and 'Streets" and I rummaged through some great old articles. According to the Portsmouth Journal from 1839, for example, the city officially changed the names of about 20 major streets in one whack. It must have been terribly disorienting for the old timers. The Parade was changed to Market Square, Fore Street became Market, Ark became Penhallow, Partridge became Water (later changed to Marcy), Court became Pleasant and Pitt became Court.
To make matters worse, in a tradition inherited from big cities in England, Portsmouth streets often got new names as the colonial population moved further to the outskirts of town. Daniel Street, for instance, becomes Congress (formerly King Street) when it hits Market Square, and then turns itself into Islington Street at the library. Every Portsmouth historian from Charles Brewster and Thomas Bailey Aldrich to Bruce Ingmire and Ray Brighton have written about the street-naming chaos. Toss in the fact that many downtown streets are now one-way. And don't forget that many of the streets were renumbered back at the turn of the century. Yikes.
Following the rabbit hole, I found myself in the Portsmouth Athenaeum, the city's private library that opened in 1817 across from the North Church steeple. I'm one of 300-something "proprietors" there and nobody thinks it strange when a member suddenly blurts out an obscure question. So I did. "Anyone know whom Bartlett Street is named after?"
There was a bustle of activity in response. Ronan Donohoe, a history teacher and former Athenaeum president, loves these puzzles. We looked at a series of 19th century Portsmouth street maps for clues. An 1813 map shows Bartlett near what is now Rock Street. Then it disappears and reappears around the Civil War, running now from Cushing Street to Newington Road. Then it vanishes again. Today Bartlett branches off Islington at the sharp curve by the railroad bridge. It's a key route to the traffic circle from downtown. It was once lined with beautiful elms before they all died of disease in the late 1800s, leaving the street naked and urban-looking. Until around 1876, Bartlett Street was named Creek Street. The "crick" was a popular spot in colonial days for women to wash clothes. As the Italian immigrants moved in at the turn of the 20th century, old Portsmouthites say, the Irish moved "up the Crick" to live.
Then Ronan had a thought. (I call him Ronan the Librarian after Conan the Barbarian for his Schwartnegger-like power when it comes to researching.) He reminded me that the Athenaeum has a file on each of its past proprietors. Among them are many Bartletts. Ugh, more Bartletts. We looked up Ichabod Bartlett, who died in 1853. Ichabod was still a contender until Ronan dealt him a weighty blow.
"Doesn't it make sense that the second Bartlett Street had something to do with the centenary of 1876? With all that patriotic fervor for 1776, somebody must have noticed that Josiah Bartlett's street had gone missing."
Circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but the case for Josiah Bartlett was growing strong, and I was running out of time. The rabbit hole next led me to Strawbery Banke Museum. As if changing the streets isn't confusing enough, at Strawbery Banke, they move entire houses to different locations. In a brick building near the end of Court (formerly Pitt) Street is a wonderful, but little-known research room open to the public by appointment.
Curator John Mayer gave me an introductory tour of the Thayer-Cumings Library Archive. Like the Athenaeum, this room has a fascinating photo file of Portsmouth houses street-by-street. Each is a fantastic resource for new residents who want to study the history of their downtown Portsmouth home, condo or apartment. John and I reviewed the city maps, photos and directories again, but nothing we found supported or deflated the Josiah Bartlett theory.
Next stop, the Whaley library at St. John's Lodge. Many of the Bartlett's were Masons and this is a superb research site for Masonic history, but drat, the library was closed.
With a deadline looming, I called David Goodman, a researcher hired recently to assemble a list of all historic records owned by the City of Portsmouth. The list with Goodman's report runs to 400 pages and should eventually be part of the city's online resources. These are not the original manuscripts, mind you, just a gigantic list of about 5,880 documents that exist and where to find them.
David suggested that - if I really wanted the answer to my question -- I should go down to City Hall and comb through the minutes of the mayor and Board of Alderman and the notes from the Common Council of the city from 1876 to 1877. There might be a statement on the record there indicating exactly which Bartlett was being honored with his own street. But...maybe not. Once I located an exact date of the meeting, David said, I could possibly track down a report in one of the newspapers of the period.
That sounded like hours on the old microfiche machine back at the public library, spooling through projected images of old newspapers. Sorry, gentle reader, I leave that superhuman work for braver researchers than I. I was about to throw in the towel when someone said, "Hey, do you know about Nancy Grossman's book?"
Get this: Nancy Grossman is working on a book about the origin of street names in Portsmouth! We exchanged all sorts of street-naming anecdotes. She favors the one about a nice guy, a poet and a philanthropist in the 19th century. He planted elms along Richards Avenue, then went off to war and got himself killed. His name on the street signs is a thankful memorial from those who loved him.
"But what about Bartlett Street?" I whined. My time in the rabbit hole was up. I could see the White Rabbit with his giant pocket watch waving at me from the opening.
"I haven't gotten to that one yet," she said.
Double-drat. But do not despair Rich Collins, recently of Bartlett Street - there is hope yet. Nancy Grossman will take over from here. She is working, even now, in the depths of the many Portsmouth archives, searching, ever searching, for the stories behind your street and mine. Even as we sleep, the historians are on the job, fearless and indefatigable, making this world make sense for trivia fanatics everywhere.
All photos by J. Dennis Robinson
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Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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