By Charles W. Brewster
Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.
For more than a century after Columbus had discovered America, the noble Piscataqua was un-visited and unknown. The first rambler on its shores, of whom we can find any record, was Martin Pring, who, in 1603, came here with a ship of fifty tons and thirty men, and a bark of twenty-six tons and thirteen men. This small fleet was fitted out under the patronage of the mayor, aldermen and merchants of the opulent English city of Bristol, to prosecute the discovery of the northern parts of Virginia. The flag-ship was called the Speedwell, and the bark the Discoverer. They first touched at some of the islands near the entrance of Penobscot Bay, then visited the mouths of the Saco, Kennebunk, and York rivers, which Pring says they found "to pierce not far into the land." They next proceeded to the Piscataqua, which Pring calls the westernmost and best river, and he explored it ten or twelve miles into the interior.
This visit to our harbor was made in the pleasant month of June, when the landscape wore its freshest aspect. We may easily imagine the Speedwell anchored in the lower harbor, while the Discoverer, not much larger than one of our pleasure sloop-boats, receives on board the adventurous Pring, who, aided by sturdy oarsmen, carefully and slowly ascends, the river,-now and then sounding its, unusual depth and calculating Upon the safety of the navigation. They look with some fear as they approach the Narrows - but that point safely passed, and a broader basin opening, they begin to admire the "goodly groves and woods," as Pring terms them. The bold shores on either side invite them to land, now on this point, then on that, - sometimes making a short excursion on an island, and then a more extended one on the main land,- wending their course now in a grove where hundreds of ships instead of trees are in future time to spring up - and then pursuing their way through a forest where wild beasts are prowling, which in after years is to give place to graded streets, lined by well-designed places of business, dwellings, and public edifices. Timber which was then standing in that forest may even now be found in some of our old structures - while, solitary and alone, yet stands one venerable oak, under the shadow of which perhaps Pring passed in this first ramble about Portsmouth, - that old oak which afterwards became an ornament in the large garden of John Tufton Mason, the heir of the grantee of the state, and in its green old age is still the cherished heritage of his descendants.
The party have not yet discovered the main object of their pursuit, nor do they find a red man in the present site of Portsmouth, although the embers of extinguished fires were frequently visible, showing the spots, where they had encamped earlier in the Spring. June was the season when fish were plenty at the falls, higher up the rivers, and thither they had then probably gone. We may imagine Pring and his company again entering the Discoverer at the Spring, and proceeding further up the river. They pass the Pulpit, and encouraged by the great depth of water, proceed on, until spread before them, in all its quiet beauty, lay the placid waters of Great Bay. Again they land and rove through the forest, scrutinizing every tree; but among them all not a Sassafras can be found - that valued tree whose medical virtues in that age were regarded as the elixir of life. Thus again disappointed, they seek the mouth of the harbor, and the Speedwell and Discoverer depart for a more southern excursion. This was the close of the first ramble by foreigners on the Piscataqua. The Speedwell, or a vessel of about the same size bearing the same name, seventeen years after, received on board the Plymouth Pilgrims, but proved un-seaworthy, and her passengers were transferred to the ever-blooming Mayflower.
John Smith Arrives
Eleven years roll on before we find mention of another excursion on the Piscataqua. The next visitor was one whose adventures form an important chapter in English as well as American history. The name of John Smith was no myth in the seventeenth century. He was a man of great daring, energy and perseverance. His own account of his romantic adventures among the Turks, shows him well fitted for the severe trials he was destined to pass through as a pioneer in America, and evinced in him that firmness so coolly displayed before Powhatan in Virginia, when he was providentially rescued from death by the noble conduct of the Indian girl, not yet in her teens, whose generous devotion, in view of its great results, radiates, as a star, in the firmament of history, the name of Pocahontas.
It was in 1614, that Captain John Smith, with two vessels, arrived at Monhegan, on the coast of Maine, and while his men were engaged in fishing, he with eight of his company in one of his boats, ranged the coast from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod. He was the discoverer of the Isles of Shoals, which so pleased him that he gave them the name of Smith's Isles - a name which they should still retain, to hold in remembrance one for whose valuable services in the early settlement of the country no pecuniary reward was bestowed. Smith drew the first map of our coast, and, on presenting it to Prince Charles, with a request that he would give the country a name, it was for the first time by him called New-England. On this map, Smith gave to the locality of Portsmouth the name of Hull; to Kittery and York he gave the name of Boston.
The exalted opinion Smith had of the wild country he was exploring, and his conceptions of its high destiny, as exhibited in the poetic address, reflecting his own ideas, made to him on his return to England, warrant us in the supposition that his visit to the Piscataqua aided in the formation of his favorable opinions. We may easily imagine him, after visiting the group of islands to which he gave his own name, tracing his way towards our coast, marking the outlines of Agamenticus, nearing the outer harbor, and proceeding up the deep-channeled river to what he called " a safe harbor with a rocky shore." To his keen perception might then have arisen visions of the future - for his was the pioneer's life, and his joy was in opening those fields which others were to cultivate and develop, and to contemplate the results the hidden future might produce. Had some vision then passed before him, unrolling as in a moving panorama the history of succeeding centuries, how impatiently would he have looked upon the slow growth of this locality! For nine years the green forest which extended back from Strawberry Bank would continue to grow, and the river to flow, undisturbed, before the erection of the first frame house near the entrance of the harbor. And after the completion of Mason Hall, eight more years transpire before another like structure, the "Great House," is seen rising near the river at the Bank. As the scene progresses, he discerns matters of interest more rapidly increasing, and there is an evident awakening to future prosperity. The year 1631 now opens, and Smith sees a numerous company begin to locate in this new land of promise. Log cabins are now constructed, salt works put in operation, and the saw-mill, then a new invention, cuts the forests into forms for civilized use. The panorama moves on - the White Mountains, or "Crystal Hills," are now, in 1632, first visited by the white man, and the internal resources of the State are beginning to be developed. He sees, too, rebellion among the tenantry. A banner is unfurled on the picture, and its inscription is "freedom and independence." The stewards at the plantation, in 1639, enter on the business of dividing the goods and cattle of the Mason estate among themselves, and take possession of the buildings and land, claiming the soil as the right of those who cultivate it. And he might now, in 1644, see another evidence in favor of the inscription on that banner, in the decision of the local court that African slavery could not here be tolerated. There is a darker shadow now passing before his mental vision - fanaticism of witchcraft swaying the better judgments of the colonists. Now on the borders of the Piscataqua he sees rise the residence of the first royal governor sent into New-England - he sees the young nation eventually maturing, and the first evidence of rebellious prowess manifested in the capture by the colonists of the royal castle "William & Mary" at the harbor's mouth - he sees building on the banks of the Piscataqua, and floating in its waters, the first line of battle ship New England produces. But the scenes are too numerous and the panorama passes too fast for us to trace them. Smith might have looked upon them with deep interest, until there came a display of ships without sails, plying in the river, stemming its rapid current - carriages on land running without horse - invisible letters passing from place to place on wires. Surprised that such vagaries should enter his brain, Smith looks upon the whole as a fancy sketch, and awakes from his reverie. He now turns from our harbor, passes again his adopted isles. and we have no record that he ever returned.
Smith being the intimate friend of Fernando Gorges, it was probably on Smith's representation that the Laconia Company made selection of the banks of Piscataqua for their plantation. John Smith died in London, in 1631, at the age of 52. Although he had given many years' labor, and had spent five hundred pounds in the service of Virginia and New England, he complained in his latter days that in America he had not a foot of land - what he had discovered had been shared among those who only knew the lands by his description. His memory should be held in esteem by a nation for whom be had a fatherly care, when it was in its earliest infancy.
Portsmouth in 1623
The early scenery of the Piscataqua was happily adverted to in the centennial oration of Mr. Haven, in 1623, "Two hundred years ago, the place on which we stand was an uncultivated forest. The rough and vigorous soil was still covered with the stately trees, which had been, for ages, intermingling their branches and deepening the shade. The river, which now bears on its bright and pure waters the treasures of distant climates, and whose rapid current is stemmed and vexed by the arts and enterprise of man, then only rippled against the rocks. and reflected back the wild and grotesque thickets which overhung its banks. The mountain, which now swells on our left and rises its verdant side 'shade above shade', was then almost concealed by the lofty growth which covered the intervening plains. Behind us, a deep morass, extending across to the northern creek, almost enclosed the little 'Bank,' which is now the seat of so much life and industry. It was then a wild and tangled thicket, interspersed with venerable trees and moss-grown rocks, and presenting, here and there, a sunny space covered with the blossoms and early fruit of the little plant, that gave it its name."
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