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.
The history of Newcastle is of some interest, as the first settlement in New Hampshire was made in 1623, upon its borders, by a Scotchman named David Thompson. He was selected by the Company of Laconia, in England, to establish A permanent settlement in this province. Shortly after his arrival he built the first house on Odiorne's Point, a few rods distant from what resembles the remains of an ancient fort. It was afterwards called Mason Hall, in honor of a prominent member of the company under whose auspices the settlement was begun. The house remained standing for many years.
The original designation was Great Island, but in 1693, it was separated from Portsmouth, and incorporated under its present name. At the time of its incorporation a large portion of land on the west was included within its limits, but in consequence of the incorporation of Rye in 1719, its area was reduced to 458 acres. The soil, though thickly interspersed with rocks, has ever been made to produce abundantly; and owing to the plentiful supply of seaweed, the farmers need never fail for want of the proper means of enriching their lands.
The original copy of the ancient charter, written through out in Old English or Black Letter, can now be seen in the office of the Selectmen, though the seal has been cut off by some individual ignorant of its real importance. It is a very interesting document, written upon parchment, and is one of the many relics of antiquity to be found in Newcastle.
Formerly a bridge was built on the south-west side of the town, forming a means of connection between Rye and Newcastle; and, previous to the building of the new bridges in 1821, All travelers for Portsmouth went by way of the "Old Bridge." Owing to carelessness and neglect, nearly all signs of the "Old Bridge" have now vanished.
It well known that the annual meeting in Newcastle for the choice of town officers takes place one week before the usual State election, yet but few seem to know when this custom originated. By referring to the charter, it is found that requisition was then made for this matter, concerning which we make the following extract:
"And for the better order, rule and government of the said Towne, wee doe by these presents Grant for us and our Successors unto the men and inhabitants of the said Towne, That yearly and every year upon the first Tuesday of March, forever, they, the said men and Inhabitants of our said Towne, shall elect and choose by the major part of them, two sufficient and able men, householders in the said Towne, to be Constables for the year ensuing, which said men so chosen and elected, shall be presented by the then next preceding Constables to the next Quarter sessions of the peace to be held for the said province, there to take the accustomed oaths appointed by Law for the execution of their offices under such penalties as the law of our said province shall appoint and direct upon refusal or neglect therein. And we doe by these presents Grant for us, our Heirs, and Successors, unto the men and Inhabitants of the said Towne, That yearly and every year upon the said first Tuesday of March, forever, they, the said men and inhabitants of our said Towne, or the major part of them, shall elect and choose three men, inhabitants and householders of our said Towne, to be overseers of the poor and highways, or selectmen for our said Towne for the year ending with such powers, privileges and authorities as any overseers or selectmen within our said province have and enjoy."
For the privileges enjoyed as an incorporated town, it is further stated that there shall be paid " the annual quitt rent or acknowledgment of one Peppercorn the said Towne on the five twentieth day of October yearly forever."
Soon after the settlement of Great Island, a fort was built upon Frost Point, to serve as a protection to the harbor. It was an earthwork "made with certain great gunns to it," and in the year 1660 was mentioned in the documents of that day as the means of distinguishing Great Island from other islands in the vicinity. It was several times remodeled, and for many years prior to the war of the Revolution, was called Fort William and Mary named in honor of the King and Queen of England. In the eleventh year of the reign of Charles the first, of England, the Island together with the Fort came into possession of Mistress Anne Mason, widow of John Mason, of London, who, at the time of his death, was engaged in mercantile pursuits. Portions of the island were afterwards deeded to Robert Mussel and other individuals, by her agent, Joseph Mason of "Strawberry Bank" on the river of the "Pascattaquack."
At the time of the passage of an act in I774, by George III. forbidding the exportation of gunpowder to America, the Fort was garrisoned by Captain Cochran and five men, and the ships-of-war Scarborough and Canseau were daily expected to arrive with several companies of British soldiers to re-inforce the garrison. On receipt of the news a company of citizens from Portsmouth determined upon seizing the arms and ammunition at the earliest period. They procured a gondola at midnight, and anchoring a short distance from the fort, waded ashore and scaled the walls. Shortly after their arrival they encountered the Captain, who delivered to them his sword. It was, however, immediately returned, for which favor he tendered his thanks. Having taken one hundred barrels of powder, they started on their return, and on leaving the Fort were rewarded for the favor before shown to the commanding officer, by his giving them a lunge with his sword. They tarried not at the insult, but hastened on board the gondola and rowed up the Piscataqua to Durham. On their arrival, the ammunition was taken to the cellar of the Congregational Church, where it remained for some time; thence it was taken to Bunker Hill, where on the 17th June it was used to the disadvantage of the British. On the following day the Fort was again entered, and "fifteen of the lighter cannon and all the small arms taken away." The Scarborough and Canseau soon after arrived.
In the autumn of 1775, fearing an attack upon Portsmouth, General Sullivan, at that time a resident of Durham, N. H., was appointed by General Washington to take command of the militia of this State and to defend this harbor. Several fortifications had been thrown up, which he strengthened, and placed in them several companies of militia. In Fort William and Mary a company of artillery were placed who "were allowed the same pay as soldiers of the Continental Army."
In 1808 the Fort was again rebuilt under the name of Fort Constitution, and remained until a new structure was commenced in 1863, upon the same spot.
The Fort on Jaffrey's Point at the entrance of Little Harbor, was once thought to be a very important post. It was garrisoned in the war of 1812 by citizens of this and other towns, under command of Capt. William Marshall, who remained stationed at that post for several years. Nine guns, 6 and 9 pounders, were placed in position, and on several occasions full one hundred and twenty men were stationed there.
A short distance from this Fort may be seen another Fort, situated upon rising ground near the bridge leading from Newcastle to Portsmouth. This post was not considered of much importance, yet several cannon were held in readiness to be placed upon it at short notice.
During the visits of the English ships to this harbor in 1775-6, a spirit of hatred seemed to prevail against the British seamen, but by the major part of the citizens they were respectfully treated. The sailors would often conduct badly, and if reprimanded would threaten to fire upon the town. Often times the lives of the inhabitants were endangered, and on some occasion, a committee of citizens waited upon the commander of the Scarborough, offering an apology for some fancied insult to his men, to prevent him from permitting the threats of the sailors to be carried into execution Owing to the state of public excitement at that early period of the Revolution, many citizens left the town and many more were prepared to leave at a moment's warning.
In the rear of the Congregational Church is a well in which some of the citizens once placed their silverware for safe keeping: and near the fish yard of Veranus C. Rand may be noticed a depression of the ground, showing the site of an old revolutionary house, which was then occupied by a Mrs. Trefethren, who was noted for refusing water to the British sailors on account of her hatred to them. It is stated that notwithstanding her positive refusal to permit the sailors of the Scarborough to get water there, they once succeeded in filling their casks; and leaving them near the well, visited the central part of the town. No sooner were they out of sight than she emptied the casks. Upon their return they demanded of her why she had turned away their water. She promptly replied that she did not turn away their water; the water was her own. On returning to the ship they rewarded her by firing a ball through the room in which her family were sitting.
Portsmouth, in its proximity to the ocean, and the many convenient landing places between the city and the islands outside of the light-house, has peculiar advantages for the water excursions that have ever been so popular with its in habitants. Newcastle, previous to the construction of the bridges that connect it with the city, was a favorite resort, where they were wont to cook their fish and partake of their refreshments, generally at some favorable spot on the rocky shore, or obtain permission to occupy apartments for the purpose at one of the dwellings at the water-side. A public house, kept a Mr. Bell, also received a share of patronage on some of these occasions. On the premises was an out-door bowling-alley, or, in ancient phrase, "a bowling-green," of which one of the memories that survive is the dilapidated condition of the pins from long and hard usage, and the reply of a visitor to the landlord who complimented him on his skill at the game. "Oh," said he, "it does not require much skill to knock down the pins, but if it were as hard to upset them as it is to set them up, I should never have got that tenstrike." The following, copied from the graceful chirography of a former much esteemed citizen of Portsmouth, is a record of a winter excursion, under unusual circumstances, to Newcastle:
"Feb. 17th, 1817 - - In consequence of the severe weather of last week, I was enabled to-day in company with my brother-in-law, D***** M*****, to walk to Newcastle on a substantial bridge of ice. We stopped at George Bell's, who furnished us with a dinner of fine fresh cod, taken at the edge of the ice, 172 yards from the end of his wharf. We measured the ice on our return, and found it 18 inches in thickness, over which sleighing parties were merrily gliding on their way to the island....T. G. M."
There are few, if any, of the natives of our city, who have not remembrances, at some period of their lives, of pleasant hours passed upon the water. In my childhood, writes one whose early life was passed on the shores of the Piscataqua, there were five brothers in one family circle, of whose aquatic adventures, in their youth at the close of the last century, I never wearied, as they were recalled when they met at each other's dwellings. One fine summer night, when the moon was shining brightly, they went to one of the small islands outside of the lighthouse -- Wood Island I think -- in pursuit of lobsters. After setting their nets they landed and built a fire among the bushes a short distance back from the beach, and making a kettle of chocolate, enjoyed a hearty meal from the stock of refreshments always taken into consideration among the requisite accompaniments of such expeditions. This pleasant performance over, they went to look for their boat, but great was their consternation, instead of finding it, as they anticipated, high and dry upon the sand, to discover that it had got loose from its moorings, and was fast traveling, with the tide, in the direction of the Shoals. The misfortune was increased by the fact that it was a new one, the property of a relative, who had given them many injunctions as to its good usage. Like the man in the play, they were in a peculiarly perplexing 'predicament,' but trusting as a last extremity, to their usual good luck, in the product of their nets, which were within reach by swimming, for something to eat, and in the hope that some passing boat would take them off in the morning, they took the most philosophic view of the matter possible; and wrapping themselves in the rough overcoats always taken in their nocturnal voyages, they retired again to the shelter of the bushes, and ere long were fast asleep.
They awoke just as the first rays of the sun appeared above the horizon, and looking seaward, to their great satisfaction discovered a fishing boat in the distance, with another boat in tow, which they had no doubt was their lost craft, as it eventually proved when within hailing distance. An abundant supply of lobsters was found in their nets, which were shared with the men who had restored their boat, and they reached home in season to relate their adventures around the family breakfast table.
On their return from another trip by moonlight to the dominions of Neptune, they brought with them a supply of eels, of an unusually large size, which, to facilitate the process of preparing for the frying-pan, were deposited in the ashes of the kitchen fire-place. At an early hour of the morning, before daylight had fully appeared, the family "help," an eccentric and rather superstitious specimen of feminine humanity, descended to the apartment, and, on opening the door, obtained a glimpse of a dozen or more strange looking animals, of serpentine form and of a dusky hue, disporting themselves among the sand upon the floor. A moment later the mistress of the mansion was awakened from her slumbers by a knock on her door, and a familiar voice exclaiming, "Oh, Miss ..., I believe the old serpent and his while family are in the kitchen and I am afraid to go down there." A few words of explanation settled the matter, and in a brief space of time the eels were retreating before energetic thrusts from a birch broom, that received from its holder an additional impetus for the fright she had received. Two of the brothers were shipmasters in after years, and spent the largest portion of their lives upon the ocean. They have all sailed upon their last voyage, but the legends of their youth will long survive them.
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