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In the early 1800s, island life
was isolated and slow

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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. -- JDR

ANTERIOR to the erection of the bridges that now connect it with Portsmouth, many of the least cultivated among the older inhabitants of Newcastle, isolated as they were from the outer world, especially during the inclement seasons of the year, were about as primitive in their idea as the dwellers at the Shoals, and scarcely less peculiar in their dialect. Separated by some three miles of water communication from Portsmouth, it was not uncommon occurrence to hear quiet, stay-at-home bodies among the old ladies acknowledge that they "had not been to town" in ten to a dozen years, and inquiries would be made as to individuals they had once known, as if the place were a thousand miles away.

A more antique locality, previous to the consummation of that achievement in the march of improvement, the construction of the bridges, could not have been found in all New England. While many of the dwellings were spacious and comfortable, there were very few of modern construction; by far the larger proportion gave evidence of having been erected in the early part of the last century; many were so dilapidated by age as to be almost untenantable, and others had reached that point in their history, and were undergoing the process of being converted into firewood.

One of the most antique of these moss-covered structures of the olden time, was the ancient church that occupied the site of the modern edifice, of which the Rev. Mr. Alden was pastor. Though sadly fallen to decay, traces existed to show that taste had not been omitted in its construction. Erected originally for the service of the English Church, the chancel remained in good preservation, and relics survived of ornamental devices that had once surmounted the creed and decalogue. The sills had gone to decay, and the floor had consequently sunk some inches below its original position, but the building served for summer use, and the people loving the old place of worship where their ancestors had been wont to gather, continued to occupy it every season until the cold winds of autumn drove them to the shelter of the less spacious but more comfortable structure, where on week-days, "The village master taught his little school."

Among the many improvements upon the island none are more conspicuous than those visible in the vicinity of the spot occupied at a former day by the ancient sanctuary: The tasteful and well-kept flower garden, with its gravelled walks, wrought out of the once rough, uncultivated ground, attached to the modern church, has in its season of bloom a most bright and cheerful appearance, highly complimentary to him to whose good taste citizens and strangers are annually indebted for so pleasant a feature; and the neat enclosure around the little cemetery, with the order in which it is kept, are a great improvement upon our earlier remembrances of the place, when a rough board fence or dilapidated stone wall, which the writer has forgotten, alone protected it from the incursions of stray animals in search of pasture.

At the time of which we write, there was much of social and neighborly intercourse among the people of the island, as they met and discussed the news brought by some one who had returned from a trip to town, an event oftentimes not of daily occurrence in unpropitious weather, especially during a sharp, cold spell of mid-winter. The receipt of the Journal and Gazette were semi-weekly events of rare interest, and their contents from the title to the last line of the advertisements on the fourth page, were duly digested. A Boston paper was about as much of a novelty to the inhabitants as is now one from Canton or Honolulu.

The writer has some especially pleasant recollections of the friendly intercourse referred to, that seemed in a measure a realization of the scenes in rural life so delightfully pictured forth by Goldsmith in the Deserted Village, and in the London story-books that then formed so prominent a feature in juvenile literature. One place of sojourn was at the residence of the village teacher, still in existence at the summit of a high bluff on the seashore. Opposite the house was a large and thriving garden, and higher up, on an elevation too rocky for culture, was a delightful spot, embracing a view of Portsmouth, and the ocean far out to sea, where the youth of both sexes used to gather at the close of day, and on moonlight evenings, and participate in the ever-popular sports of childhood.

One of the incidents of life to the people of Newcastle was the frequent appearance, during the summer season, of a fleet from Kittery and Eliot upon their shores, for the purpose of bartering vegetables and fruit for dried codfish and halibut, and other products of the brisk fishing trade then carried on from the island. As a general thing the values of articles on both sides were so well understood as to render the business a very simple one, but an amusing scene occasionally occurred between a pair of sharp bargainers, each affecting to depreciate the other's goods, that would have done honor to the parties in a horse-trade. Such a scene between an attache of Hannah Mariner's squadron, with a stock of green corn and whortleberries, and an old lady of the island with dried halibut to dispose of, each boasting, when the trade had been concluded, of having outwitted the other, left, in its oddity, an ineffacable impression upon our memory.

Fort Constitution imparted much animation to the island, and not a little to Portsmouth, being still under command of Col. Walbach, and with a larger force stationed there than at any other period within our memory. The band numbered every instrument then known in martial music, and with such an attraction, the morning and evening parades were well worth attending. Musicians were not then very plenty in our good city, none making it a profession, and it was a well appreciated luxury when the old hero, while in the service of his native Prussia, of twenty-six pitched battles against Bony, occasionally came to town with his command, and the fine band stirred up the people with such airs as "Wreaths for the Chieftain," "Washington's March," "Paddy Carey," etc.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
Design 2003

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