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Dan Webster, Stamp Act rebellion,
the Assembly House -- all are gone

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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

Read: The Taxing Life of George Meserve
Click to see the Old Meserve House

Vaughan street--The Old Assembly House--Michael Whidden--Nathaniel Meserve--Stamp Act--George Meserve--Revolutionary scenes--Liberty Bridge--Occupants of the Meserve house--Old trees.

HAVING rambled several times from Market square to Vaughn street, (until 1778 called Cross street,) occasionally looking up the latter, we will now turn the corner and follow in the track of this narrow though great thoroughfare, through which all the coaches now pass at every arrival of the cars.

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The Old Assembly House

But where is the old Assembly House? Sawn asunder, split in two, wheeled to the right and left, and just where we used to enter its large front door, we enter now the centre of Raitt's court; the two houses on the entrance of the court were made from that old Assembly House, which Washington in 1789 pronounced one of the best he had seen anywhere in the United States. How many recollections are associated with it! How often have the white teeth of Cuffee Whipple distinctly shown from its orchestra to the elite of the town on the floor below, as he labored with his violin to keep up the mazy dance! Cuffee was not alone, for sometimes that life of the Assemblies, Col. Michael Wentworth would stand by his side and as an amateur give his aid. How often here brilliant stars "strutted their short hour," in illustration of the powers of the histrionic art; and here were the curiosities of art and nature displayed; oft has the note harmonious of the Handel Society here ascended; and here too have audiences in this spacious hall been convened to worship their Creator. It was a large and curious building, the plaything of one who had much experience in building houses. The Assembly Room was the full size of the front of the building, lighted on three sides, with two drawing-rooms, and an orchestra over the entrance. The builder was Michael Whidden, who also built and was the first occupant of the house in Deer street afterwards occupied by Col. Peter Livius and Thomas Martin, and now occupied by George Annable. He also built several other houses in the vicinity, and among these the house on the corner of Deer and Vaughn streets, occupied by John S. Harvey, and the two-story gambrel roof house directly in front of the old Assembly House, now owned and occupied by the family of Robert Gray.

The latter house, could all its old occupants be made to pass in procession before us, and could the incidents which have grown up in their connection be related, would form the subject of an interesting volume, not only of our local, but also in our State and national history.

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George Meserve & the Stamp Act

To understand our story it will be necessary to go back a little beyond the days when Mr. Gray's house was built, which was about a century ago.

At the siege of Louisburg, in 1745, Col. Nathaniel Meserve of this town, a ship builder, rendered essential service in constructing sledges on which the cannon were drawn through a deep morass. This service was not forgotten; for in 1749 he was commissioned by the British Government to build a ship-of-war of fifty guns, called the America. He then lived in a house of his own construction next South of the North mill bridge, which has since been called the Boyd house, and now belongs to the Raynes family. The ship was built near where the present Raynes' ship yard now is. As the bridge was not then constructed, the ship might have been built on the pond side in the rear of the Moses house. Col. Meserve acquired much wealth, and was of unblemished reputation. In 1756, he had command of the New Hampshire regiment raised for the Crown Point expedition. To his care was entrusted Fort Edward, which was gallantly defended.

In 1758, he embarked with over a hundred carpenters to aid in the second siege of Louisburg. The small pox broke out among them, and all except sixteen died, including the Colonel and his eldest son. He left one other son, George Meserve, who was married to Miss Newmarch, and for them the Gray house was built by Mr. Whidden about the year 1760. Mr. Meserve, when in England in 1765, at the time of the passage of the Stamp act, was appointed agent for distributing the stamps in New Hampshire. Nowhere in the colonies was there a more determined spirit of resistance to the oppression of the mother country manifested than in Portsmouth. Mr. Meserve well knew this, and thereupon, on arriving at Boston, on the 6th of September, (about seven weeks before the law was to take effect,) the excited state of the public feeling induced him to resign his office of stamp master. His resignation was not known here; so the indignant populace, on the night of the 11th of September, placed on the hill in front of the jail a triple effigy, representing Lord Bute, who was father of the bill, Meserve and the Devil. A board was extended from the mouth of the Devil to Meserve's ear, on which was written:

George, my son, you are rich in station,
But I would have you serve this nation.

The effigies stood through the day, and in the evening they were carried about the town with such clamor, and then burnt. A week elapsed before Meserve arrived in Portsmouth. He then on the parade made public his resignation. He was joyfully escorted to this house, and from its quiet retreat looked out upon the troubled world around him. The first of November, when the act was to be in force, was ushered in with tolling bells, half mast flags, etc., and at 3 P.M. a funeral procession was formed, bearing the coffin of Liberty, etc. On depositing it in a grave, signs of life appearing, the muffled drums beat up a lively air, the tolling of bells was changed to ringing, and the spirit of patriotism was planted yet deeper in many a heart.

The next year, in January of 1766, another scene is presented at this house. The stamp master commission of George Meserve arrives. The jealous people, well knowing that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," are in commotion. A delegation of the choice spirits of the times, among them John Davenport, Thomas Manning, George Gains, and brother "sons of liberty," might be seen convened in Vaughn street, and standing sword in hand at the door of this house. The stamp master appears at the door, and their business is made known. He takes from the desk the commission he has just received, gives it up to them, and submits to the administration of an oath by Wiseman Claggett, that he would not directly or indirectly attempt to execute the office. The commission is taken--on the point of a sword it is elevated, and the procession moves down Vaughn and up King street, bearing the trophy, hailed by the shouts of the "sons of liberty." They pass the parade, and proceed to Swing Bridge, on Water street, where they erected a Liberty standard. >From that day Swing Bridge received the name of Liberty Bridge, and the motto--"Liberty, Property, and no Stamp."

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Other House Tenants, Some Famous

In this course of events Mr. Meserve was subjected to some losses, without those emoluments of office to which he had been looking. In 1772 he was appointed Collector of this port. Mr. George Meserve had one son, George, and two daughters. One of the daughters, Sarah, was married to James Sheafe (afterwards U.S. Senator and candidate for Governor,) who purchased her father's house and here resided soon after the peace of 1783. Here too he continued to reside for several years after his marriage with his second wife. After Mr. Sheafe's removal to the vicinity of Market Square, another distinguished merchant, Dr. Nathaniel A. Haven, became an occupant, and here resided until the erection of the mansion on High street, in about the year 1800, now occupied by Charles H. Ladd. The next occupant was Hon. Jeremiah Mason,--no less distinguished for his gigantic stature than for his prominence in the legal profession. Here several of his children were born, and the young lawyer who entered here almost a stranger, left it in six or eight years, with a fame not confined to his own State, for his seat on "Mason's Hill." The next tenant was Daniel Webster. Show us a house in New England where two tenants of more powerful minds, of stronger intellects, of more enduring fame, have been under the same landlord in succession. This was the place of his first occupancy as the head of a family--and here, when he visited Portsmouth in after years, would he look back to the place where Grace Fletcher, the early loved and early lost, was the esteemed associate at the domestic hearth. The next resident was Gen. Timothy Upham, distinguished in the field of battle, and in civil life a candidate for the chief magistracy of the State--and discharging with fidelity the various public trusts committed to his charge.

The great fire of 1813 made the owner homeless, and Hon. James Sheafe again occupies the premises he vacated twenty years before. When next vacated, Capt. Elihu Brown, who was prominent in the war of 1812, occupied it for a time,--then Dr. Robert L. Thorn, of the Navy, a gentleman of noble spirit and of much prominence, made this his home. It was afterward successively occupied by Major Edward J. Long, Joshua B. Whidden, John H. Sheafe and G. W. Pendexter, not alienating from the Sheafe family until 1839, when it was purchased by Robert Gray. When the house was built in 1760, there was no house on the west side of Vaughn street, from the corner of Congress street to and around the corner of Deer street to where David Libbey now lives.

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The Old Pear Tree

In the garden planted by Meserve, was a bergamot pear tree, which after enduring the storms of a century, and liberally furnishing to the tables of Meserve, Sheafe, Mason, Webster, Upham, Long, Thorn, etc., its choice fruit, has but just passed to that decay to which all things mutable are destined. In the same garden are two towering sassafras trees, measuring nearly a yard in circumference, which are as old as the house. Who of the thousands who have attended the old North school, from the days of the Revolution to the present time, has not picked up the leaves as they have blown over the fence, and enjoyed their aromatic fragrance, and nutritious, pulp-like taste. Many a time, too, in successive generations, has the feeble knock at the door found the little caller asking the privilege of gathering some of the leaves of the "sarsafax."

Thus we ramble round, stirring up some remembrance of those who have, like the old pear tree, been valuable in their day--and whose memory, like the leaves of the sassafras, still imparts a fragrance to those who take pains to gather them.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by SeacoastNH.com
Design Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com

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