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Formerly King Street, it's a
road with many stories

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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.

Opening of Middle street -- The naming of Congress street -- Thomas Manning -- Houses on Congress street -- Jail history -- The keeper's story.

IN 1737, George Jaffrey for 70 pounds sold to the town a road three rods wide, which leads from the country road "from Portsmouth up to Islington," running "south-westerly from the front of Dr. Ross's house." This was the opening of Middle street. It appears from his deed and other documents, that the settlement at the head of the creek around the mills then bore the name of Islington.

Previous to the Revolution, when the old State House was on what is now the west side of Market Square, the street extending west as far as where the Academy now is, was called King street. As above this point there were but few houses, the road here commenced -- and hence the road to Islington became a continuation from King street. And since that road has by denser settlement become a street, the old name of John Gilpin's renowned avenue has been continued from the same point.

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How Congress St. Got Its Name

Portsmouth at the time of the Revolution had many devoted patriots, and among them was an energetic shipmaster, who was a leading spirit of the day. He was the life of Water street, and a hospitable citizen. Where he led, there was ever a host to follow; when he spoke, his words were with effect. Leaving the thousand and one incidents which might go to make up the biography of a true son of liberty, we will refer to only one for our present purpose. The declaration of Independence had just been made, and on the State House steps it had been read with interest and cheered with enthusiasm. Everything pertaining to royalty was then as distasteful as taxed tea. Who is that throwing up his hat in King street near the western steps of the State House?--and why are those cheers by the group around him? It is THOMAS MANNING, and his words are, "Huzza for Congress street!" From this moment the street's name was changed, and to this day the great thoroughfare of the city bears the name of Congress street. This one incident, if no other, should embalm the memory of Thomas Manning.

Dr. Ross, above referred to, married a daughter of Gov. George Vaughan, and occupied the March house, on the spot where George Chesley's house now stands. The next east was the Furber house, taken down a few years since. In this house Doct. Nathaniel A. Haven commenced housekeeping. Next east, on Mr. Hackett's site, was the residence of Capt. Thomas Simpson eighty years ago. There was no curb to the well in the rear, and one winter afternoon Mrs. Simpson slipped in as she was drawing water, and was drowned. Alfred W. Haven's house was erected by Dr. William Cutter about forty-seven years ago. The house opposite, owned by Col. J. W. Peirce, was built by William Sheafe about 1785. He removed from the Wentworth residence on Pleasant street to this house.

Portsmouth Academy was erected in 1809. Two one-story huts were removed to give it place. The mansion of George W. Haven was erected by his father, John Haven, in 1800. The house occupied by Oliver P. Kennard, on the opposite side of the street, is at least 150 years old. It was formerly the Eagle tavern. In 1719, in the time of the great snow storm, there was a child born in this house. The depth of the snow forbade any entrance for the doctor and the nurse except through a chamber window, and thus they entered.

Capt. William Parker's house, fronting Parker street, was built by William Seavey, about 1790. It was proposed at that time to straighten Islington street from the parade to Martin's hill. Col. Wentworth offered all the land needed for $200. The frame of Seavey's house remained several weeks awaiting the town's decision. The town would not act, and so the house was put up, and the bend in the street from the academy to the jail made permanent. It was the residence of John Penhallow after the fire of 1806. Afterwards that of John P. Lord. Before it was built there was but one house between the academy site and Anthony street.

The brick house of Capt. Andrew Hussey, next east of the jail, was built by Joshua Haven, in 1812. The cellar was dug from a solid rock. On this spot was an elevated rock, which for many years gave the name of "Rock pasture" to this vicinity. The house next west of the jail was built by Samuel Brewster in 1795. The house of Ammi R. H. Fernald was built by his father in 1797, and Aaron Lakeman's the same year. At that time the house next west on the north side of the street was Barnet Akerman's, west of Martin's hill.

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The Jailer's Tale

The Jail was built in 1782; the stone cells about fifty years after. Before the old jail was burnt in 1781, this site was purchased for a new jail. The eastern half of the lot was bought in 1779 by Major Gains, as commissioner for Rockingham county, of John and Samuel Penhallow, for L2000--then about $400. The name of the first keeper was Barker. The next was Eben. Chadwick, who left there about the year 1800. Then Timothy Gerrish was keeper until 1815. His son Andrew had charge until 1835; Winthrop Pickering until 1837; George W. Towle to 1856; and since that time it has been under the charge of Joseph B. Adams.

About a century ago, when the Portsmouth Jail was kept by Tobias Lakeman, some Quakers were imprisoned to await their trial for some breach of the laws against heresy. He showed them great kindness; he even went so far as to let them go to their homes, on their mere promise to return in season for the trial. They kept their word, and the humane jailor received no detriment. Emboldened by this, he suffered a "gentleman" debtor to depart in like manner on a like promise. He came not back. The debt for which he was arrested was large; and the law stripped the jailor of his property, dismissed him from his office, removed his family from the county house, and made his children penniless. They sought and earned an honest living; but he became insane, quite harmless, but unfitted for doing any business.

And now began his wanderings. He was but the wreck of a man; but this wreck, like that of a noble ship, showed what the man had been. We well recollect his appearance when nearly ninety years of age. Slight and thin, once erect, but now bent a little by age; his gray locks covered with a flexible round hat, whose depending brim shaded and almost hid his face; his apparel old, but neat and trim, worn but not ragged; with a strong staff strongly grasped, and with a step nervous but not feeble, he trod the highway with the air of a gentleman, and made the journey backward and forward between Ipswich (his native place) and Portsmouth, three or four times a year.

He was friendly by nature, and now that he could no longer do friendly acts, he could at least make friendly visits. And so he did. He had lived in Hampton, N.H.--he had relatives in Ipswich, and he had friends all the way--for every Quaker was his friend in particular. At their door he knocked often but never in vain. He needed not to ask for food or shelter; the best of board was good enough, but not too good for him. The men whom he befriended lodged him--their children also rose up and called him blessed.

This simple story needs no moral; the moral is in the story. The good old man loved nature and loved man--he enjoyed the sight of both--and though insane was not unhappy. At last, just as one winter set in, he returned from his usual journey feebler than usual--and when the spring returned the pilgrim was missing from the road--the Friends inquired for him--but the way-worn traveller was at rest.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
Design © 2001

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