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The "Remarkablest Isles"

John Smith The nine rocky Isles of Shoals have played a larger role in history than their size implies. Because the surrounding cold, deep Atlantic waters yielded an abundant crop of large fish, the treeless Isles were an ideal stopping point for fishermen -- at first, historians assume, for Native Americans, then Vikings, certainly for Europeans of many nations. The first documented landings begin at the opening of the 17th century. Because they worked and traded, but did not "settle" in the New World, early fishing and trading outposts are not credited as the first New England settlements. Still, local tradition assigns the record to a group at Londoner's (now Lunging) Island from around 1615 to 1620. Today, with only one private home, the island is less populated than it was when the Separatists arrived at Plymouth Plantation.

Explorer Captain John Smith even named the "remarkablest Isles" after himself. According to his 1614 map and account, fewer than two dozen men were able to hook 60.000 fish in a month. Of "Smythe Isles" and New England, he wrote, "...of all the foure parts of the world that I have yet seene not inhabited, could I have but means to transport a colonie, I would rather live here." However, when Smith was granted only these little shrubby islands in payment for all his years of service, the explorer was less than thrilled. He never did return to found his colony here.

Smith didn"t mention landing on the Isles. The first documented English landing goes to Christopher Levett, whose crew of about 300 fishermen in six ships found the Shoals a barren camp site in 1623. Eventually a number of famous Seacoast families, including founder David Thompson, used the Shoals as a stepping stone to successful businesses on the mainland. The Cutts brothers (1645) and William Pepperrell (1676) founded successful New England shipping and fishing dynasties by starting nine miles at sea on the Isles. After building Fort Star as early protection against Native Americans, the Isles industry thrived, rivaling other early ports like Boston for sheer volume of exported goods.

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The Isles of "Schools"

The Isles may not be named, as many assume, for shallow water shoals. In fact, the little islands are the result of a great glacier that scraped out an especially deep pocket of water. The alternate dictionary meaning, shoals or "schools" of fish may apply instead. The first European owners of the region were very aware of both fish schools and the nearby fishing shoals. Historians still disagree on the derivation.

Rich land speculators Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason were granted royal title to all the key colonies from Virginia to Maine. When the Piscataqua area failed to yield gold, copper, or precious spices, they had to settle for fish -- lots of fish. In fact, the potential profits were so great that the investors surgically divided their property down the center. Half the Isles of Shoals ended up in the royal province of New Hampshire, the other half in Maine. (See Map)

The hardy new breed of "Shoalers" quickly grew in number and independence. Trees imported from the mainland became homes to as many as 600 residents by 1645, most living on Hog (now Appledore) and Smuttynose Islands in Maine. Some suggest the population may have risen to 1,000 residents. When Massachusetts annexed Maine and presumed to tax the Shoalers, most of the population emigrated to nearby Star Island in New Hampshire -- early evidence of the Granite State"s quirky "live free or die" attitude. There, after much petitioning, they formed the town of Gosport which remained largely ungoverned.

When Harvard educated Rev. John Tucke of Hampton arrived on the Isles in 1732, he found a hard drinking, hard working population isolated from mainland laws, manners, mores and religion. His missionary efforts to "civilize" the islanders continued until his death in 1773, just before the American Revolution. Unable to protect the Isles from British naval forces, the province of NH ordered the Shoalers to the mainland. Many came, dismantling and floating their homes to shore. Many of these homes reportedly still exist, scattered from York. Maine to Ipswich, Massachusetts.

The great fishing industry at the Shoals never recovered its pre-Revolutionary status. Those who remained, legend has it, became so isolated that by the turn of the century, even their language was unintelligible on the mainland. Photographs of the Shoalers on Star around the time of the Civil War show the last images of a fading culture. Unlike most American towns, Gosport has steadily declined from its colonial boom, heading quietly and peacefully toward the 21st century.

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Hotels & Poetry

Celia Thaxter Poet Celia Thaxter was just a child when her father Thomas Laighton left a busy life in Portsmouth and accepted the two-year government post of lighthouse keeper at White Island in 1839. Her memories in books like "Among the Isles of Shoals (1873) made her one of a handful of female writers known throughout the country.

Celia"s father and his friend Levi Thaxter had the ingenious notion of building a grand hotel on Appledore. By the time her first poem was published, the two men had turned their unlikely $2,000 investment into a successful business. Laighton was so taken by life away from the mainland, that he never returned there. Celia"s literary fame and Boston connections provided the ideal public relations tool, drawing the cream of big city society to the isolated hotel. Among the best known visitors were writers Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Henry Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Greenleaf Whittier, painter Childe Hassam and NH-born President Franklin Pierce.

Their success brought competition. In 1873 the Oceanic, a rival hotel, was built nearby on Star Island, burned and was rebuilt. With the two major islands adapted to tourism, the town of Gosport held its last town meeting and one of America"s longest surviving fishing communities faded from history. That same year, Smuttynose, the thin island between Star and Appledore attracted media attention when two young women were brutally murdered there with an ax. The pastoral blend of Celia"s island garden and poetry with tales of murder, ghosts, shipwrecks and Blackbeard"s lost pirate treasure have assured that the Isles of Shoals will remain a tourist haven.

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The Isles Today

The "modern" Isles of Shoals is all but unchanged from the Isles of 1897 when the "conference" era began. A Unitarian minister agreed to hold his annual church meetings at the Isles to accommodate his wife"s discomfort with hot summers at inland New Hampshire. The summer meetings became so popular that, when the Appledore Hotel burned in 1914, the Unitarian group purchased the surviving Oceanic Hotel for $16,000.

The Star Island Corporation owns both islands today and -- except for "off limits" periods during two world wars -- has continued to operate the hotels and conferences.. Celia Thaxter"s cottage and garden are maintained for limited visitation on Appledore, which also houses the Shoals Marine Laboratory. The lab is now operated by Cornell University in cooperation with the University of New Hampshire nearby.

Except for a few summer houses and homes of lobstering families, the Isles remains populated mostly by a host of sea birds and marine life. Overnight visitors must be enrolled in a conference or educational class and tourists who arrive daily on the "Thomas Laighton" must return the same day. Although the mainland is easily visible on clear days and nights, arriving visitors instantly feel a sense of separateness. Now divided into the towns of Kittery, Maine and Rye, New Hampshire, the Isles of Shoals still stands, as it always has, like a place separate and wholly its own.

By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

Sources:
- Ten Miles Out, by Lyman V. Rutledge, 1984
- The Isles of Shoals: A Visual History, by John Bardwell, 1989
- Geology of the Isles of Shoals, by Katherine Fowler-Billings, 1959
- Land of Lost Content, by Robert Whittaker, 1994

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