New Hampshire: Portsmouth and New Castle

This historic city and town were elemental in the settlement and organization of the New World, particularly for major contributions to U.S. naval and private shipbuilding. Recent years have seen a rejuvenation of the local economy, in part based on tourism for the many original colonial buildings. Portsmouth is site of the internationally recognized Strawbery Banke outdoor museum.

Site Office

City of Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce

1 Junkins Avenue

Portsmouth, NH 03801

ph.: (603) 431-2000

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At the mouth of the Piscataqua River along New Hampshire’s seacoast, the city of Portsmouth and the island town of New Castle are present-day celebrations of a much earlier New England. Pioneer settlements of immigrants from the Old World, these maritime centers boast a colorful history of considerable significance to the birth of the United States.

From the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, the Portsmouth area endured continually eroding economic standing, in part due to an unsteady market for shipping products in the wake of advancing transportation modes. However, the past few decades have seen a wholesale turnaround of the region’s fortunes, as civic leaders have invested in the restoration of Portsmouth’s often glorious past. Today, the region thrives in a rich atmosphere combining commerce with culture and the flavors of New England.

Early History

In 1603 England’s Queen Elizabeth I selected twenty-three-year-old seafarer Martin Pring to explore this part of the New World, which was then considered the northern part of Virginia. The young captain, commissioned to scout merchant business for the future in the wildlife of the American shoreline, guided his two ships, the Speedwell and the Discoverer, past several of Maine’s rivermouths before settling on the entrance to the Piscataqua River. Pring specifically sought the root of the indigenous sassafras tree, which was coveted for its alleged healing powers; finding none, he traveled south to a place he named Whitson’s Harbor. Several years later, this area took on the more familiar nickname of “Plymouth Rock.”

Pring was the first to record a detailed description of the Piscataqua’s link with the Atlantic Ocean. In England, curiosity arose among opportunistic men with a penchant for exploration. In 1614, Captain John Smith, sent by British merchants, mapped the coast of the New World from Maine’s Penobscot Bay to Massachusetts’s Cape Cod. At the Piscataqua, he dubbed the string of islands now known as the Isles of Shoals “Smith’s Isles.”

Smith Names New England

Smith’s notes show that he foresaw a time when the bountiful New World would provide a home to adventurous immigrants, where “every man may be master and owner of his own labour and land. . . . I would rather live here than anywhere.” On Smith’s return to England, Prince Charles instructed the explorer to name the area “New England.”

For nine years after Smith’s visit, the region hosted summertime trappers and fishermen from overseas, men who anchored in coves and set up temporary living arrangements on offshore islands. Then in 1623, three years after the settlement of Plymouth, Scotsman David Thompson brought seven men on the Jonathan to become the first residents of what is now the Portsmouth area. They chose a point called Pannaway (now known as Odiorne Point, in neighboring Rye), on Little Harbor, where they built a common quarters they called Piscataqua House.

After trading provisions with Plymouth’s Miles Standish, Thompson became enamored of an island near Plymouth which he named after himself. There he relocated with his wife and infant son, and there he took ill and died, leaving the remaining settlers of Piscataqua House at a loss for leadership.

John Mason’s Colony

The Englishman John Mason, formerly the governor of Newfoundland, seized this opportunity to secure from the Plymouth Company not only partial control of Pannaway, but also a grant of six thousand acres leading inland from Pannaway, as well as all islands within three miles of its shore.

Mason’s venture differed from those of other settlers in that he sought not a refuge from political and religious strictures, but a prosperous land holding to be peopled with workers in his debt. Mason remained in England, at his estate in Hampshire County known as Portsmouth; he and co-owner Sir Ferdinando Gorges sent acting governor Walter Neale and ten stewards to oversee the productivity of seventy-eight colonists. The group arrived in shifts throughout the year 1630, on the vessels the Pide-Cowe and the Warwick.

After an initial group stayed a short time at Piscataqua House, Mason’s colonists broke ground for their community on a spot two miles from Pannaway, facing north at the mouth of the river with a strawberry-covered hill rising from water level. The settlers named the area Strawbery Banke. Here the carpenter Humphrey Chadbourne led a team of builders in erecting Great House, their center of activity, around which they built water wells, a blacksmith shop, a sawmill, and a fort equipped with four cannons. Although Great House no longer remains, today the Strawbery Banke district has been revivified as an “outdoor museum,” home of several historic houses benefiting from a multimillion-dollar preservation project which ended the looming threat of urban demolition.

The people of Strawbery Banke sent beaver, mink, and marten skins to London, and they began to fell the area’s most sturdy trees for use as sail masts, an activity that would prove to be most profitable in years to come. However, Mason was not inclined to have his settlers plant fields of wheat or corn in the name of self-sufficiency; instead he continued to provide them with cattle and foodstuffs sent from the mother country, and he encouraged the workers to use their time digging for silver and gold in addition to gathering pelts and timber. The Strawbery Banke settlers worked for Mason in a feudal arrangement common to the English of the era, and all reports indicate that he was generous to them. In 1634 Mason’s partner Gorges sold his stake in the colony to Mason, who promptly named his six thousand-acre land grant “New Hampshire” and announced his intention to finally join his settlers overseas. He died before he could do so, however.

Strawbery Banke After Mason

Mason’s death in 1635 was a blow to Strawbery Banke’s progress: His widow refused aid to the colony, and some of its members devised their own means of survival. Two stewards drove one hundred head of cattle to Boston and sold them for their own profit, and many others of the colony stole away with supplies and tools. In an effort to keep the community from further fragmentation, the remaining members wrote and signed a pact called the Combination. Two decades of growing pains at Strawbery Banke were effectively dismissed when documentation was destroyed in 1652, presumably in an effort to give the settlement a fresh, less argumentative start. It is known, however, that the year 1640 saw a grant of fifty acres made to a minister of the Church of England (which differed in its religious views from those of the Congregational churches of neighboring Massachusetts). Also in 1640, Strawbery Banke saw fit to construct its first jailhouse. In 1641 New Hampshire was annexed to Massachusetts.

In 1652, Strawbery Banke was home to fifty families. At a town meeting it was decided to change the name of their settlement to Portsmouth, after the late John Mason’s estate. Development on Strawbery Banke had cleared the hill of its strawberries, and the new name was fitting for the seafaring community. In 1653 Portsmouth was incorporated as a town, despite the protest of Mason’s grandson Robert, who still wished to lay claim to the land grant.

By then the region was realizing great successes from the export of its forest products. New Hampshire’s white pine trees, more than one hundred feet tall and rigidly straight, were ideally suited for ship’s masts. Consequently, shipbuilding became Portsmouth’s leading industry. The area’s chief factories were long, thin buildings called “rope walks,” in which rope for ships was spun. Though Portsmouth enjoyed great wealth from trade with England and the British West Indies, many loggers in favor of free trade were angered by the so-called Pine Acts of the Crown decree, which forbade woodsmen from chopping down trees claimed for the Royal Navy.

Friction with England

This displeasure with the demands of the mother country was an early indication of separationist sentiment. Portsmouth was developing its own identity as a growing hub, at once creating an aristocratic class of merchants and businessmen, a middle class of tradesmen, and a working class at least partly made up of religious and criminal castoffs from other colonies. New Castle, then also known as Great Island or Sandy Beach, was particularly lively, with a motley crew of tavern patrons and fishermen; on this island without a bridge to the mainland, the prison for the entire province was located. New Castle received its royal charter in 1693.

In 1663 shipwright Richard Jackson built the house that still bears his name. The oldest existing residence in Portsmouth, the Jackson House provided a home for three centuries of his descendants before being turned over to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Recognizable by its small, seventeenth century-style leaded glass windows, the house may be seen by appointment.

Seventeenth Century Prosperity

For one hundred years the Portsmouth area solidified its status as one of the busiest and most important ports on the Atlantic coast. In 1679, the town (along with Dover, Hampton, and Exeter) separated from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and became a royal province. English shipbuilders whose income was declining at home frequently relocated to the flourishing town, where during the decade of the 1690’s they often found themselves besieged by North American Indian allies of the French in isolated battles of King William’s War.

The first regular stagecoach in America, at a cost of three dollars per passenger, ran from Boston to Portsmouth, adding to the New Hampshire city’s increasing prominence. The town became the seat of the provincial government of New Hampshire, with Benning Wentworth serving as the first royal governor during the years 1741 to 1766, the first of three Wentworths to do so. His residence, the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion on Little Harbor Road, still stands and can be viewed today; its bedroom wallpaper dates to the original decoration of the house.

Coming of the American Revolution

During the 1760’s, England’s Stamp Act aroused the ire of New World colonists. Taxes were applied to all contract transactions, including land deeds, marriage licenses, wills, diplomas, bonds, and newspaper advertising. Portsmouth’s residents led the way in repudiating the act. On October 31, 1765, the New Hampshire Gazette was published with black borders and, claiming that Liberty was dead in New Hampshire, declared an end to its publishing to denounce the tax. (The paper, in fact, published into the twentieth century before folding, at one point owning the distinction of being the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country.) Portsmouth’s Sons of Liberty staged a symbolic funeral march, carrying a coffin inscribed with the epitaph “Liberty, Aged 145 Years” to its grave, then replacing a female figure representing Liberty with a copy of the Stamp Act before burying the casket.

By now unrest between rebellious colonists and those loyal to the mother country was growing fierce. Portsmouth’s role in this unrest made history on December 13, 1774, when the colonists learned of a British decision to cut off exports of gunpowder and military supplies to America. During the night, four hundred Sons of Liberty seized Fort William and Mary on Great Island before British reinforcement could arrive. Five guardsmen were subdued and the patriots, under the command of John Sullivan and John Langdon, made off through shallow waters with one hundred barrels of gunpowder. The powder was hidden in nearby Durham and later transported to Boston’s Bunker Hill just in time for the monumental battle between the colonists and British that occurred on that site.

Governor Wentworth put forth a call for British loyalists in Portsmouth, a call that went resoundingly ignored. The town’s revolutionary action at Fort William and Mary (now known as Fort Constitution) would prove to be one of the first open acts of rebellion toward England.

Portsmouth at War

During the Revolutionary War, the legendary naval captain John Paul Jones commanded the Portsmouth-based vessel Ranger. As the war reached its conclusion, he was promised the largest ship in the American navy, the America, which was under construction in Portsmouth. When the new United States government decided to award the America as a gift of gratitude to its French allies, Jones ceremoniously launched the ship in Portsmouth Harbor, an event witnessed by all five thousand Portsmouth residents of the day. Awaiting construction of the ship during the fall of 1782, Jones had lived at an inn on Middle Street, which still stands; the John Paul Jones House is now property of the Portsmouth Historical Society.

When the first president of the young nation announced plans to tour his states, Portsmouth took the honor of being the first stop on his itinerary. George Washington’s visit in 1789 prompted the townspeople to line up alphabetically by title of occupation, as the president paraded down Congress Street accompanied by seven hundred cavalrymen. Among his destinations during his four-day stay was the home of Governor John Langdon, the exquisite architectural detail of which delighted the appreciative president. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Langdon went on to join the U.S. Senate; his house is now under the care of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.

These were among Portsmouth’s most glorious years. After the turn of the century, although its shipbuilding industry continued to thrive, a number of unfortunate events undermined the community’s prosperity. Lucrative trade with England and the West Indies had been eradicated by the Revolution, and the area’s timber profits declined as virgin forests in New Hampshire’s interior were tapped. In 1808 the seat of New Hampshire’s government was moved from Portsmouth to Concord, which became the state capital. Compounding these obstacles, a huge fire blazed through some of Portsmouth’s oldest buildings in 1813.

Shipbuilding Center

Still, the first half of the nineteenth century was tremendously prosperous for shipbuilders based in Portsmouth. In 1800 the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was established by the U.S. government, guaranteeing jobs in that industry for what was at the time the fifteenth-largest port in the nation. The popularity of the fleet style of ship called the clipper benefited Portsmouth’s builders, who crafted many of the country’s finest. Not until the mid-century advent of the steamship and the railroad, which together displaced much of the demand for sailing vessels, did Portsmouth’s economic base begin to see a marked decline. Wrote native son Thomas Bailey Aldrich, “The running of the first train from Boston to Portsmouth . . . was attended by a serious accident. . . . This initial train . . . ran over and killed–LOCAL CHARACTER.”

The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, located on Seavey’s Island at the mouth of the Piscataqua, has brought plentiful hope–but also despair and ignominy–to the area. In 1815 its first federal ship, the seventy-four-gun Washington, was launched, a symbolic illustration of the yard’s potential as a cornerstone of Portsmouth’s fortune. In a more sober portrait, hundreds of prisoners of the Spanish-American War were incarcerated there in the summer of 1898, thirty-one of whom died in captivity; buried in the shipyard’s cemetery, their bodies were exhumed in 1916 and returned to Spain.

In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt chose the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as the site for peace negotiations between the two sides of the Russo-Japanese War. The Portsmouth Herald boasted that “an epoch-making period in the history of Portsmouth and the world has begun,” and indeed, the city enjoyed certain international acclaim for its role in the event. The Treaty of Portsmouth was signed at the shipyard on September 5 of that year, with other ceremonies taking place at the prestigious hotel in New Castle known as Wentworth-by-the-Sea.

Beginning with World War I, the shipyard benefited from the U.S. government’s interest in submarine technology, a field previously monopolized by two private companies. Submarine production at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has seen more than 130 completed projects to this day. However, in addition to its triumphs, the shipyard has often been the victim of an unpredictable market for oceangoing vessels. For years, thousands of workers at the shipyard could never be sure whether their services would be needed, a hardship that contributed to an unstable local economy. Defense cuts in the 1960’s threatened the very existence of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; today, its productivity has stabilized.

Modern Preservation Efforts

For much of the twentieth century, Portsmouth, which had incorporated as a city in 1849, endured a standstill in its growth as commerce sped by on Interstate 95 between Maine and Massachusetts. The “delicacy of design” in its architecture noted by the U.S. Federal Writers’ Project fell into years of neglect and disrepair. Ethnic enclaves divided the city, with Greeks on Fleet, Hanover, and Vaughan Streets; Italians in the North End; Polish on McDonough, and a melting pot on the South End, whose “Puddle Dock” section grew particularly dilapidated. The stately homes on Middle Street were, for a time, some of the last vestiges of Portsmouth’s once-proud bearing.

Beginning in the 1950’s, however, with the help of several historical organizations, the community has been transformed to a mix of its old-time splendor and modern-day innovation. Today Portsmouth’s Market Square, at the union of Market, Daniels, Pleasant, and Congress Streets, is a thriving commercial district that retains much of the “Dickensian” charm of its past. Portsmouth’s narrow avenues and antique shops add to the atmosphere; neon-lit storefronts have been replaced with hand-lettered signs. The once-decaying waterfront strip is now the city treasure, featuring the widely recognized Theatre by the Sea as well as a number of the fine restaurants. New Castle’s Fort Constitution, used by the U.S. military during the War of 1812, Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The fort had undergone extensive renovation in 1808, and much of that construction is visible today. The fort is open for tours year-round. Another historic military installation that may be toured at New Castle is Fort Stark, built in 1794 (replacing a 1775 structure) and modified during the War of 1812.

For Further Information

  • Brighton, Raymond. They Came to Fish. Reprint. Portsmouth, N.H.: Randall-Winebaum Enterprises, 1979. Definitive text on the region. Available locally.
  • Federal Writers’ Project. New Hampshire: A Guide to the Granite State. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1938. Dated but helpful.
  • Hertz, Sue. “Time and Tide in Portsmouth.” Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, April 24, 1983. Provides an intriguing look at the clash between Portsmouth’s tourism-minded renovators and residents who lament the influx of newcomers.
  • Sammons, Mark J., ed. Strawbery Banke: A Historic Waterfront Neighborhood in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Portsmouth, N.H.: Strawbery Banke, 1997. An official guidebook available locally.
  • Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Portsmouth: The Life of a Town. New York: Macmillan, 1966. Written with juveniles in mind but nonetheless indispensible in its wealth of information concerning Portsmouth’s colonial days.