I CALL it an old town, but it is only relatively old. When one reflects on the countless centuries that have gone to the formation of this crust of earth on which we temporarily move, the most ancient cities on its surface seem merely things of the week before last. It was only the other day, then -- that is to say, in the month of June, 1603 -- that one Martin Pring, in the ship Speedwell, an enormous ship of nearly fifty tons burden, from Bristol, England, sailed up the Piscataqua River. The Speedwell, numbering thirty men, officers and crew, had for consort the Discoverer, of twenty-six tons
and thirteen men. After following the windings of "the brave river" for twelve miles or more, the two vessels turned back and put to sea again, having failed in the chief object of the expedition, which was to obtain a cargo of the medicinal sassafras tree, from the bark of which, as was well known to our ancestors, could be distilled the Elixir of Life.
It was at some point on the left bank of the Piscataqua, three or four miles from the mouth of the river, that worthy Master Pring probably effected one of his several landings. The beautiful stream widens suddenly at this place, and the green banks, then covered with a network of strawberry vines, and sloping invitingly to the lip of the crystal water, must have won the tired mariners.
The explorers found themselves on the edge of a vast forest of oak, hemlock, maple, and pine; but they saw no sassafras-trees to speak of, nor did they encounter -- what would have been infinitely less to their taste
-- any red-men. Here and there were discoverable the scattered ashes of fires where the Indians had encamped earlier in the spring; they were absent now, at the silvery falls, hi-her up the stream, where fish abounded at that season. The soft June breeze, laden with the delicate breath of wild-flowers and the pungent odors of spruce and pine, ruffled the duplicate sky in the water; the new leaves lisped pleasantly in the tree tops, and the birds were singing as if they had gone mad. No ruder sound or movement of life disturbed the primeval solitude. Master Pring would scarcely recognize the spot were he to land there today. Eleven years afterwards a much cleverer man than the commander of the Speedwell dropped anchor in the Piscataqua -- Captain John Smith of famous memory. After slaying Turks in hand-to-hand combats, and doing all sorts of doughty deeds wherever he chanced to decorate the globe with his presence, he had come with two vessels to the fisheries on the rocky selvage of Maine,
when curiosity, or perhaps a deeper motive, led him to examine the neighboring shore lines. With eight of his men in a small boat, a ship's yawl, he skirted the coast from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod, keeping his eye open. This keeping his eye open was a peculiarity of the little captain; possibly a family trait. It was Smith who really discovered the Isles of Shoals, exploring in person those masses of bleached rock -- those "isles assez hautes," of which the French navigator Pierre de Guast, Sieur de Monts, had caught a bird's-eye glimpse through the twilight in 1605. Captain Smith christened the group Smith's Isles, a title which posterity, with singular persistence of ingratitude, has ignored. It was a tardy sense of justice that expressed itself a few years ago in erecting on Star Island a simple marble shaft to the memory of JOHN SMITH -- the multitudinous! Perhaps this long delay is explained by a natural hesitation to label a monument so ambiguously.
The modern Jason, meanwhile, was not
without honor in his own country, whatever may have happened to him in his own house, for the poet George Wither addressed a copy of pompous verses " To his Friend Captain Smith, upon his Description of New England." "Sir," he says --
"Sir: your Relations I have read: which shew
The earliest map of this portion of our seaboard was prepared by Smith and laid before Prince Charles, who was asked to give the country a name. He christened it New EngIand. In that rather remarkable map the site of Portsmouth is called Hull, and Kittery and York are known as Boston.
It was doubtless owing to Captain John Smith's representation on his return to England that the Laconia Company selected the banks of the Piscataqua for their plantation.
Smith was on an intimate footing with Sir Ferdinand Gorges, who, five years subsequently, made a tour of inspection along the New England coast, in company with John Mason, then Governor of Newfoundland. One of the results of this summer cruise is the town of Portsmouth, among whose leafy ways, and into some of whose old-fashioned houses, I purpose to take the reader, if be have an idle hour on his hands. Should we meet the flitting ghost of some old-time worthy, on a staircase or at a lonely street corner, the reader must be prepared for it.
Reprinted by SeacoastNH.com 1998
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