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Oh-So-Sorry, Kittery

Please don't get mad that
we stole all your history

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Fort McClary If there's even a scrap of wisdom to be gleaned from the Clinton presidency it's this -- apologies work, no matter how late they arrive. So it is in this politically charged New Hampshire primary atmosphere, after nearly 400 years of Seacoast history, that I say sincerely and forthrightly, "I'm sorry, Kittery. You deserve better."

In the shadow of presidents Clinton and Nixon, I've come to my contrite position after discovering that a certain tape has become available for public scrutiny. This tape, however, includes no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, no bleeped expletives, no revelations of impropriety or stained clothing, no grand jury testimony. It is a good tape, a very good videotape -- and it is called simply "A History of Kittery." When I saw it, the scales fell from my eyes and I beheld the Seacoast in a new clear light.

The amazing story of the "Gateway to Maine", the oldest official town in the state, is often minimized by upcountry "downeast" Mainers and dwarfed by Portsmouth-centric historians just across the river. In our defense, those of us who write about New Hampshire's dinky 18 linear miles along the Atlantic Ocean may harbor a deep-seated envy for Maine's extensive rocky coast. I've been told that the eastern inlets and outlets of that state add up to a whopping 3,500 miles of waterfront territory. So we New Hampshirites tend to appropriate, now and then, facts that rightfully belong to our humble neighbor just across the Piscataqua River.

Sponsored by the Kittery Historical and Naval Museum, this grassroots video successfully crams centuries of Kittery factoids into a fluid and immensely watchable 25 minutes and 35 seconds. Most Maine vacationers, who know Kittery only as a bridge, a pit stop and a strip of 120 factory outlets on the way to somewhere else, should be required by law to watch this tape at the state border. Kittery residents who don't own a copy should have their lobster pots confiscated.

Kittery Video To the great embarrassment of all us locals, the tape was produced by a couple of southern videographers from Rockport, Massachusetts. But then, that figures. Kittery was in cahoots with the Mass Bay Colony from 1652 right up until the Revolution, while NH eventually got its own royal governor. The state-line rivalry between Portsmouth and Kittery, still simmering today, has its roots in colonial politics. In fact, the original Fort McClary (called Fort William) high above the river at Peppperrell Cove, once trained its guns on Portsmouth to protect Kittery traders from duties imposed on all Piscataqua shipping by the government of New Hampshire.

Here are just a few tidbits of Piscataqua history, Kittery-style, as gleaned from the newly released videotape:

  • With French forts dating to the 1500s, Maine can best any claim New Hampshire makes to early European colonization. Kittery was likely settled as early as New Hampshire, but while Portsmouth and Dover cling to their 1623 settlement dates, Kittery takes the high ground and promotoes its official incorporation date in 1647.

  • The house of shipbuilder Capt John Bray, built in 1662 at Kittery Point is technically older than the oldest standing house in New Hampshire, the Jackson House across the river in Portsmouth. There are people in Rye, New Castle, Durham, South Berwick, York and other coastal towns who still get their socks all in a knot over this date thing, so we'll just let this paragraph end here.

  • The dominant character in early Kittery history, all but ignored in NH, is William Pepperrell. Actually there were three William Pepperrells, the first of whom established his fishing industry there as in 1670 or before. One of the wealthiest landholders in the New World, Pepperrell's estate once stretched up the coast for 30 miles. Remember that the original Kittery land grant from NH founder Ferdinando Gorges included Eliot, Maine and all the Berwicks.

    Sir William Pepperell

  • The Pepperrell fishing industry was so vast that it felt cramped by competition from the French in Nova Scotia. In 1745, as colonel of the Massachusetts militia, son Sir William Pepperrell took 3,000 troops northward. With the help of the British fleet, he defeated the supposedly impregnable French fort of Louisburg in Cape Bretton. He became the first native born American knighted by the king of England and was one of the wealthiest men in the New World.

  • Remember William Whipple of Portsmouth, the New Hampshire man who signed the Declaration of Independence? Sorry, Bill was born in Kittery in 1730.

  • John Paul Jones may have stayed in Portsmouth, but his 1777 ship Ranger was built at what is now Badger's Island in Kittery. This was the same site where revolutionary shipyard owner John Langdon, later New Hampshire's first governor, built the Raleigh in 1776. This was one of the new nation's first naval commissions. The Ranger became the first American ship to battle in foreign waters. The Raleigh today appears on the New Hampshire state seal.

  • If the Piscataqua was filled with ink, there wouldn't be enough of it to chronicle all the tales of the "Kittery Yard" celebrating its bicentennial this year. In 1800 the newly hatched US Department of the Navy purchased Kittery's Dennett's Island to establish one of the country's first six federal shipyards. Five more Kittery islands later were combined into what has long been called "Portsmouth Yard", unless you live in Kittery. Today 52 buildings at the yard are on the National Historic Register. If readers know anything about the unending tax battle between shipyard workers and the state of New Hampshire, they will understand why this paragraph also ends abruptly.

  • Isaac Hull, direct from his legendary exploits as Captain of "Old Ironsides" became an early Commander of the Yard in 1813. When Ironsides returned twice for refitting in the 1800s, she was technically not in New Hampshire, as Portsmouth tourism books of that era implied, but in Kittery, Maine.

  • There is a nifty monument in Portsmouth to the famous Civil War ship Kearsage which took down the Confederate Alabama after it had reportedly destroyed 65 Yankee vessels. This victory and all the victories and defeats of dozens more military sailing ships, steam vessels, ironclads and submarines, technically, belong to our friends in Kittery.

  • By the late 19th century, it was possible to take an electric trolley from Augusta, Maine all the way to New York City. There was only one spot in the entire journey where visitors had to leave the land and travel to another state by ferry. There was still no easy road between this Maine town and its rival city Portsmouth. That point was --- well, I'll let you guess.

    Hotel Champerrnone

  • With only frail remnants of Wentworth-by-the-Sea standing in New Castle, we tend to think of New Hampshire when we think of grand Seacoast hotels. In fact, Kittery had more than its share of Victorian tourist hotels -- now all gone. They included Hotel Parkfield (1887), the Pepperell House (1872) The Pocahontas on Gerrish Island (1880s), and the Champernone (1890).

  • We conveniently forget, too, that the most famous establishment of them all, the 1848 Appledore Hotel, was also a Kittery attraction. Half of the Isles of Shoals lie in Maine waters. That means Portsmouth-born poet Celia Thaxter, though she spent her youth in New Hampshire's White Island lighthouse, wrote much of her poetry while a resident of Appledore in Maine. She and her husband Levi also bought a farm at Kittery Point, which until recently was still owned by the Thaxter family. And as to the famous Smuttynose Murders -- soon to be a major motion picture? The crimes were committed in the county of York, in the state of Maine under the jurisdiction of the town of Kittery.

    We could say more, but with a half dozen old forts still facing off between Kittery and New Hampshire towns, it's best just to reaffirm our humble apologies and exit quietly. New Hampshire residents wishing to make further reparations to Kittery may purchase the video "History of Kittery" from the Kittery Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-639-9645. If you are from Portsmouth, remember to kneel, bow your head deeply, and apologize frequently like our President has learned to do. Remember too, that Portsmouth's Pease Air Force Base is now decommission and all those nuclear planes are gone. But the Navy Yard is still working away on nuclear submarines. That means all the heavy artillery is now on the Kittery side of the river!

    Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com
    All rights reserved

    Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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