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.
There was in former times quite a village in the vicinity of the Plains and on the road leading by the cattle pound down through Frenchman's lane. It was of such importance that a meeting-house was erected on the spot where Mr. Branscomb's house now stands, a few rods east of the Plains. The meeting-house was then on the east side of the road, although Mr. B.'s house is now, by a change in its direction, on the north. The direct road from the Creek to the Plains by the powder-house, was opened in 1792. Before that time the only way of reaching the Plains was by passing through Frenchman's lane and the road on which D. H. Spinney lives to the pound, then by the present road to a few rods west of Mr. Sheafe's farm house, from whence it inclined a little north of the present line, and opened on the Plains at the place where the Dennett house stood. The road from the pound towards New Castle was early opened, but the one which extends from the pound to Middle street was not opened a century ago.
The Plains meeting-house did not appear to have been firmly "founded upon a rock," for in 1748 in a gale of wind it was blown down. Twelve years since, on the spot where the one-story house near the school-house now stands, Was a large two-story dwelling, called the Dennett house, which was erected in 1722 by Samuel Brewster, a son of the lady who stands prominent in the dreadful tragedy which twenty-six years before took place near that spot.
The Plains has witnessed in the present century some scenes of a warlike aspect, not only in the so long continued annual musters, but also in the war of 1812 in the long-extended barracks, and a field in daily use for the drafted militia of New Hampshire. There were some scenes of sickness and of death there at that exciting time; and the beat of the muffled drum, and the long military processions which paid the last tribute at the grave, are not soon to be forgotten by those who witnessed them marching through our streets. A more dreadful scene, however, had the Plains previously witnessed.
We will now turn more than a century yet further back. It was on the 26th of June, 1696, that the Indians made their way to this very spot, after their fearful predatory incursions on Dover. Cotton Mather and Belknap refer to the event in short paragraphs. Adams in his Annals also records the incident in a single page. The following account has been furnished us, collected from history, old manuscripts and traditions, and is the fullest that has ever been published.
In the afternoon previous to the Indians' commencing their attack on the people and property of that vicinity, the clouds and chilled air portended rain. That night a thunder storm occurred; the cattle came frightened from the woods, and at an unusually early hour sought refuge around their owners' homes. Dover having suffered from the murdering hands of the treacherous Indians, the thinly settled neighborhood of the Plains had constant foreboding that they might soon be subject to like incursions. Their suspicions were awake, and whatever appeared to be ominous of the approach of the Indians was dreadful in the imagination.
Their cattle had been previously very frequently abused and lacerated by parts of wandering tribes which had been skulking through the woods for theft and cruelty. When the cattle and sheep on the day before the attack hurried to the yards, their frightened appearance caused much talk and alarm among the villagers; and although they suspected and even believed that their herds had fled from Indians they had seen, yet, not conceiving danger to be so nearly awaiting them, they sought repose in their habitations for one night longer. The people awoke at early dawn from their slumber and were greeted with the light of their burning barns. The Indians then sounded their warhoop, turned their havoc to the houses, rushed upon the inmates, and seized such valuable property as could be made portable with them. Such of the women and children as could flee, made their way toward the garrison-house; while the sick and infirm could at farthest only absent themselves from their homes to some near retired spot. The men fought the Indians with such implements as came nearest at hand, till contest became useless. The enemy over powered them in numbers, then burned their houses and inflicted personal cruelties on all within their reach.
The men, when fully repelled from their desperate struggle, fled for the garrison to take fire-arms and swords; expecting there to find secure their wives and little ones. The Indians knowing the direction to be taken by those who would seek garrison protection, intercepted their course, and early lay in ambush to meet those who were passing by. By this means, solitary individuals were taken prisoners. Some were maimed, some killed and others secured and carried off. But those who sought for the garrison in company passed on without interruption.
The garrison-house is said to have been located about north of the present site of the school-house, in the field between the barn of Mrs. Joseph Sherburne and the elevation on the east. A cellar and well are yet visible in the field not far east from the orchard.
When they had armed themselves for meeting the Indians on return, none were to be seen. The dead and the wounded they found in the pathway and around the houses.
The person named by Belknap as being scalped, was Mary Brewster, born Feb. 11,1663, (daughter of Richard Sloper,) wife of John Brewster, Jr., who was the grandson of Wrestling Brewster* and great-grandson of Elder Wm. Brewster of Mayflower memory. The cellar of that house from which Mr. and Mrs. Brewster and their family were driven by the Indians, in this memorable scene, is to this time plainly discernible. It is a short distance south-easterly of the brick school-house on the Plains, situated on the northerly side of the discontinued old road which formerly led from the cattle pound to the Plains. The stones of the cellar remain principally in their first set position. Westerly of the house was a garden which extended to the stone wall. Amid the growth of wild shrubbery now occupying the spot, the cinnamon rose-bushes have retained their position, generation after generation, and afforded their annual bloom with the same blush and beauty as when planted and cared for by those who have ceased from their labors for upward of two centuries.
(*Since the first edition was printed it appears by Gov. Bradford's Journal that Wrestling Brewster died young; and unmarried the name of John Brewster first appeared in this town records about 1670 . Where he came from or what his connection was with Elder Brewster cannot be ascertained. He was probably a grandson.)
When Mrs. Brewster was met by her friends, she was about mid distance between her house and the garrison, being but a few rods east of the present school-house. She was taken up for dead. Her scalp was entirely removed from her head, and she was deeply wounded by a tomahawk. She became a mother shortly after, and fully recovered her health. The fracture made in the cranium by the tomahawk, was closed by a silver plate, and her loss of hair was supplied by an artificial substitute. She was afterwards the mother of four sons, and lived till Sept. 22,1744, then departed this life, aged 81y., 7m., 11d. The Brewster family in New Hampshire descended from this lady. This date is taken from a relief inscription of a beautifully enameled gold finger ring, which was made for and given at the obsequies of her interment. It was owned by Gov. John Langdon, to whose mother the ring was originally given. Gov. L. presented the ring to a member of the Brewster family.
Of dwelling-houses burned there were five, and nine barns. Capt. John Sherburne's loss by the fires exceeded that of any other individual. Two barns, well built, stocked with cattle, hogs and one horse, together with grain and hay, were entirely destroyed.
When news was sent from the plains to the Bank, the name by which the commercial part of Portsmouth was then known, Capt. Shackford rallied his military company, and the orders to the soldiers were that they proceed to a large rock which was then and has been till within the last six years, standing within a quarter of a mile east of the Plains; and was ever afterwards called " VALOR ROCK." The company was there organized, and proceeded in pursuit of the enemy.
The Indians, about fifty in number, were observed in their canoes passing up the Piscataqua a day or two previous to their assault at the Plains. When the news of the attack reached the commercial part of the town, it was generally supposed by those who saw them when they were going up the river, that escape from the inhabitants would be effected by the Indians passing down the river in their canoes to avoid justice for their barbarity. The stratagem on the part of the Indians was too successful; it served to lead the attention of the people in a wrong direction and prevented any effectual action. The savages had moved their canoes in the night time, (unperceived in the town,) carried them down the river to Sandy Beach and secreted them in bushes.
Capt. Shackford pursued in the course supposed to have been taken by the Indians. Their direction was through Great Swamp, in a course for Rye. About four miles distant from the Plains the military company discovered the incendiaries with their plunder and captives; the four prisoners whom they had captured being placed in a position to receive the first effect of a discharge of guns should a military force appear for attack. The company rushed upon the ground, rescued the prisoners and re-took the plunder; but the enemy escaped and concealed themselves in the swamp till night, then in their canoes took their departure. One party was sent out in boat, which were arranged in a line to intercept the enemy in their passage to the eastward. This enterprise would have been successful had not the commander indiscreetly given too early orders to Fire. This caused the Indians to change their course, and thus make their escape by going outside of the Isles of Shoals.
When Capt. Shackford routed them at Breakfast-Hill and the boats in the river were waylaying them in their preparations to return to the eastward, it was discovered that those who were seen going up the river toward Dover were but a small party and the whole number which were then making their escape was much larger. It was from the circumstance of the Indians and their captives being engaged in taking breakfast on the declivity of a hill near the bounds of Greenland and Rye, that the location was called BREAKFAST HILL; and has ever since been known by that name.
The tribe to which these Indians belonged was not known by the populace; nor was it ever known what course they took for their homes after they had arrived on the high seas. It was evident, however, that the intention of the party was to commit murder and plunder in the commercial part of the town after it had sated its savage brutality on the outskirts. The resistance that met their progress at the Plains so delayed them, that the morning became too far advanced to warrant attempts on a more thickly-settled community.
Those killed were Thomas Onion aged 74, Joseph Holmes 20, Hixon Foss 17, Peter Moe 40, James Jaffrey's child 4, John Jones 32, William Howard 30, Richard Parshley 25, Thomas Meloney 13, Samuel Foss, Jr. 14, Betsey Babb 14, Nancy White 8, William Cate, Jr. 16, and Dinah, the slave of John Brewster. The wounded were Peggy Jones aged 76, William Cate's three children, and Daniel Jackson aged 41.
In the pleasant mornings of May and June, rising with the sun, a most excellent walk is an excursion to the Plains, going up one road and returning by the other. The local scenes of the past,- how much interest do they give the excursion.
Turning from the Plains, towards town, by the South road - how do you think this elevation on the left hand, as we leave the training field, would now do for a Meeting House? The one of which we have spoken was here erected in 1725, and stood for twenty-three years, and was a portion of the time occupied. We have never been able to find the records of the society, and doubt the existence of any such record. The house being a frail structure, it was blown down in 1748, and the parish became again united with the North parish, under Rev. S. Langdon. We find the following document relating to its history in the Province papers, in the office of the Secretary of State, at Concord, vol. 6, fol. 15. It not only gives some important statistics of the neighboring towns in 1732, but also disproves a statement in Adams' Annals, where it is said the petition was not concurred in by the General Court. This record shows that it was "concurred in and consented to."
"Petition of sundry of His Majesty's freeholders of the south westerly part of Portsmouth (at the Plains) to Governor Belcher, and dated March, 1732 and 3, setting forth that about seven years ago several of the petitioners, at vast expense, erected a house of public worship at the Plains, and from the month of January, 1725, to March, 1727, defrayed the charge of constant preaching in the said house, paying their full proportion of the parish tax at the Bank; but that burden bearing too heavy, at length requested the parish to which they belonged to exonerate them from a further levy toward the subsistence of Rev. Mr. Fitch.
The parish by a unanimous vote, dated the 4th of March, 1727, in a full parish, complied with the request, and now ask for an Act of Incorporation for a parish by the metes and bounds in the aforesaid parish vote,- and state first: that to the best of their knowledge eighty families besides the families of six widows - one hundred and one ratable heads and four hundred and fifty souls, or thereabouts, within the bounds. N. B. - There are half a dozen families or more, consisting of thirty souls at least (not included in the bounds aforesaid), to attend public worship at the Plains meeting house rather than any where else. Second, that in 1727 (as they are informed), there were at Greenland but ninety-two ratable polls, though there has been a church there twenty or thirty years; at Newington but ninety-two, which has been a parish near twenty years; at New Castle but eighty-two; at Newmarket seventy-eight, and at Rye but seventy-two, &c. March 10th, 1732.
Concurred in and consented to. (Signed)
Number of petitioners about sixty-two.
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