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A fiery man, he sparked
the famous New Castle attack

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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.

Capt. Thomas Pickering - Capture of Fort William & Mary - Langdon - Sullivan - Scarborough's boat conflict - The Hampden - Death of Pickering.

Early Pickerings (Part 1)
More Pickerings (Part 2)

JUST north of the South mill bridge, at the corner where stands the house of the late Benning Morrill, and extending over the land where Josiah Folsom formerly lived, was a house of large dimensions, in which resided a man of high spirit, born for the revolutionary age in which he lived. Capt. THOMAS PICKERING was little over thirty years of age when the contest with the mother country began to assume an open aspect. As Portsmouth held an elevated position in resistance to the usurpations of England, so among her sons could be selected some who bore prominent parts in the struggle, and among them none more prominent than Capt. Pickering. Intrepid, daring, he could never overlook an insult, nor bow to oppression. His antipathies were strong--when once fixed nothing could remove them. His father had been cruelly cut to pieces by the Indians while on an eastern expedition in the Indian war, and the hatred of the son to all Indians was so great that he could hardly resist attacking any copper-face who came within his reach. One day two peaceable Indians came into his residence near the mill. He entered the door, went to the yard--his mother knowing what was coming, bade them run for their lives. They ran up Water street, with the Captain in full pursuit. Finding he could not gain upon them, when near the South Church hill he threw his axe, which passed between them, the handle touching one of their shoulders. Such was the spirit of the man whose exploits in other directions should be, although they have not yet properly been, made a part of our local history.

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Picking Takes Fort William & Mary

Special note: See pictures of the Raid:

In 1774, an order was passed by the King in council, prohibiting the exportation of gunpowder and military stores to America. The information was received by the committee of safety in this town, by express. Capt. Pickering, knowing that no time should be lost, called at once privately on his intimate friend, Major (afterwards Governor) John Langdon, and invited him to accompany him to fort William & Mary, at Newcastle, to take a glass of wine with Captain Cochran, its commander. "It will not do," said Maj. Langdon with his usual caution, mistaking the nature of the visit, "it will not do under the present state of public affairs to take such a step." When Capt. Pickering fully disclosed to him his design, with the remark that if twenty-eight like themselves could be obtained to join them, he would undertake to lead in the capture of the fort, Maj. Langdon heartily gave his assent to be his companion.

The company was soon made up, the plan of operations being arranged in the most secret manner. On a favorable night in the month of December, by the light of the moon which lacked but three or four days of being full, the boats were manned with the adventurous company, and before midnight they landed at a place not far from the fort. The fort at that time was much smaller in dimensions than at present. The ramparts on the west were of turf, and of sufficient inclination to make the walls more easy of access than at the present time.

The company landed unperceived by any one, when Pickering in advance of the main body scaled the ramparts of the fort, and seizing the sentinel with his muscular arm, took his gun, and threatened death if he made the least alarm. Signals of success were given to the company, which soon had charge of the sentinel, while Capt Pickering entered the quarters of Capt. Cochran, and before he was fairly awake announced to him, that the fort was captured and he was a prisoner!

Cochran surrendered, and gave his sword to Capt. Pickering, who politely handed it back to him, observing, he was "a gentleman and should retain his side arms," and turned to leave him. As he turned, Cochran thought he had the gallant Pickering at his advantage, and aimed a blow at him with a sword, which Pickering parried with his arm, and then, without deigning to draw his trusty sword, he felled the miscreant to the ground with his clenched hand. He was then secured.

After the work was accomplished, the patriots returned to Portsmouth, and, elated with success, were disposed to visit Governor Wentworth and other loyalists, but Major Sullivan and George Frost of Durham, Dr. Bartlett of Kingston, Major Langdon and others of Portsmouth, addressed them, dissuading them from their purpose, and they again visited Newcastle and brought off fifteen of the lightest cannon.

Early in the morning the gunpowder in the magazine was put on board the gondolas. It all passed through the hands of Maj. Langdon and Samuel Drown, half brother of Capt. Pickering. Part of it was carried to Durham Falls, where Maj. Sullivan resided, put under the pulpit of the old meeting house in Durham, on the site of the one which was taken down in 1848, and afterward stored in a magazine which Capt. John Demeritt of Madbury had constructed in his cellar, and was afterward (excepting such part of it as Capt. Demeritt reserved for the use of his company), sent to Cambridge. Samuel Hall of Portsmouth, the grandfather of the present Samuel Hall, of Sagamore road, had the charge of its transportation to that place.

Capt. Eleazer Bennett, of Durham, who died in 1851, aged one hundred and one years and six months, was one of the company which captured the fort. The following are his own statements of this expedition of Americans against British soldiers, which, though attended with no bloodshed, was a very bold and daring affair. If the war had not followed, it must have doomed all who took part in it to the fate of rebels. It occurred six months before the battle of Bunker Hill, and four months before the battle of Lexington. It was recorded in the British Annals as the first action of the rebels against British soldiery, preparatory to the war of the Revolution.

Capt. Bennett states that "on the 15th of December, 1774, he was in the employ of Gen. Sullivan in his mill at Packer's falls, when Michael Davis came up from Durham falls and told him that Sullivan wished him to come down and go to Portsmouth, and to get any body he could to come with him. He could not get others to go, but went himself. The party consisted of about a dozen men. Their names, as far as he could remember were Major John Sullivan, Capt. Winborn Adams, Ebenezer Thompson, John Demeritt of Madbury, Alpheus and Jonathan Chesley, Peter French, John Spencer, Michael Davis, Edward Sullivan, Isaac and Benjamin Small, and the narrator. They took a gondola belonging to Benjamin Mathes, who was too old to accompany them, and went down the river from Durham to Portsmouth. It was a cold, clear, moonlight night. Stopping a short time at Portsmouth they were joined by John Langdon with another party. They then proceeded to the fort in possession of the British, at the mouth of the Piscataqua harbor. The water was so shallow that they could not bring their boat to within a rod of the shore. They waded through the water in perfect silence, mounted the fort, surprised the garrison, took the captain and bound him, and frightened away the soldiers. They found in the fort one hundred casks of powder and one hundred small arms, which they brought down to their boat, again wading through the water that froze on them, and made their way back to Durham. The arms were found to be defective and unfit for use."

The following extract from a letter appeared in the N.H. Gazette of December 23, 1774:

"December 16, 1774.--We have been in confusion here for two days, on account of an express from Boston, informing that two regiments were coming to take possession of our fort. By the beat of the drum two hundred men immediately assembled and went to the castle in two gondolas, who on their way were joined by one hundred and fifty more, and demanded the surrender of the fort, which Capt. Cochran refused, and fired three guns, but no lives were lost; upon which they immediately scaled the walls, disarmed the captain and his men, took posession of ninety-seven barrels of powder, put it on board the gondolas, brought it up to town, and went off with it to some distance in the country. Yesterday the town was full of men from the country, who marched in in form, chose a committee to wait on the Governor, who assured them he knew of no such design as sending troops, ships, etc. This morning I hear there are one thousand or fifteen hundred on their march to town. The Governor and Council sat yesterday on the affair, and are now meeting again. The men who came down are those of the best property and note in the Province."

Governor Wentworth resorted to extreme measures. Summoning the Council, he deprived Dr. Bartlett and Dr. Thompson of their commissions as Justices of the Peace, and Major Sullivan and Major Langdon of their commissions in the militia, and issued a proclamation to that effect.

While the powder was in Capt. Demeritt's possession, a brother of his besought him imploringly to surrender the powder to the royal authorities--assuring him that unless he did so he would be hanged as a rebel; but he told him that a crisis was at hand, when a struggle for liberty would ensue, and that it was his unalterable purpose, come life or death, to be on the side of liberty.

Daniel P. Drown, a nephew of Capt. Thomas Pickering, once related a trifling incident which transpired in connection with the history of this powder, which is worth mentioning. In the autumn of 1799 or 1800 Mr. Drown was at Major Demeritt's in Madbury, and as he was about leaving the house in pursuit of gray squirrels with his rifle, (formerly the sporting piece of Sir William Pepperrell,) the Major requested him to wait. On returning from the house he gave him about two charges of powder, which the Major said was a part of the powder which Mr. Drown's father assisted in taking from the fort, and bid him be sure that it did execution. It did so, and he returned to Portsmouth rich with a good bunch of squirrels, but richer with the gratification of telling his father the story.

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Firing at the Scarborough

In 1775, when the Scarborough ship-of-war, commanded by Capt. Barclay, was in the lower harbor, he seized some of our fishing craft, while he was at the same time supplying himself with such provisions as our market afforded. The vessels seized were laden with provisions, which were sent by Capt. Barclay to Boston, for the use of the King's forces. This so excited the indignation of Capt. Thomas Pickering, that he determined that the Scarborough's provision boat should not again approach our wharves. Capt. P. resided near Pickering's mills, and the shop of his half brother, Samuel Drown, was opposite Long wharf, where Jefferson street intersects Water street. When the boat was coming up the river, Capt P. entered Mr. D.'s shop and enquired of him "where he kept his musket, and whether he had any ammunition on hand?" Being informed that the musket and cartridge box filled with ball cartridges was under his bed, said P., "I want them." "For what purpose?" asked Mr. Drown. Said P., "I am determined that Capt. Barclay's boat shall not approach the town for a supply of provisions again," and hurried off after the musket, etc., which Mrs. Drown, his sister, delivered to him.

On returning, he met Samuel Hutchings, the father of the late Samuel Hutchings, apothecary, and requested him to accompany him to a wharf, on which was a pile of boards, at the same time informing him of his purpose. The boat was soon seen approaching, and as a guard with muskets always accompanied the boatmen, Pickering anticipated a battle, and requested Hutchings to stand behind the boards, as there was no need of his exposure to the shot from the boat, and to hand him the cartridges and ramrod as fast as he fired. When the boat had approached to within a suitable distance for the balls to take effect, Pickering fired one ahead of the boat, but the boat proceeded on her course. Pickering then directed his shot immediately to it. He now received shot in return from the boat; but so quickly were his shot thrown that some of the men on board placed themselves out of P.'s sight; the others plied their oars with great dexterity and were soon out of harm's way. Capt. Pickering never learned whether any of his shot took effect, though from appearances he supposed they did. He was, as well as Mr. H., unharmed. After that the Scarborough's boat did not come to town for provisions.

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End of Pickering & Cochran

Capt. Thomas Pickering afterward had command of the Hampden, twenty-gun ship, and was killed in a severe engagement with a heavy letter-of-marque, in March, 1779. He was never married. John, his oldest brother, was the owner of the South mill, the ownership of which and of the whole of the land bordering on the water from the mill to the Point of Graves was early in the Pickering family.

Capt. Cochrah, who had command of the Fort, was a native of Londonderry, in this State. He married Sarah, a daughter of Zechariah Foss, who kept a tavern, about ninety years ago, in the house which was afterwards owned and occupied by John Weare, on the spot where the stable of the Franklin House now stands. Capt. Cochran soon left with the adherents to the mother country, and took up his residence at St. John's, New Brunswick, where he spent the remainder of his days, with his family. His youngest daughter was the wife of Charles Hardy of this city.

A small affair, but a good comment not only on the strict surveillance of correspondence by the patriots of the Revolution, but also on their gallantry, is shown in their reception of foreign refugee letters. Capt. Cochran, after removing to St. John's, sent some letters to his old friends here, and one to his aunt, the widow of John Gains, containing a piece of ribbon as a memento of friendship. The intercepted letters were all brought before Congress and read; of that Congress John Langdon was a member. To him the ribbon was entrusted, and on his return to Portsmouth he called on the old lady and politely delivered it.

Mr. Adams, page 248 of the Annals, notices the removal of the powder, etc. from Fort William & Mary, but his version of the affair conflicts in some respects with the above, which we gather from recollections of it as given to Daniel P. Drown by his father, whose wife was the sister of Capt. Thomas Pickering, who was really the projector and leader of that achievement, and not Gen. Sullivan, to whom Mr. Adams gives the honor of it.

John Pickering and Thomas Pickering, brothers, came from England at the early settlement of the country. All the Pickerings of Newington and Greenland were descendants of Thomas Pickering, who made a settlement on Great Bay in Newington more than two centuries ago.

John Pickering located at the same time at the south part of Portsmouth. Not one of his descendants now bears the name of Pickering. The late Isaac Nelson was a son of the sister of Capt. Thomas Pickering, whose history this ramble records.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
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