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Brewster gets the date wrong,
but the legend lives on

Read the entire BALLAD here

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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.

Frenchman's Lane - The French fleet three months at Portsmouth - The murder - Their laundry at the Creek.

"Twas a brave old spot, and deep was the shade
By the fast locked boughs of the elm tree made,
Where the sun scarce looked with his fiery eye,
As he coursed through the burning summer sky,
Where breezes e'er fanned the heat flushed cheek,
Old Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

Most lovely the spot, yet dark was the tale
That made the red lips of boyhood pale,
Of the Frenchman's doom and the bitter strife,
Of the blood stained sward and the gleaming knife,
Of the gory rock set the wrong to speak,
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.
-- Shillaber.

ONE event in the American Revolution tended to give for several months a lively interest to Portsmouth. It was the arrival in our harbor, in August, 1782, of a portion of the large French fleet which a few months previously had received hard treatment from the English, in the West Indies. We can find in the papers of the day two simple notices only of the event. The N. H. Gazette of August 18, 1782, says: "On Thursday last, an eighty-gun ship, and two seventy-fours, and a thirty-two gun ship, belonging to the French fleet, arrived in our harbor." We find no other record made of them until November, when in a severe thunder storm it is said that the eighty-gun ship of the French fleet was struck by lightning, and four men killed. The Annals of Portsmouth give only the latter item. Though passing events of that time were deemed of little account, they are not forgotten by our aged inhabitants, and from the store of their memory we will endeavor to restore a picture which would otherwise pass into oblivion.

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The French Fleet

The squadron of French vessels, of which three were eighty-gun ships, eight were seventy-fours, one forty, two thirty-twos, and a cutter of fourteen guns, arrived in Boston on the ninth of August. This fleet, bringing in with them six prizes, enrolled about ten thousand men as officers, soldiers and marines. This was rather too much for Boston at that time, and so five of the fleet left the next week and anchored in Portsmouth Harbor, where they remained over three months. For that time over two thousand Frenchmen were in our neighborhood, many of them boarding in town, and all of them at times enjoying opportunities for coming on shore. An old lady whose father kept the first boarding-house in the place at the time, has told us many illustrative incidents of French manners. The dress of the officers was white. In the attic of the hotel (the Stavers' house on Court street) was a large meal chest. They would sometimes complete their toilet in the morning by rolling over a few times in that chest, for the lack of the white powder to which they were accustomed.

There were two regiments of marines; the uniform of one was white, the other white turned out with blue. They were under the order of the Marquis de Vaudreuil. The State legislature, then in session in Portsmouth, gave a public dinner in honor of the Marquis, and balls were also given at the Assembly House, by the citizens. There were public rejoicings, by ringing of bells, firing of guns, etc., on the birthday of the dauphin of France, and indeed for three months Portsmouth became quite of the French ton.

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Cutthroat Lane

"Do you recollect the incident of the death of the Frenchman at the Creek?" said we the other day (in 1856) to an old gentleman of eighty-five. As well as though it happened yesterday," said he. "Living near the place, I was early on the spot; my father and myself were the first who reached there, after the man who made the discovery." This venerable old gentleman was Richard Fitzgerald.

Before the year 1792, Islington road, now commencing at the Creek and extending direct to the Plains, was not opened. The Plains road curved round near the head of the Creek, and along the present track of the Eastern railroad, (called Frenchman's lane,) it crossed the present road to White's road, and so passed from the pound to the Plains.

While the French fleet was here, they made the Creek, in the vicinity of where the stocking factory lately stood, a place of much resort. Here was a brook of fresh water, here were frogs in abundance, and here the washing for the fleet was generally done. Six or seven large boilers might have been seen by the side of the brook, with fires burning beneath them, and the laundry process going on in a style more extensive than Portsmouth has witnessed since. And here, too, after the washing was over, might be seen kettles of seven or eight buckets capacity, filled with soup, in which birds, fish, meat and frogs, with a good addition of flour loaves, made up an epicurean dish, which would require the nicety of a French taste duly to appreciate.

In connection with the eating was usully some drinking, and in the neighborhood, a few rods west of the residence of True M. Ball, was the Rackley house, of no better reputation than it ought to have had. It is supposed that from some quarrel at this house the murder was committed. It was in the month of October,* before daylight, a person in the neighborhood, in passing near the turn of the lane, saw something white, which he supposed to be a bag. On touching it with his foot he found it a dead man! Much terrified, he ran to the houses of some of the neighbors, and our informant, with his father, were the first on the spot. There lay, with his head on a flat stone, a young man between twenty-five and thirty years of age. He had on white pants and a Guernsey jacket, white with dark spots. His head was half severed at the neck, and there were marks of a blow by a stake on the cheek. He lay there as the pasture boys drove their cows by, and was then removed to the tan yard, where an inquest was held. The plank on which he was laid was kept in the tan house for many years. Although soaked for months in the brook, the marks of the blood were not washed out. And for half a century after the event, the boys as they fearfully stood on the flat rock near the turn in the lane, fancied, in a slight discoloration, that the blood remained there still. It was imagination; but it excited a horror for the event in many a young mind.

An investigation showed that two men called on a Frenchman, boarding at the north end, and invited him to walk with them. He was sitting in his shirt sleeves, while the landlady was mending his jacket. In haste to accompany them, he took the jacket as it was, with the needle still remaining in the half mended rent; and by the circumstance of finding the needle there he was afterwards readily identified. The party went over to Christian Shore, (which at that time had only six houses, occupied by R. Jackson, N. Jackson, N. Dennett, R. Shortridge, T. Ham and S. Walker), and passing through Sherburne's woods came to the head of the creek. A stake taken from a fence, was found near the spot, with which he was knocked down. The perpetrators were never arrested. The funeral was attended by about one hundred and fifty French officers and sailors, and he was buried in the North cemetery, directly inside of where the gate formerly opened. Here his devoted companions would gather from day to day, and make crosses over his remains.

Thousands of Frenchmen had just fallen in the battle which drove the fleet to our harbor--and tens of thousands have since passed as ignobly away in the campaigns of Napoleon--but neither we nor our fathers saw them, and of course their wholesale fall is esteemed of less consequence in the local account than the tragedy which has given the name to Frenchman's Lane, the first full record of which has been left to form the subject of our present ramble.

Frenchman's Lane is the spot which has had a second memento, for the lovers of home. Here were landed from the cars on the fourth of July, 1853, a thousand of the sons of Portsmouth. Here were they marshalled, welcomed, and like a triumphal procession from hence entered the streets where they once joyfully rambled, and on the scenes which were indelibly stamped on their minds in earlier days.

"And Frenchman's Lane has passed away,
No more on its sward do the shadows play;
The pear trees old from the scene have passed,
And the blood-marked stone aside is cast,
And the engine's whistle is heard to shriek,
In Frenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek.

But true to ourselves, we shall ever retain
A love for the green old Frenchman's Lane,
And its romance, its terror, its birds and bloom,
Its pears and its elderblow's perfume--
And a tear at times may moisten the cheek
For Fenchman's Lane, up by Islington Creek."

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Error Corrected

NOTE TO SECOND EDITION OF THE RAMBLES: It appears from an entry in a manuscript "Weather Register," kept at the time by Dr. Brackett, that the Frenchman (named John Dushan) was killed on the 23d of October, 1778, four years previous to the time of the visit of the French fleet. The entry is recorded in Ramble LXXVI. page 44, Second Series. We give the story, however, as written by the author.

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