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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.

Each brother could carry ten bags of grain at once

For more on the Pickering Family click here

The Pickering Family -- Incidents of John's Life -- Captain, lawyer, moderator, carpenter -- Prowess of Thomas -- The first South-end Meeting-house.

IN our last Ramble it was stated that the two sons of John Pickering Senior, were John (2d) and Thomas. John was the inheritor of "Pickering's Neck" and the mill dam--Thomas, of the farm at Great Bay.

John Pickering (2d), the inheritor of "Pickering's Neck," is first noticed as a military man, for which his talents and character seem eminently to have qualified him. He had command of a company in Portsmouth for a number of years. In 1680, the colony of New Hampshire, which for almost forty years had been united with Massachusetts, was erected by the king, into a separate government, whereof John Cutt was appointed the first president. In the first assembly called by the president, Capt. John Pickering was a representative for the town of Portsmouth. He was also a member of the assembly called by Lieutenant Governor Cranfield, in 1684, which he (Cranfield) dissolved in great wrath, for vetoing a bill to raise money, previously passed by the council. It is mentioned by Dr. Belknap, and some others, that during the suspension of government consequent on the imprisonment of Sir Edmund Andros.

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In 1689, Capt. John Pickering, a man of "a rough and adventurous spirit, and a lawyer," went with a company of armed men to the house of Richard Chamberlain who had been secretary of the province under Andros, and clerk of the superior court, and demanded the records and files, which were in his possession. Chamberlain refused to deliver them without legal warrant or security. Pickering took them by force and carried them to the house of Major Joseph Hammond, in Kittery, where they were concealed.

Afterwards, in 1692, Pickering was summoned before Lieutenant Governor Usher, threatened and imprisoned, but for some time would neither deliver the books nor discover the place of their concealment, unless by order of the Assembly, and to some person appointed by them to receive them. At length, however, he was constrained to deliver them up, and they were handed over to the secretary by Usher's orders.

Capt. Pickering was a member of the Assembly most of the time from 1697 to 1709. In 1697, 1698 and 1699, he was elected speaker, and had the good fortune to be a favorite of Governor Allen in one of those years. He was again chosen speaker under the administration of Dudley in 1704, and continued to be annually elected to that office until 1709. In 1707, the great cause, Allen vs. Waldron, involving Allen's title to the Province of New-Hampshire, was tried on appeal, at the August term of the Superior Court. As this was the last trial, all the strength of the parties was brought into action on this occasion. It affords unequivocal evidence of the legal and popular talents of Capt. Pickering, and of the confidedence reposed in him by tbe defendants of this cause, which embraced some of the first men in the Province, that he was selected as one of the counsel to defend the homes, the houses and lands of the inhabitants, from the rapacity of the plaintiff and those who were especially interested in his behalf. Charles Story was associated with him as counsel. The verdict of the jury was a confirmation of the former judgment for the defendant.

In March, 1671, soon after his father's death, an agreement was made between Capt. John Pickering and the town, "That the town shall have full liberty, without any molestation, to inclose about half an acre on the neck of land on which he now liveth, where the people have been wont to be buried, which land shall be impropriated forever unto the use of a burying place--only the said Pickering and his heirs forever shall have liberty of feeding the said with neat cattle." "Provided also that the town or any of them, as there is occasion, shall have liberty to pass over the land of said Pickering to bury their dead." This was at the Point-of-Graves.

In 1673, John Pickering gave to the town a highway two rods wide through his land to the dam. This was the opening of Pleasant street.

The rememberance of John Pickering (2nd), who gave the Point-of-Graves Cemetery for a public burying place; and who bequeathed to the South Parish the lot on which, ten years after his death, the old South Church was erected, should be kept fresh in our local history.

Capt. Pickering was the leading man in all matters, both of Church and State. If any doubtful question came up, the voice of the populace was--"What does the captain of the Port say?" He was a standing moderator, and could sway the people as well as any political leaders of the town meetings held in after days.

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It could be well said of the early settlers of Portsmouth, that "there were giants in those days." Not long after Thomas Pickering had built his log hut on the Bay, and had commenced clearing the land, an English man-of-war came into the harbor of the Piscataqua. A press gang was sent on shore to obtain recruits for the service. Two of these minions went into the outskirts, as the best place to secure persons who might be found alone, and met Thomas Pickering, on his premises, felling trees. They stopped and conversed with him awhile, complimenting his muscular appearance, and after saying he was just such a man as his majesty needed, with official importance commanded him to leave his work and follow them. Thomas declined, saying he had a young family, and was needed at home. "No excuse, sir--march!" were words which the lord of the forest could not brook,--so, seizing one of the officials by the back of his neck with his left hand, he placed his face in the ground, and with the right raised his axe in the attitude of chopping off the fellow's head. His terrified companion seized his arm and begged for mercy. Thomas permitted the arrogant fellow to arise, and the way they hasted from the scene was evidence that they felt they had escaped as from a lion's power.

Capt. John was a man of might, and was not willing that Thomas should excel him. One day a test of strength was made on a wager. It was made by carrying bags of corn up the steps into the mill. Capt. John had the bags piled up, until ten bushels were upon his back. This he thought sufficient, and with them walked into the mill. Thomas bore eleven and a half bushels, and with a firm step went over the same track. Such is the tradition.

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As early as the year 1662, it was in general town meeting "Ordered, that a cage be made, or some other means invented by the Selectmen, to punish such as sleepe or take tobacco on the Lord's day out of the meeting in the time of the publique exercise."

The press of other matters delayed the carrying out of this order for nine years. In 1671, the Selectmen made a contract with Capt. John Pickering (who appears to be a carpenter as well as miller, lawyer and commander of a company), to build a cage twelve feet square and seven feet high. The studs to be six inches broad, four inches thick, and the openings between them to be three inches. "The studs are to be round the said cage, and at the bottom and overhead. The said Pickering to make a good strong dore, and make a substantial payre of stocks and place the same in said cage--and also build on the rough of said cage a firm pillory. All which cage, stock and pillory to be built and raised some convenient space from the westward end of the meeting-house by the last day of October next ensuing." The bargain also included a ladder.

In 1672, we find Capt. John Pickering and Edward West were authorized by a vote of the Selectmen to "keep houses of publique entertainment."

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The 4th of July, 1676, a general town meeting was held for the choice of a constable. We will return from the meeting house with Capt. Pickering, and converse with him at his mill door. He first directs our attention to the two-story meeting house of Rev. Mr. Moody, a few rods south of the mill, directly on the spot where the residence of E. Fitzgerald now stands. His father had aided in its erection eighteen years before. The road then branched off as it now does, leaving the meeting house near the corner. It is of two stories and has a low belfry. The bell, which has been hanging here for a dozen years, has been merrily ringing this 4th of July, but being just a century before the declaration of Independence, it told not of any such event. There was a cheering sound in that lone bell, perhaps at that time the only one in New-Hampshire. It had brought together men to exercise the freeman's right of suffrage, and therefore had an ennobling sound. The Captain had met many of the members of his company in the meeting, and the salutations of "Captain" had a far from depressing influence. The small diamond glass windows and the front door, on which were marks where the wolves' heads had been nailed to secure the captor's bounty, are all distinct objects in our eyes.

The house was without pews, nor had it any until fifteen years after. A little to the west of the meeting-house the Captain points to the open cage he made for the town, and tells of this one who had been put in for smoking tobacco on Sunday--and of that, whom the Tythingmen had set there in the stocks for drinking--and of Goodman Such-a-one, who was placed in the pillory on top for disturbing the meeting. And a little further west, he points to the school house (the remains of which were in use a century and a half afterwards), where the boys were enjoying the advantages of learning to read and write--if their parents saw fit to pay for their instruction--a privilege which his father had told him was not everywhere enjoyed in his day. He points to his snug farm house north from the mill, the only house in sight in that direction--and speaks of the grave-yard beyond where his father rests. He tells of the settlement on the other side of the dock--of the great house of Cutt, and of the lesser houses in the neighborhood--and of the Glebe land, to which he had given a road through his land from the mill, but as it was not much needed, he had delayed fencing, and he yet kept up a gate near the rocks at the north end of the Neck. He thinks the time may come when the town will be larger, and at some distant day even allow of a meeting-house on his land--and he points to a good location, on a rise of land in his forest a few rods north as the place, should the growth of the town extend on the north side of the dam. He now looks down upon his bridge, on which we stand, six feet wide, capable of bearing a foot passenger or a horse, but not a wheel- carriage. It was a work of art as important then, in his estimation, as an Atlantic cable would now be to the world.

And for what use, Captain, is that small shed building near the meeting-house? Oh, that was built by Nat Fryer, a Boston merchant, who some years ago lived further up the river. He built this house for his family to stop in to warm themselves and take a dinner when they came down to meeting. That Boston is becoming a great place--it will soon have several thousand inhabitants, if Philip's pesky Indians don't destroy it with the other towns. Hope they won't burn the college, which our town is paying L60 every year to sustain. With a hearty shake of the hand, the Captain leaves us for the mill and we--go on in our ramble.

Capt. John Pickering was truly democratic in one sense of the word, and it was by looking upon an equality of rights among his fellow-men that he attained his popularity; more particularly on an occasion which was manifest to the whole town. It was in 1671, after Mr. Moody had been preaching here twenty- three years without being settled or collecting a church around him, that movements were made for his ordination. It was a great occasion for so small a meeting-house--and as Cabot and Wheelwright and others from abroad were expected to be present, it was necessary that some powerful man should be marshal for the day, to keep the people in such positions that the dignitaries of the occasion might enjoy the best locations. Capt. Pickering was therefore chosen as the best man to provide seats for the people. Regarding one man as good as another, he let every one who entered take whatever position he chose--making no reservation for the pastor's guests. For so doing he was summoned before the ecclesiastical body, and censured for neglect of duty. His only apology was, that regarding one man as good as another, he could make no such invidious distinctions as preferred seats would give. Though censured for his course, he became popular by the incident, and a standing moderator at public meetings for many years after.

He was a man for the times in which he lived. For fifty years he appears to have been a very active public man--sometimes controlling town matters in a spirit of obstinacy, and at others seeking to serve the public for the promotion of their good. Like many other men, Capt. John Pickering liked to have his own way--unlike many others, he generally enjoyed the power.

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