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menu Visitors crossed up and down New Hampshire's tiny coastline for centuries, perhaps for millennia, before the first foreign settlers arrived, but who, where and when? Stone markings in Hampton might be ancient Viking runes carved before Columbus stumbled upon the New World. Soon after Columbus, traffic along our shores increased steadily. Years before the Mayflower arrived in nearby Massachusetts, there were as many as 200 ships making the transatlantic trek each year. They came from Spain, France, Portugal, Denmark and from England. They were, for the most part, fishermen drawn to the incredibly fertile waters here, or trappers and loggers in search of America's vast untapped resources. But they made no permanent settlements, or if they did, left little evidence of their passage. Like Native Americans, early Seacoast visitors had a gentler touch, taking only what met their needs or filled their ships, then moving on.

These visitors came to the Piscataqua River region, not for religious freedom, but for adventure and for wealth. Only the promise of significant profit could spark such expensive transatlantic journeys. These "outer space" missions from Scandinavia and Europe required all the planning of a modern day NASA flight. Crewman took great risks. Investors expected results. Martin Pring was looking for valuable sassafras when he took a side trip perhaps a dozen miles up the Piscataqua River in late spring of 1603. Pring was only 23, sent from Bristol, England to map the territory and establish trade with the natives. The deep waters of the "Pascataway" especially intrigued him. By coming ashore somewhere in Great Bay, Pring and his crew became the first documented white men to stand on New Hampshire soil. Was it the modern town of Stratham, Greenland, Dover, Newington? We can only guess.

Of course, it was not yet New England. The entire Eastern seaboard was then still called "Virginia." In 1607 the Jamestown colony was settled, while plans for Plymouth Plantation were still on the drawing board. The name "New" England first appeared on an official map drawn by the already famous soldier John Smith, a one-man promotional campaign who searched in vain for a legendary Native American city of gold. Instead he discovered the Isles of Shoals which he liked enough to name "Smythe Isles" after himself. This was years after he had met pre-teen Indian Princess Pocahantas, an encounter far less harrowing or romantic than legend or Disney has reported. For his service to the crown, Smith was given title to these nine rocky little islands that now divide New Hampshire from Maine. Despite four attempts to return to found his own colony here, John Smith apparently never set foot on our Seacoast.

So which European, after 10,000 years of native American occupation, first settled here? The largely unsung founder of New Hampshire is David Thompson (spelled "Thomson" by some accounts). Indeed, Thompson's life story sheds surprising light on the true genesis of our country. He is a reminder that early exploration had more to do with entrepreneurs and economics than with the search for heaven on Earth. His tale, though rarely told, is about a man with an idea who was not afraid to dream and not afraid to work hard.

Thompson's father worked for Sir Fernando Gorges of Plymouth, a most powerful English noble who had received the rights from King James I to set up the first two American "plantations" at Jamestown and Plymouth. According to one account, as a teenager in Gorges household, David Thompson was assigned to work with four Abnaki Indian leaders who had been kidnapped from the Cape Cod area during an earlier British fact-finding exploration. The fifth captured Indian was a servant named Sassacomoit, better known as Squanto, who later became the "savage savior" of the Pilgrims. Throughout his life, a bond seems to have formed between Thompson and the Native Americans with whom he traded and from whom he learned how to survive In the New World.

Apprenticed as a seaman and trained as an apothecary, Thompson made frequent trips to America. On his first journey in 1607, it appears that Squanto was aboard ship. On another voyage in 1616, Thompson and others built a fortified house in nearby Biddeford Pool, Maine in order to prove to Gorges that it was possible to survive the harsh New England winter. On arrival, the ship was attacked by Indians until Thompson interceded. His favorable reputation with the natives may have allowed the Europeans to make peace.

Ironically, Thompson was back in Plymouth, England in 1620 when a strange sect of radically conservative Puritans arrived with the Mayflower en route to America. History buffs speculate that Pilgrim leaders Miles Standish, William Bradford and others might have asked the well-traveled Thompson for navigation tips. Thompson had visited the Massachusetts area, but never traveled as far south as Virginia, where the Pilgrims were headed. Through storm, fate or human error, the Puritans missed their destination, landing at Plymouth, Massachusetts, possibly the same site Thompson and earlier explorers had visited.

At this very time Gorges received word of a third charter to colonize America. Gorges entrusted Thompson to set up a plantation at his favored spot on the mouth of the Piscataqua River now called Odiorne's Point, near Portsmouth. Thompson's brilliant plan was to double the annual fishing haul from the region by building a year round trading fort in New Hampshire. With a fishing crew set up at the Isles of Shoals, Thompson built his house on the 6,000 acre Pannaway site in what is now Rye. Joined by his wife Amais and son John, on April 16, 1623 the Thompsons and their band of fishermen became the first New Hampshire citizens of European origin. Though Thompson moved quickly on, the fishing operation survived and grew. By the 1630s, more colonists had arrived in Portsmouth and built a second settlement at a site they called Strawbery Banke.

375 years later, a simmering rivalry still exists between Portsmouth and the nearby town of Dover that claims fishing merchants Edward and William Hilton deserve an equal claim to fame. Their settlement, also dated 1623, was further down the Piscataqua at Dover Point where Pring explored 20 years before. While the Thompsons may have been the first to settle, but the Hilton family stayed and their name is an important one throughout local history.

Meanwhile, David Thompson's long-standing friendship with the Seacoast natives allowed him to successfully set up his fur and fish trade. He may have even heard their tales of Puritans harassing Plymouth natives and digging up sacred burial grounds. Still, when Miles Standish appeared at Pannaway pleading for assistance to feed the starving Pilgrim colonists, NH's "first Yankee" contributed enough salted cod to keep the Pilgrims alive in 1623. Thompson's visit was the source of the second day of thanksgiving at Plymouth.

Within three years the Thompsons moved from the hubbub of the fishing outpost in New Hampshire to the quiet of an island in an unpopulated region called Boston. Today, Thompson's Island remains one of the last undeveloped spots in that city. Although Amais Thompson remains in the records for another 40 years, the heroic David Thompson suddenly and mysteriously disappears in 1626. What happened to one of the nation's least understood founders? Did he drown in Boston harbor as some suspect? Was he a victim of foul play? The file on David Thompson is still open.

By J. Dennis Robinson
©1997 SeacoastNH.com. ALL Rights Reserved

Drawn from numerous sources including: "Land of Lost Content" by Robert Whittaker, Alan Sutton Publishing.

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