An Old Town By The Sea by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
V. Old Strawberry Bank
These old houses have perhaps detained us too long. They are merely the crumbling shells of things dead and gone, of persons and manners and customs that have left no very distinct record of themselves, excepting here and there in some sallow manuscript which has luckily escaped the withering breath of fire, for the old town, as I have remarked, has managed, from the earliest moment of its existence, to burn itself up periodically. It is only through the scattered memoranda of ancient town clerks, and in the files of worm-eaten and forgotten newspapers, that we are enabled to get glimpses of that life which was once so real and positive and has now become a shadow. I am of course speaking of the early days of the settlement on Strawberry Bank. They were stormy and eventful days. The dense forest which surrounded the clearing was alive with hostile red-men. The sturdy pilgrim went to sleep with his firelock at his bedside, not knowing at what moment he might be awakened by the glare of his burning hayricks and the piercing war-whoops of the Womponoags. Year after year he saw his harvest reaped by a sickle of flames, as he peered through the loop-holes of the blockhouse, whither he had flown in hot haste with goodwife and little ones. The blockhouse at Strawberry Bank appears to have been on an extensive scale, with stockades for the shelter of cattle. It held large supplies of stores, and was amply furnished with arquebuses, sakers, and murtherers, a species of naval ordnance which probably did not belie its name. It also boasted, we are told, of two drums for training-days, and no fewer than fifteen hautboys and soft-voiced recorders--all which suggests a mediaeval castle, or a grim fortress in the time of Queen Elizabeth. To the younger members of the community glass or crockery ware was an unknown substance; to the elders it was a memory. An iron pot was the pot-of-all-work, and their table utensils were of beaten pewter. The diet was also of the simplest--pea-porridge and corn-cake, with a mug of ale or a flagon of Spanish wine, when they could get it.
John Mason, who never resided in this country, but delegated the management of his plantation at Ricataqua and Newichewannock to stewards, died before realizing any appreciable return from his enterprise. He spared no endeavor meanwhile to further its prosperity. In 1632, three years before his death, Mason sent over from Denmark a number of neat cattle, "of a large breed and yellow colour." The herd thrived, and it is said that some of the stock is still extant on farms in the vicinity of Portsmouth. Those old first families had a kind of staying quality!
In May, 1653, the inhabitants of the settlement petitioned the General Court at Boston to grant them a definite township--for the boundaries were doubtful--and the right to give it a proper name. "Whereas the name of this plantation att present being Strabery Banke, accidentlly soe called, by reason of a banke where strawberries was found in this place, now we humbly desire to have it called Portsmouth, being a name most suitable for this place, it being the river's mouth, and good as any in this land, and your petit'rs shall humbly pray," etc.
Throughout that formative period, and during the intermittent French wars, Portsmouth and the outlying districts were the scenes of bloody Indian massacres. No portion of the New England colony suffered more. Famine, fire, pestilence, and war, each in turn, and sometimes in conjunction, beleaguered the little stronghold, and threatened to wipe it out. But that was not to be.
The settlement flourished and increased in spite of all, and as soon as it had leisure to draw breath, it bethought itself of the school-house and the jail--two incontestable signs of budding civilization. At a town meeting in 1662, it was ordered "that a cage be made or some other meanes invented by the selectmen to punish such as sleepe or take tobacco on the Lord's day out of the meetinge in the time of publique service." This salutary measure was not, for some reason, carried into effect until nine years later, when Captain John Pickering, who seems to have had as many professions as Michelangelo, undertook to construct a cage twelve feet square and seven feet high, with a pillory on top; "the said Pickering to make a good strong dore and make a substantiale payre of stocks and places the same in said cage." A spot conveniently near the west end on the meeting-house was selected as the site for this ingenious device. It is more than probable that "the said Pickering" indirectly furnished an occasional bird for his cage, for in 1672 we find him and one Edward Westwere authorized by the selectmen to "keepe houses of publique entertainment." He was a versatile individual, this John Pickering--soldier, miller, moderator, carpenter, lawyer, and innkeeper. Michelangelo need not blush to be bracketed with him. In the course of a long and variegated career he never failed to act according to his lights, which he always kept well trimmed. That Captain Pickering subsequently became the grandfather, at several removes, of the present writer was no fault of the Captain's, and should not be laid up against him.
Down to 1696, the education of the young appears to have been a rather desultory and tentative matter; "the young idea" seems to have been allowed to "shoot" at whatever it wanted to; but in that year it was voted "that care be taken that an abell scollmaster [skullmaster!] be provided for the towen as the law directs, not visious in conversation." That was perhaps demanding too much; for it was not until "May ye7" of the following year that the selectmen were fortunate enough to put their finger on this rara avis in the person of Mr. Tho. Phippes, who agreed "to be scollmaster for the the towen this yr insewing for teaching the inhabitants children in such manner as other schollmasters yously doe throughout the countrie: for his soe doinge we the sellectt men in behalfe of ower towen doe ingage to pay him by way of rate twenty pounds and yt he shall and may reserve from every father or master that sends theyer children to school this yeare after ye rate of 16s. for readers, writers and cypherers 20s., Lattiners 24s."
Modern advocates of phonetic spelling need not plume themselves on their originality. The town clerk who wrote that delicious "yously doe" settles the question. It is to be hoped that Mr. Tho. Phippes was not only "not visious in conversation," but was more conventional in his orthography. He evidently gave satisfaction, and clearly exerted an influence on the town clerk, Mr. Samuel Keais, who ever after shows a marked improvement in his own methods. In 1704 the town empowered the selectmen "to call and settell a gramer scoll according to ye best of yower judgement and for ye advantag [Keais is obviously dead now] of ye youth of ower town to learn them to read from ye primer, to wright and sypher and to learne ym the tongues and good-manners." On this occasion it was Mr. William Allen, of Salisbury, who engaged "dilligently to attend ye school for ye present yeare, and tech all childern yt can read in thaire psallters and upward." From such humble beginnings were evolved some of the best public high schools at present in New England.
Portsmouth did not escape the witchcraft delusion, though I believe that no hangings took place within the boundaries of the township. Dwellers by the sea are generally superstitious; sailors always are. There is something in the illimitable expanse of sky and water that dilates the imagination. The folk who live along the coast live on the edge of a perpetual mystery; only a strip of yellow sand or gray rock separates them from the unknown; they hear strange voices in the winds at midnight, they are haunted by the spectres of the mirage. Their minds quickly take the impress of uncanny things. The witches therefore found a sympathetic atmosphere in Newscastle, at the mouth of the Piscataqua--that slender paw of land which reaches out into the ocean and terminates in a spread of sharp, flat rocks, lie the claws of an amorous cat. What happened to the good folk of that picturesque little fishing-hamlet is worth retelling in brief. In order properly to retell it, a contemporary witness shall be called upon to testify in the case of the Stone-Throwing Devils of Newcastle. It is the Rev. Cotton Mather who addresses you-- "On June 11, 1682, showers of stones were thrown by an invisible hand upon the house of George Walton at Portsmouth [Newcastle was then a part of the town]. Whereupon the people going out found the gate wrung off the hinges, and stones flying and falling thick about them, and striking of them seemingly with a great force, but really affecting 'em no more than if a soft touch were given them. The glass windows were broken by the stones that came not from without, but from within; and other instruments were in a like manner hurled about. Nine of the stones they took up, whereof some were as hot as if they came out of the fire; and marking them they laid them on the table; but in a little while they found some of them again flying about. The spit was carried up the chimney, and coming down with the point forward, stuck in the back log, from whence one of the company removing it, it was by an invisible hand thrown out at the window. This disturbance continued from day to day; and sometimes a dismal hollow whistling would be heard, and sometimes the trotting and snorting of a horse, but nothing to be seen. The man went up the Great Bay in a boat on to a farm which he had there; but the stones found him out, and carrying from the house to the boat a stirrup iron the iron came jingling after him through the woods as far as his house; and at last went away and was heard no more. The anchor leaped overboard several times and stopt the boat. A cheese was taken out of the press, and crumbled all over the floor; a piece of iron stuck into the wall, and a kettle hung thereon. Several cocks of hay, mow'd near the house, were taken up and hung upon the trees, and others made into small whisps, and scattered about the house. A man was much hurt by some of the stones. He was a Quaker, and suspected that a woman, who charged him with injustice in detaining some land from here, did, by witchcraft, occasion these preternatural occurrences. However, at last they came to an end."
Now I have done with thee, O credulous and sour Cotton Mather! so get thee back again to thy tomb in the old burying-ground on Copp's Hill, where, unless thy nature is radically changed, thou makest it uncomfortable for those about thee.
Nearly a hundred years afterwards, Portsmouth had another witch--a tangible witch in this instance--one Molly Bridget, who cast her malign spell on the eleemosynary pigs at the Almshouse, where she chanced to reside at the moment. The pigs were manifestly bewitched, and Mr. Clement March, the superintendent of the institution, saw only one remedy at hand, and that was to cut off and burn the tips of their tales. But when the tips were cut off they disappeared, and it was in consequence quite impracticable to burn them. Mr. March, who was a gentleman of expedients, ordered that all the chips and underbrush in the yard should be made into heaps and consumed, hoping thus to catch and do away with the mysterious and provoking extremities. The fires were no sooner lighted than Molly Bridget rushed from room to room in a state of frenzy. With the dying flames her own vitality subsided, and she was dead before the ash-piles were cool. I say it seriously when I say that these are facts of which there is authentic proof.
If the woman had recovered, she would have fared badly, even at that late period, had she been in Salem; but the death-penalty has never been hastily inflicted in Portsmouth. The first execution that ever took place there was that of Sarah Simpson and Penelope Kenny, for the murder of an infant in 1739. The sheriff was Thomas Packer, the same official who, twenty-nine years later, won unenviable notoriety at the hanging of Ruth Blay. The circumstances are set forth by the late Albert Laighton in a spirited ballad, which is too long to quote in full. The following stanzas, however, give the pith of the story--
But of course he arrived too late--the Law led Mercy about twenty minutes. The crowd dispersed, horror-stricken; but it assembled again that night before the sheriff's domicile and expressed its indignation in groans. His effigy, hanged on a miniature gallows, was afterwards paraded through the streets.
Laighton's ballad reminds me of that Portsmouth has been prolific in poets, one of whom, at least, has left a mouthful of perennial rhyme for orators--Jonathan Sewell with his
I have somewhere seen a volume with the alliterative title of "Poets of Portsmouth," in which are embalmed no fewer than sixty immortals!
But to drop into prose again, and have done with this iliad of odds and ends. Portsmouth has the honor, I believe, of establishing the first recorded pauper workhouse--though not in connection with her poets, as might naturally be supposed. The building was completed and tenanted in 1716. Seven years later, an act was passed in England authorizing the establishment of parish workhouses there. The first and only keeper of the Portsmouth almshouse up to 1750 was a woman--Rebecca Austin.
Speaking of first things, we are told by Mr. Nathaniel Adams, in his "Annals of Portsmouth," that on the 20th of April, 1761, Mr. John Stavers began running a stage from that town to Boston. The carriage was a two-horse curricle, wide enough to accommodate three passengers. The fare was thirteen shillings and sixpence sterling per head. The curricle was presently superseded by a series of fat yellow coaches, one of which--nearly a century later, and long after that pleasant mode of travel had fallen obsolete--was the cause of much mental tribulation (1. Some idle reader here and there may possibly recall the burning of the old stage-coach in The Story of a Bad Boy.) to the writer of this chronicle.
The mail and the newspaper are closely associated factors in civilization, so I mention them together, though in this case the newspaper antedated the mail-coach about five years. On October 7, 1756, the first number of "The New Hampshire Gazette and Historical Chronicle" was issued in Portsmouth from the press of Daniel Fowle, who in the previous July had removed from Boston, where he had undergone a brief but uncongenial imprisonment on suspicion of having printed a pamphlet entitled "The Monster of Monsters, by Tom Thumb, Esq.," an essay that contained some uncomplimentary reflections on several official personages.The "Gazette" was the pioneer journal of the province. It was followed at the close of the same year by "The Mercury and Weekly Advertiser," published by a former apprentice of Fowle, a certain Thomas Furber, backed by a number of restless Whigs, who considered the "Gazette" not sufficiently outspoken in the cause of liberty. Mr. Fowle, however, contrived to hold his own until the day of his death. Fowle had for pressman a faithful negro named Primus, a full-blooded African. Whether Primus was a freeman or a slave I am unable to state. He lived to a great age, and was a prominent figure among the people of his own color.
Negro slavery was common in New England at that period. In 1767, Portsmouth numbered in its population a hundred and eighty-eight slaves, male and female. Their bondage, happily, was nearly always of a light sort, if any bondage can be light. They were allowed to have a kind of government of their own; indeed, were encouraged to do so, and no unreasonable restrictions were placed on their social enjoyment. They annually elected a king and counselors, and celebrated the event with a procession. The aristocratic feeling was highly developed in them. The rank of the master was the slave's rank. There was a great deal of ebony standing around on its dignity in those days. For example, Governor Langdon's manservant, Cyrus Bruce, was a person who insisted on his distinction, and it was recognized. His massive gold chain and seals, his cherry-colored small-clothes and silk stockings, his ruffles and silver shoe-buckles, were a tradition long after Cyrus himself was pulverized.
In cases of minor misdemeanor among them, the negros themselves were permitted to be judge and jury. Their administration of justice was often characteristically naive. Mr. Brewster gives an amusing sketch of one of their sessions. King Nero is on the bench, and one Cato--we are nothing if not classical--is the prosecuting attorney. The name of the prisoner and the nature of his offense are not disclosed to posterity. In the midst of the proceedings the hour of noon is clanged from the neighboring belfry of the Old North Church. "The evidence was not gone through with, but the servants could stay no longer from their home duties. They all wanted to see the whipping, but could not conveniently be present again after dinner. Cato ventured to address the King: Please you Honor, best let the fellow have his whipping now, and finish the trial after dinner. The request seemed to be the general wish of the company: so Nero ordered ten lashes, for justice so far as the trial went, and ten more at the close of the trial, should he be found guilty!"
Slavery in New Hampshire was never legally abolished, unless Abraham Lincoln did it. The State itself has not ever pronounced any emancipation edict. During the Revolutionary War the slaves were generally emancipated by their masters. That many of the negros, who had grown gray in service, refused their freedom, and elected to spend the rest of their lives as pensioners in the families of their late owners, is a circumstance that illustrates the kindly ties which held between slave and master in the old colonial days in New England.
The institution was accidental and superficial, and never had any real root in the Granite State. If the Puritans could have found in the Scriptures any direct sanction of slavery, perhaps it would have continued awhile longer, for the Puritan carried his religion into the business affairs of life; he was not even able to keep it out of his bills of lading. I cannot close this rambling chapter more appropriately and solemnly than by quoting from one of those same pious bills of landing. It is dated June, 1726, and reads: "Shipped by the grace of God in good order and well conditioned, by Wm. Pepperills on there own acct. and risque, in and upon the good Briga called the William, whereof is master under God for this present voyage George King, now riding at anchor in the river Piscataqua and by God's grace bound to Barbadoes." Here follows a catalogue of the miscellaneous cargo, rounded off with: "And so God send the good Briga to her desired port in safety. Amen."