For sixty years Piscataqua commerce ebbed and flowed, out and in with the strong current of commercial activity. And despite being interrupted from time to time by piracy and British Navigation Acts, the New Hampshire shipbuilders, owners and captains of the area were conducting a thriving business. In 1769 the Piscataqua River district (which included the river towns along Great Bay) produced as many as one third as many vessels (45) as in all of Massachusetts (137). (1)
It’s hard to imagine that a shipyard that flourished here about 300 years ago left little trace other than a handful of rusty nails in old, rotted sawdust piles on the shores of the Lamprey. But long before the Revolutionary War it was the most important industry at both Lamprey River Village and the New Fields settlement along the Squamscot River (at that time part of New Market). Not only was there a large amount of ship timber cut and sold here, but ship building was carried on extensively, some of the vessels being of 500 tons burden, which was considered very large in those days.
The 1800 Lamprey River Village map segment shows not only the SHIP BUILDING YARD (part of the TOWN LANDING), but also wharfs, shops and barns owned by known shipbuilders, and there is evidence that the other side of the “creek”(AKA Moonlight Brook) was used for shipbuilding as well.
Nellie Palmer George, in her book Old Newmarket (c.1932) wrote about shipbuilding: “At one time seven vessels were on the stocks at Lamprey River and the work was so urgent that shipwrights were exempted from military training. The launching of a ship was of great importance to every person in town. Refreshments were furnished for all, and the day was given over to games and sociability.”
Other evidence of Newmarket’s shipbuilding days (with approximate location shown on the map segment) includes:
All are vivid reminders that shipbuilding was once an important town industry. Mrs. George concluded that the area (around Sites 26 and 27) on today’s Main Street, around today’s Big Bean Café/Oak House restaurants, looking east toward the main entrance to Rivermoor Landing displayed:
… good evidence that at this particular place on Main Street there was at one time an active shipyard. The land sloped gradually to the river and the “ways,” well-greased, would gracefully urge the craft to its initial splash; and in those days the bottle broken at the prow never contained spring water. (2)
The 1912 discovery of oak chips and ship timber prompted Mrs. George to travel to Concord, where the few early town records are kept. She described her findings:
…a town warrant dated “Newmarket, September 25, 1752” which contained this statement: “The landing-place at Lamprey River is much incumbered with shipyards so the public have not the benefit of said landing place.” Fourteen years later a petition was made to have the landing place surveyed and properly laid out to prevent encroachment by private shipyards. In this petition it is stated: “The landing place has been in use over one hundred years and no legal return or record can be found of said landing place ever being laid out.”
This 1766 petition helps us to date colonial use of the Lamprey River landing to sometime before 1666. So shipbuilding had taken hold and grown along this Lamprey River shoreline during the mid-1600s to the point that—by 1752—the Lamprey Village found itself without a public “landing place.”
So after 14 years (in 1766) there was another Warrant Article stating: “To see if the town will pass a vote that the selectmen and lot layers shall perambulate or lay out said landing place according as it has been formally used and improved, and make a return thereof that it may be recorded upon said town records so as to prevent private encroachments by erecting wharves to obstruct public use, the town to prosecute and remove all encroachments on said landing.”
By the mid-1600’s trade with the West Indies was very profitable. Deal boards (fir or pine boards), masts, pipe-staves and shooks (pieces of disassembled barrels) were exported — and sperm oil, cooking oils, molasses and rum returned directly to town wharfs. There was also a valuable coastline trade as far south as Virginia. Pork, beef and pelts were the principal shipments, and rice, sugar and tobacco the returns. (3)
As early as 1665 fish from the Great Bay Estuary were an important article of commerce and were exported to France and Spain. In July 1708 the British Calendar of State papers wrote of the Council of Trade and Plantations:
“the Great Bay was furnished with plenty of fish, such as cod and haddock,…bass, shad, mackerel, herring, blew-fish, alewives, pollock, ffrost-fish, perch, fflounders, sturgeons, lumps, ells, hollow-boats, seales, salmon, and many other, and all sorts of shell-fish such as lobsters, crabs, cockles, clams, mussels, oysters, etc.”
At the end of Queen Ann’s War in 1713 there was more demand for New Hampshire lumber and fish to be exported to the West Indies. Smaller brigs would travel to the southern American ports where northern goods were traded for the West Indies produce: rum, corn, rice, flour and tar from the South.
In a letter dated December 1717 and filed in the MacPaedris Letterbook (currently keptat the Warner House), he wrote to merchant friends that he had sent ships to his home country of Ireland landing in Dublin, Cork, Belfast, and Waterford to bring back servants and good farmers to settle in his new plantations about 40 miles from Portsmouth. For every good farmer he proposed to sell 100 acres of land “forever” at 12 pence per acre. He boasted of the fishing and lumbering opportunities which are calling for new settlers. He also lauded the “great ironworks upon ye river, but wants men that understand ye making of Iron which might be brought to grait fashion.”In 1717 the wealthy Scots-Irish merchant Archibald MacPaedris sent the good sloop Mayflower from the Piscataqua basin to Boston loaded with wine, earthenware and iron—the latter from his iron works on the Lamprey River above Newmarket. He complained of the shallow and low rivers of the tributaries leading into the bay, so he left the Newmarket woods and moved to Portsmouth where he married Sarah Wentworth, daughter of Lt. John Wentworth and built the now historic Warner House (named after his married daughter).
To what extent shipbuilding was carried on at Lamprey Village in New Market before the Revolution is impossible to tell, as no complete records now exist; but it was an important industry in river ports both at Lamprey Village, and at the Squamscot River (in Colonial times part of New Market, but today is now Newfields).
Once outside Portsmouth harbor though, there were risks. In 1704, Newmarket fisherman and seaman James Bryent (father to Newmarket land surveyor Walter Bryent) was on board a ship under Capt. Richard Waterhouse. They were sailing for Europe when the ship was taken by a Spanish privateer. James was captured and imprisoned as part of a pledge for the ship’s ransom. He spent two years in jail in Bilbao, Spain—an example of how local folk could be impacted by European conflict. This time it was a double whammy: in Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), France and Britain were fighting to gain the upper hand here in the colonies; at the same time, they were doing battle back home in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).
“During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) James Hill of Newmarket, Elias Crickett of Durham, and Nicholas Gilman of Exeter were some of the shipbuilders, shipwrights, masters, and sailors who launched vessels and dodged French privateers bringing back to New Hampshire ports cargos of molasses, sugar, wine, dry goods, and foodstuffs.” (4)
James Hill kept his diary in a leather-bound notebook which is today kept at the Wellesley College Library (in Wellesely, MA). The James Hill Note Book details his part in the Crown Point Expedition of 1755. He built boats for travel up the Hudson River and for use on Lake George. He wrote of his work on the ship-of-war Achilles, and his trip to Jamaica and England.
[Craig Stinson, a descendant of General Hill, photographed and transcribed the notebook and personal diary of the General. In 2021 he shared his work and the provenance of the logbook with the New Market Historical Society. A copy is attached to this link. ]
In June 1761 the General married and moved his wife to New Market; five months later he launched the “Breag for Whipple” (believed to be William Whipple of Portsmouth). His notes give instructions on how to build a “25 fout boute,” as well as rules for finding a ship’s position at sea. Hill was a prominent landowner, lumberman, and shipbuilder in town.
In March 1766, the Thomas Walpole was damaged in a violent snowstorm when she was driven into the ledges in Gunnerson’s Island in Portsmouth Harbor. William Barrell, a Portsmouth merchant and the brig’s primary owner, had the ship stripped of her masts and rigging the next day and got her back to the wharf by the end of the month.
In Barrell’s diary he states they got new timbers and planks from New Market and Dover, caulked her in early May, launched her in June laden with oak planks and later sailed to London with a good breeze and good prospects.
He then relates the decision to rig the brig completely for eight pounds in New Market in November, where he writes she launched and “struck on the opposite side and by neglect filled with water at the ballast ports,” Two days later he went to New Market and found her full of water. He “Got her on the middle ground, skuttled her, and at 2 o’clock in the morning he got her back by the town wharfe”. Barrell got back home in Portsmouth the same evening with a bad cold. It wasn’t until a week later that the brig finally got back to Portsmouth but with a damaged rudder and started a leak when it struck Langstaff Rocks returning. But by mid-December all was repaired, the brig was loaded with a large cargo of lumber and was soon back out on the open seas.
The brig Rokeby, an early Continental Navy vessel, was built at New Market. It was launched and taken down the Bay to Portsmouth where it was outfitted and placed under the command of Captain John Parrot.
General James Hill got out the timber (oak) at the “New Fields” for the building of the warship “America”. He partnered with Mr. Shute and under the name Hill & Shute they built the first US Navy warship —the largest and heaviest war ship (74 guns) yet to be built in our country, and it launched from the Squamscott River. Its final outfitting at Portsmouth was supervised by John Paul Jones.
The oaks and mast pine harvested at Newfields, along the Mastway in Lee, in Nottingham and in our own Ash Swamp Road woods supplied an immense amount of timber which was hauled to the landing and shipped to Portsmouth. But now, instead of then being sent on to London, they were held for the Continental’s fledgling Navy.
The Continental Congress and local committees vigilantly oversaw any possible sea trade, especially cautious of sailing vessels likely to be captured by the British. However, they were realistic in acknowledging that some risks must be taken, as some valuable supplies were drastically needed. On October 26, 1775, the Congress resolved that the Provisional Assemblies should encourage the export of “as much provision or any other produce except horned cattle, sheep, hogs and poultry, as they deem necessary, for the importation of arms, ammunition sulphur and salt petre.” (5)
It was under this provision that New Market’s John Colcord was given special permission to take his schooner to Passamaquoddy with two four-year-old steers, two heifers and eighty sheep. This was the same John Colcord who enlisted as a private and built the fire rafts in Portsmouth Harbor. He rose in rank during the Revolution through several re-enlistments to the final rank of Captain.
As the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, another shipbuilding and sailing need/opportunity arose: privateering—maritime warfare carried out by armed private ships licensed to attack enemy shipping.
Nellie Palmer George relates the following story of Captain Parker (1735-1819) and the Privateer the General Sullivan:
“Newmarket shares with Lee in the fame of the privateer, General Sullivan, and its enterprising commander, Captain Robert Parker. He was born at Portsmouth on Aug 15, 1735. When he was 14 years of age he was apprenticed to Mark Newmarch, a ship builder of Portsmouth…. When this apprenticeship… ended he went to sea as a ship’s carpenter. He soon was in command of a brig. In 1774 he brought from France a cargo of powder. Escaping the vigilance of British ships, he safely landed it at Portsmouth…
Before he was forty he had acquired a small fortune… He bought three hundred acres of farm and forest land on the west side of the Mast Road in Lee… “
Captain Parker was a successful farmer, but his neighbors were surprised to see him build a shipyard with workmen actually fitting timbers for a ship. But there was an interruption. George continues:
In this shipyard activities suddenly ceased. Captain Parker was going to sea again! He had offered his services to the Committee of Safety at Exeter, informing them that he knew that a ship was to arrive at Martinico to take powder and woolen goods for the British army.
The next his neighbors heard of him, he had landed at the Portsmouth dock, delivering the British goods.
In the farming community of Lee the industry of shipbuilding again revived. It was in the spring of 1777 that the building of the privateer General Sullivan was fairly begun in this ship yard five miles from tide water. Ten men of Lee, including Captain Parker worked on its construction, each man owning one-tenth of the ship. When it was, completed and all timbers numbered, it was taken apart, loaded on ox teams, hauled to Newmarket ship yard, put together again and launched there.” (6)
The “General Sullivan” was a Sloop-of-War and a very financially successful venture for Captain Parker and his group of investors. (7)
But that was just the beginning for the General Sullivan. In 1777, Parker’s ten investors or “Proprietors” met in Portsmouth and drew up a contract for the 1778 overhaul of the brigantine “General Sullivan” at the Newfields Landing in Newmarket. James Hill was to make her worthy for sea battle and to expand her length and mount two more guns on her side.
They also drew up a contract for the Captain Thomas Dalling to sail a four-month cruise on the newly outfitted “private ship of war” in July 1778. The Proprietors detailed the route and instructions for return of spoils. The captain was also instructed that if he were to end up in France with captured cargo or vessels, he was to report to three specific men – located in three different French ports: Nante, Bordeaux or Bilbao. These men were vested and contracted to the “proprietors” to dispose of the spoils.
Dalling was also warned to “Pay due respect to the laws of nations, not suffering any insult or plunder by your people, when boarding vessels at sea, that is in amity with these States, which is greatly complained of. In full confidence of your abilities and integrity rest entirely satisfied that nothing but fortune will be wanting, to make the cruise an object of envy.”
In October the General Sullivan returned to Portsmouth with a prize ship Caledonia. Dalling was replaced by Captain Manning who set sail later the same month, and three months later he returned with the prize ship May. Each proprietor received 30 barrels of flour from the prize, and the rest was sold to the people of Portsmouth.
In the summer of 1780 Captain Manning returned from another sea cruise with the prize brigantine Charlotte, heavily laden with provisions and valued at 350,000 pounds. Two years later General Sullivan, once again under Thomas Dalling captured the ship Harriet.
As noted by William Saltonstall, there was a fine line between privateering and piracy. Multiply the General Sullivan’s career by fifty or seventy-five other ships and the importance of the Piscataqua privateers becomes obvious. While the Portsmouth Continentals Navy absorbed the time of a comparatively small group of local shipwrights and seamen, the privateers played a more vital role in bringing the British to terms.
Privateers not only faced the natural dangers at sea but also the danger of death at the hands of lawless pirate ships or imprisonment (and possible death) by the British Navy.
Of Portsmouth’s 3,000 or more privateers, hundreds were captured by British Man-Of-War vessels, and held in Halifax, Newport or Dartmoor prisons. The NH Revolutionary Papers, filed with the NH Historical Society has correspondence to the NH Committee of Safety in Exeter from the captured privateer crew of the Portsmouth sent from Halifax. They requested an urgent exchange of prisoners, stating they were in:
…distressing circumstances, many of them dying in the heat from close confinement by night, and by being exposed to smallpox and other putrid distemper by day. They are suffered to the insults of a remorseless and barbaric enemy who use every means to drive them to despair, or enter into their service, which they refuse to do. (8)
The practice of imprisoning privateers continued well after the Revolution. During the War of 1812, a young Newmarket man was imprisoned at the Dartmoor Prison, England. He is listed in the American Section on the Dartmoor Prison Memorial:
“Henry Burleigh, Prisoner No.2733, Ship Bennett, Rank Seamen, Hometown New Market, Age 21, Died 1814 in captivity”
Henry Burleigh, Jr. was born June 20th, 1792 in New Market to Henry and Elizabeth (Rogers) Burleigh. Captured aboard the ship Bennett he was sent to Dartmoor Prison, at Devonshire, England were he was killed at the hands of the British in the Massacre of 1814.
The following describes the 1814 prison massacre of American Prisoners—Privateers, Sailors and Seamen who died in captivity:
Captain Shortland went at the head of the soldiers and ordered all of the prisoners back. They refused and, as the bread wagon was at this moment making a delivery to the stores, there was a fear that the prisoners might attempt to take control. Again, the order was given to return while the soldiers fixed bayonets and began to advance. They were about three paces from the prisoners but still the Americans stood firm. The order to charge was given and the prisoners instantly broke and ran as fast as possible to the safety of their prisons. There were thousands of Americans desperately trying to get back into the buildings but they could not do so quickly. The order to fire was given. The soldiers obeyed and fired a full volley. The volleys were repeated for several rounds with prisoners falling dead and wounded all around. (9)
The horrific scene here was of prisoners shot in the back as they tried to return, running into their respective barracks.
Between 1812 and 1816 about 1,500 American and French prisoners died in the prison and were buried in a field beyond the prison walls. While it closed and was unoccupied for over 30 years, Dartmoor reopened in 1850 as a civilian prison for convicts sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or to hard labor.
John Stone, a mariner from Kennebunk also perished at Dartmoor. Richard E. Wilson in his book Wealth & Honor, Portsmouth During the Golden Ager of Privateering 1775-1815, (published by Peter E. Randall for Portsmouth Marine Society writes on pg 220: of Hannah Stone’s petition to the US Government in 1834 for the redress of her husband’s John’s death. John Stone, Stone while aboard the privateer ship Harlequin out of Portsmouth, was taken prisoner by a British Ship of War and sent to Halifax and then to Dartmoor prison where he died — the consequences of bad treatment and suffering.
The Portsmouth Gazette published a poem “Lines Occasioned by the Massacre at Dartmoor Prison” condemning Shortland as a “Base minion of tyrannic power”. The last stanza reads:
The matron round the cottage fire, Shall chill her enfants with the tale;
How, in a time of peace, their sire, Was butcher’d in a British jail.”
Another Newmarket Privateer was Arthur Branscomb, Jr. who was born in town. His father was Arthur, Sr. was a mariner and tavern keeper who drowned in great bay in 1792. Arthur, Sr. married Mary Hill, the daughter of shipbuilder General James Hill. Arthur Jr. was engaged in privateering in 1812, and he must have been good at it because he became a corporal in 1814. After the war closed he came home to Newmarket and built a tavern and shop on Main Street (site of today’s post office). For many years he was engaged in trade here and was a man widely known and much respected. He represented the town in the Legislature many years. He died in 1853 and is buried in the Old Town cemetery.
1) In 1787-Ebenezer Wilson applied for and received a license as a “Proprietor of Spirits” and gave up the sea for his new tavern (now within the town linits of Newfields). He also petitioned for the 2nd meeting house and purchased pew #36 in the gallery of the new building.
2) John McMath, a mariner, was summonsed to court in 1731 as a witness against Sambo who was charged with assault trial against Edward Hilton.
3) Captain Josiah Parsons (1697-1755) originally from Gloucester, moved his family to Newmarket where he later died at age 58. He is buried in the old Meeting House Burying ground.
After the British Blockade and the War of 1812, shipbuilding as a viable business died in New Market. As the demands for larger sea vessels grew, they outstripped the narrows of the Lamprey and Squamscott Rivers. The industry moved to cities with deeper harbors and a larger, more skilled workforce.
“After the spring of 1813 our seacoast was blockaded by a British squadron. Three years of blockade practically destroyed shipbuilding on the Squamscott. The last to engage in the industry in Newfields were Zachariah Beals, Dudley Watson, Samuel T. Tarlton and George Hilton. The last vessel built here was the Nile in 1827.” (10)
Another development in Lamprey River Village would have a major impact on the town’s waterfront. The Newmarket Manufacturing Company had its own agenda — which didn’t involve building boats. The “Mill wharf” began construction in 1823; and over the next 25 years it would run the entire length of the present Mills No. 2, 5, and 6.
1) ”Ports of Piscataqua” by William G. Saltonstall, Harvard University Press; published 1941
(2) Old Newmarket, Historical Sketches, by Nellie Palmer George, published 1932
(3) “History of Newfields, New Hampshire 1638-1911” By Rev. James Hill Fitts, Rumford Press, Concord NH 1912; pg 335.
(4) “Ports of Piscataqua” by William G. Saltonstall, Harvard University Press; published 1941.
(5) New Hampshire as a State Provence. William Henry Frye, Volume #29, Issue #2. Columbia University Political Science Faculty Dissertation, New York, 1908
(6) Old Newmarket, Historical Sketches, by Nellie Palmer George, published 1932
(7) Lee NH Historical Homes, online website, https://leenhhistoricalsoc.org/historical-buildings
(8) N.H. State Papers, VII, pg 630
(9) Source: http://my.execpc.com/~sril/dartmoor/index.htm; THE DARTMOOR PRISON “AMERICAN CEMETERY RESTORATION” PROJECT
(10) History of Rocking(9) Source: http://my.execpc.com/~sril/dartmoor/index.htm; THE DARTMOOR PRISON “AMERICAN CEMETERY RESTORATION” PROJECTham County, by Charles A. Hazlett, Richmond-Arnold publishing, Chicago, Ill. 1915, Boat Traffic after 1880. pg 567