Possibly the most controversial names in New Hampshire place history, Kearsarge,
pronounced, “Ki-ah-sarge,” is odd enough that you’d assume it would not be confused with any other.
Not so, considering that two New Hampshire mountains, four navy ships, several New Hampshire hotels and one museum all share it.
Throughout the history of New Hampshire, the various spellings of the Kearsage Mountains include: Cowissewaschook/Coowissewasseck (provinicial papers/History of Salisbury NH, south), Carasaga (1670, south), Cusagec (Samuel Willard’s journal, south, early 1700s), Kiasarja (1733, south), Kiarsarge and Currier Sarge (south, 1746), Kiarsargg Hill (proprietor’s record of Sutton NH), Kyasage (south, 1750), Kayarge (1757, south, Henry Gerrish plan of Kearsarge Gore), Kyasasage (south, 1761), Kyasage (south, 1761 map), Kearsage / Kier Sarge / Kyah Sarge / Kyah Sarga (south, 1784 map), Kearsarge (north, 1792, Chatham proprietor’s plan), Kyarsarge (1791), Kearsarge (1794 map), Kairserge (south, Gorge), Keiersearge (north, 1803 Chatham NH plan), Kereserge (south, 1805 Bartlett NH plan), and Kearsarge (north, 1817 Mountain, Merrill’s Gazeteer.
In old New Hampshire newspapers, the earliest mention of Kearsarge speaks of the southern version of the mountains as early as 1800, and does not mention the northern version in Conway until 1814.
*The Controversy Begins*
A smaller controversy surrounding New Hampshire ship names began in 1869 when the then secretary of the Navy, Adolph Borie planned to change some of the Naval vessel names, originally given in honor of New Hampshire (and other) locations, to more classical names. These included Kearsarge, Agamenticus, Chocura, Monadnock, Ossipee, Mount Washington, Algonquin, Contoocook, Passaconaway, Sagamore, Ammonoosuc, Squando, Piscataquoa, Suncook, Pompanoosuc, and Saco. Mr. Borie commenced changing these Indian names from Agamenticus to Terror, Ammonoosuc to Iowa, Contoocook to Albany, Passaconaway to Thunderer, Piscataqua to Delaware, Pompanoosuc to Connecticut, Squando to Erebus, and Suncook to Spitfire. The NH General Court responded to the Secretary of the Navy with horrified protest against the “removal of cherished local associations.” He served only about 3 months, and his successor, George M. Robeson, reverted most of these ship names back to their original ones.
*Which Kearsarge Came First*
The Farmer’s Cabinet of June 30, 1875, reported that “Mrs. Commodore Winslow, [widow
of the hero of the Civil War ship “Kearsarge,”] accompanied by an agent, visited Kearsarge Mountain on the 11th inst. and selected a large boulder near the summit to place at the head of her husband’s grave in Forest Hill, Boston, as an appropriate monument. Citizens of Warner will convey the stone to the depot, and the railroads will transport it to its destination place.”
In 1876, a dispute arose over which Kearsage was the origin of the U.S. Navy ship name. Arguments went back and forth. The Old Farmer’s Cabinet reported seeing an old atlas, published at London in 1768 by Thomas Jeffrey’s geographer to His Majesty.. “This atlas furnishes evidence for the Warner (south) Kearsarge from the fact that in a very accurate map from a survey made by Langdon and Blanchard in 1761, the Kyasage mountain is located where the Warner claimaint now is,while the Carroll county contestant (north) is called Pigwacket [after the Pequawket Indian tribe of the area], other maps seem to apply the term Pigwakett to the Conway section of the country and have also the Pigwakket river.”
In 1877 a small book was written called, “Carroll County Kearsarge Mountain of New Hampshire, by G.V. Fox, Read before the Appalachian Mountain Club, April 11, 1877. This book which thoroughly covered the origin of the Kearsarge Mountains. It resulted in “rivers of ink” shed on the subject of Kearsarge name, and the origin of the Civil War ship of the same name. Carroll County residents claimed that the mountain within their borders was the original Kearsarge, and that the mountain in Merrimack County derived its name from an English hunter named Hezekiah Currier Sargent, who was supposed to have had his home somewhere upon it. Merrimack County residents showed equally as many reputable documents to show that the mountain in their county was the first known Kearsarge, and that Carroll County’s version was a latercomer.
Researcher confusion was amplified due to some map-making mistakes, such as in 1812 when Morse’s Universal Geography mentions Kearsarge Mountain as a Carroll County mountain and not the Merrimack County one. At one point there was an effort by New Hampshire citizens, (notably those from the southern mountain area) to force the renaming of the northern Kearsarge mountain to Pigwacket or Pequawket. This effort failed, but countless letters and despositions were filed by citizens on behalf of both the south and north Kearsarge mountains.
Even up to 1938, when the book, “Fryeburg, Maine: an historical sketch,” was published, the mountain’s earliest origins were still in dispute, as that tome states, “Dominating the whole view from Fryeburg is Kearsarge…this mountain has been known as Kearsarge from the earliest times; only in later years has the mountain in Warner, N.H. been put forward to claim the honor of being the moutain that gave the name to the U.S.S. Kearsarge, the corvette that fought and sunk the Confederate sloop of war, Alabama, off Cherbourg, France, June 12, 1864. The writer heard Hon. Gustavus V. Fox, states that the vessel which won the engagement was named for the mountain in Chatham and Conway. As Mr. Fox was Assistant Secretary of the Navy during Lincoln’s administration, it would seem that his statement regarding the name should be conclusive.”
In 1878 the dispute about the two Kearsage Mountains came to a head. Tempers were hot, and the newspapers had a heyday printing the pros and the cons. Politicians and citizens alike endlessly promoted their believe that one, or the other came first. Finally settled in a political-correctly way, BOTH mountains are now called Kearsage Mountain, but the word “South” or North” is appended to the end of the name, depending on the location.
DESCRIPTIONS OF CURRENT KEARSARGE MOUNTAINS, (NORTH) AND (SOUTH)
Mount Kearsarge (North) aka Mount Pequawket, in Intervale (Bartlett) NH. The AMC White Mountain Guide calls Kearsarge North “one of the finest viewpoints in the White Mountains.” It had a building on its summit as early as 1845. The now-abandoned fire tower was built in 1951, and is on the National Historic Fire Lookout Register. It currently has an elevated glassed-in room and porch for comfortable viewing.
Kearsarge (South) Mountain, is situated in Merrimack County, New Hampshire, northwest of the town of Concord, seventy miles southwest of the White Mountains. All summits are in the town of Warner, but other portions in Salisbury, Andover and Sutton NH. Its height is 2943.5 feet about tide-water and 943.5 higher than Ragged Mountain in Andover NH. It is believed that the Civil War Union’s sloop-of War, Kearsarge, named after this mountain, sunk the Confederate gunboat, Alabama June 19, 1864. In the spring of 1819 a mass of earth and stones, of several tons’ weight, became detached from the southern declivity of Kearsarge mountain, and was precipitated with great violence into the valley below, sweeping a path of forty rods in width.
I continue to see official records, and modern documents (including maps) regarding these mountains, with various spellings of Kearsarge and Kearsage.
–One of Matthew Thornton’s (signer of the Declaration of Independence from NH) descendants, James Shepard Thornton, was an executive officer aboard the Kearsarge during its battle with the “Alabama.”
–A boat called the MV Kearsarge has been sailing the waters of Lake Sunapee for over 30 years [not to be confused with any of the official U.S. Navy vessels named Kearsarge].
–In the history of the U.S. Navy, four ships have been named for Kearsarge Mountains. Previous ships named Kearsarge include a Civil War-era sloop (1862-1894) famous for defeating the CSS Alabama, a turn-of-the-century battleship that sailed as part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” (1900-1920) and an aircraft carrier, known internationally for its part in the Project Mercury space program. The current Kearsage (1946-1974). The current USS Kearsarge’s primary mission is the embarkation, deployment, landing and support of a Marine landing force. She can accomodate LCAC and Harrier II jets. She was launched 26 March 1992. [see links below for photographs]
-Mount Kearsage Indian Museum, Warner NH-
The Museum is situated on 100 acres of field, wetlands and forest and lies at the foot of Mt. Kearsarge, the home of Rollins State Park, and a popular hiking mountain known for one of the most spectacular views in New England.
-Kearsage House, Portsmouth, 1869-
Corner of Chesnut & Congress Streets, Portmouth NH
Editor’s Note: updated June 2014