Situated on the northern end of Star Island,
one of the sevens ‘isles’ that make up the Isles of Shoals, sits an almost forgotten village, formerly known as Gosport. [IMPORTANT NOTE: The proper name is IsleS of ShoalS, not the singular of either of those two words.]
This town was probably named after the town of Gosport in Hampshire England, which like the Gosport of New Hampshire, also lies opposite a place called Portsmouth. Star Island itself contains about 180 acres of rock and soil, and its height is 55 feet.
At one time Gosport was a thriving little community, incorporated 24 Dec 1715. Depending on who you want to believe, the community was either “a motley shifting community of fishermen, seal hunters, sailors, smugglers and picaroons,” or they were “industrious,prudent, temperate, and regular and decent in their attendance on the institutions of religion.” [per “The Isles of Shoals,” by John Scribner Jenness, 1873]
Although the Shoals islands of Appledore and Smutty Nose had been settled first, toward the close of the seventeenth century Star Island suddenly gained in popularity. The golden age for Star Island, and for the Shoals generally, was the middle of the 18th century. Then there were three or four hundred inhabitants on all the islands and fishing was the primary industry. As late at 1767 Gosport alone had 284 residents.
The earliest settlers on the Isles of Shoals were Episcopalians. About 1652 the Rev. John Brock was sent to the Isles (Appledore, first called Hog Island) by the Boston Puritans, and he remained there until 1662, converting many.
Among the earliest settlers, was my fifth-great grandfather, William Urin, (surname also spelled Youring, Urann, Uran, Uren, Yuran, etc.) and his wife Eleanor. He was at the Isles of Shoals as early as 1653 when he received a grant of land there. He died on the Isles of Shoals in 1664. His son John, although born on the Shoals, removed to Greenland NH, and later to Portsmouth NH. John was one of the grantees of the town of Epsom NH.
Although in general the inhabitants were “industrious, prudent, and temperate,” there were others who thought badly of the local constables, and who obviously enjoyed their drink. Joane Ford was punished by nine stripes “for calling the constable horn-headed rogue and cow-head rogue.” Robert Mace, my son’s ancestor through his father’s line, was presented in York court “for abusing the constable by very opprobrious Languidg.” Bartholomew Mitchell, Rebora Downs, and Bartholomew Burrington were charged with assailing the Shoals’ constable, “by words and blows, and threatening to break his neck on the rocks…” In 1667 ten fishermen were convicted of drinking twelve gallons of wine in one day.
Nor were these islanders, including those of Gosport, particularly interested in participating in politics or paying taxes. In 1711 Star Island was served with a warrant to send a representative to the House, and again in 1716, “but they paid no attention to either summons.” The government then annexed Star Island to New Castle for election and assessment purposes, but they neither attended the election, nor paid the rates. From 1804 to 1845 no town meeting was held. It was not until 1851 when the New Hampshire legislature allowed “a handful of fishermen at Gosport” one Representative to the House or General Court. The last town meeting of Gosport was held 14 March 1876. In that same year Star Island was annexed to the town of Rye, New Hampshire.
According to Celia Thaxter, the Isles of Shoals natives had an ancient courting tradition. “If a youth fell in love with a maid, he lay in wait till she passed by, and then pelted her with stones…so that if a fair Shoaler found herself the centre of a volley of missles, she might be sure that an ardent admirer was expressing himself…If she turned, and exhibited any curiosity…her doubts were dispelled by another shower; but if she went on her way in maiden meditation, then was her swain in despair, and life…became a burden to him.”
Although the residents of Gosport lived in “so healthy a place,” unfortunately many of them succumbed to consumption due to their living in close quarters for so much of the year. Celia Thaxter said, “I have seen a little room containing a whole family, fishing-boots and all, bed, furniture, cooking-stove in full blast, and an oil lamp with a wick so high that the deadly smoke rose steadily, filling the air with…’filthiest gloom,’ and mingling with the incense of ancient tobacco-pipes smoked by both sexes…every crack and cranny was stopped.”
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, the residents of the Isles of Shoals were ordered to leave the island, to prevent them from giving shelter or sustenance to the enemy (a second version says the islanders left because they were afraid of attacks by the British). In 1775 only forty-four persons remained there. After the war ended a few families returned, but it never prospered again.
In 1800 Gosport had fifteen families and ninety-two persons. In 1811 Star Island only had eleven families and two “solitaires” — in total fifty-two residents. In September of 1824 Rev. Samuel Sewell found fourteen families and one “solitary,” in all sixty-nine persons. In 1832 the population actually increased to ninety-nine. The last of the “Shoalers” was John B. Downs who died at North Hampton NH 23 April 1888, age 77.
The town of Gosport was five-eighths of a mile long and one mile wide. Reportedly a meeting house church, built here in the early 1700s using the timber from the wreck of a Spanish Ship in 1685, was rebuilt in 1720, and had been set on fire by a gang of fisherman and burnt to the ground in 1790.
Later the center of Gosport was a tiny stone church that sat “perched like a sea-gull on its highest rock.” [from “An Old Town by the Sea, ” T.B. Aldrich, 1874]. The church was thirty-six by twenty-four feet on the outside. This meeting house was dedicated on 24 Nov 1800. The building had stone walls two feet thick, and reportedly was made of this material so that “the inhabitants can not burn it for fuel, and it will be imperishable.” In 1859 a weather-vane in the form of a fish was added to the stone church’s steeple. (Note: this church still exists).
The town never had a wharf. In 1766 the people petitioned for the privilege of getting up a lottery to build one. Not far from the meeting house was a school-house, and a parsonage built for the Rev. Josiah Stevens in 1802, when he married the daughter of Samuel Haley of Smutty Nose and settled in Gosport for life. The original burial ground was among the rocks near the town.
Buried near Gosport was Rev. John Tucke, minister and doctor for Gosport from 1733 until 1773. The newer grave-yard on Star Island is on the western side of the island, where the Tucke and Stevens monuments can be found.
Eventually the residents and then the memory of the town of Gosport disappeared from the face of the earth. The inhabitants were bought out, so that it could be converted into a summer resort. By 1870 a large summer hotel, The Oceanic, was built on Star Island by John R. Poor, who acquired title to the entire island with the exception of one dwelling and land owned by John B. Downs. Eventually Mr. Downs’ heirs sold out to Poor. The hotel burned, and was rebuilt. Poor himself moved on, selling to the Laighton brothers, Oscar and Cedric. They ran the hotel until the Star Island Corporation purchased Star and Appledore.
Sarah Orne Jewett wrote in 1881, the poem “On Star Island”
High on the lichened ledges, like
A lonely sea-fowl on its perch,
Blown by the cold sea winds, it stands,
Old Gosport’s quaint forsaken church.
No sign is left of all the town
Except a few forgotten graves;
But to and fro the white sails go
Slowly across the glittering waves;
And summer idlers stray about
With curious questions of the lost
And vanished village, and its men,
Whose boats by these same waves were
I wonder if the old church dreams
About its parish, and the days
The fisher people came to hear
The preaching and the songs of praise!
Rough-handed, browned by sun and wind,
Heedless of fashion or of creed,
They listened to the parson’s words–
Their pilot heavenward indeed.
Their eyes on week-days sought the church,
Their surest landmark, and the guide
That led them in from far at sea,
Until they anchored safe beside
The harbor wall that braved the storm
With its resistless strength of stone,
Those busy fishers all are gone–
The church is standing here alone.
But still I hear their voices strange,
And still I see the people go
Over the ledges to their homes:
The bent old women’s footsteps slow;
The faithful parson stop to give
Some timely word to one astray;
The little children hurrying on
Together, chattering of their play.
I know the blue sea covered some,
And others in the rocky ground
Found narrow lodgings for their bones–
God grant their rest is sweet and sound!
I saw the worn rope idle hang
Beside me in the belfry brown.
I gave the bell a solemn toll–
I rang the knell for Gosport town.
The Isles of Shoals was assigned NH Historical Marker #18, placed in Rye NH (rather than actually ON the Shoals because you cannot drive here!). The sign reads: “About six miles directly out to sea, this cluster of islands abounds in legend and history. Before 1614, when the famous Captain John Smith mapped the rocky and surf-lashed Isles, early fishermen, traders and explorers had a part in their history.”
–Reuben Tracy’s Vacation Trips, by Elizabeth Porter Gould Bay State monthly, 1884-
–An Old Town by the Sea, T.B. Aldrich, Harpers New Monthly Magazine, 1874-
–Photos of Gosport, 1850s, Seacoast NH–
-Current Photos: Star Island, Isles of Shoals–