New Hampshire Glossary: Gundalow

Silhouette of Merrimack Gundalow; From "Shipping & craft in silhouette; drawing and text by Charles G. Davis, 1929, page 57, Hathi Trust

Silhouette of a Merrimack Gundalow; From “Shipping & craft in silhouette; drawing and text,” by Charles G. Davis, 1929, page 57; located at Hathi Trust.

A Gundalow is a small boat, “a shallow drafted type of cargo barge,” built to be used on rivers and estuaries in the early days of New Hampshire and Maine history.  There are records showing they were also used on the Merrimack River.   A gundalow can be found on the town seals of both Durham and Newington, New Hampshire.

Built to be rowed up the Merrimack River, sometimes with cotton or other supplies for the mills, but generally loaded with salt hay, these shallow gundalows were later fitted with a short mast, low enough to go under Plum Island river bridge, and rigged with a single lateen sail, whose yard was weighted with iron at the lower end to counterbalance the sail and make it easy to hoist. 1866.–“When favoring breezes deigned to blow the square sail of the gundelow.” — Whittier, Snow-bound  [From: From “Shipping & craft in silhouette; drawing and text by Charles G. Davis, 1929, page 57, Hathi Trust]

From Old Time anecdotes of the North River and the South Shore by Joseph Foster Merritt, 1928

From Old Time anecdotes of the North River and the South Shore, by Joseph Foster Merritt, 1928

Gundalows were in use on the river from very early times. They were large, flat-bottomed boats form 30 to 40 feet long and about 10 or 12 foot beam, sometimes square ended like a scow, and sometimes sharp at the bow like a boat. They drew very little water and would carry from 3 to 8 tons of hay. They were propelled by a pair of long oars, or sweeps, near the bow, or by poles, and were steered by an oar over the stern. There was a short deck after for the use of the steersman and another forward. Some of them were equipped with a sail which sometimes helped along and all of them carried a 20-foot gang plank over which men poled the hay aboard and which held the boat away from the bank and prevented it getting aground if the tide was running out. A tow line could be used in coming up the river [in certain areas] but it was customary to row or push. Either loaded or empty, they are unwieldy, and the crews take advantage of the tide as much as possible, even if it meant a long wait.” From Old Time anecdotes of the North River and the South Shore, by Joseph Foster Merritt, 1928

The earliest use of the term gunadlow that I could find was published in the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper of 2 January 1775, referring to a letter written at Portsmouth, New Hampshire dated 16 December 1774, regarding a rumor spread in Boston that British troops were on their way to seize powder from Fort William and Mary in New Castle, NH. The letter describes that the 97 barrels of powder were put “on board the gundalows, brought it up to town, and went off with it to some distance in the country.


What is a gundalow? (from The Gundalow Company who still builds them)

Cultural History of the Great Bay region (NH)

Visitor’s ABCs: Gundalow (from Hampton NH’s Lane Library)


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3 Responses to New Hampshire Glossary: Gundalow

  1. Amy says:

    Where does the name come from? I’ve lived in New England for over 40 years and have never heard the term. Learn something new every day!

    • Janice Brown says:

      The gundalow is entirely a regional boat, specific to New England, though gundalows were also used on the Great Lakes during the American Revolution. A Dictionary of American Regionalisms states that the word is a corruption of “gondola” also written as “gundalo” and that it was first recorded in 1733. Possible of course but not definitive, since I don’t believe there are any ancient texts making that statement.

      I found an advertisement in the Boston Gazette (Boston MA) of 13 March 1758 “Drifted from Boston, a GUNDALOW, which if it should be taken at Sea, or on any of the Islands or Capes, and secur’d, or tow’d up to Boston; the Person that takes her up shall have TWO DOLLARS Reward, and all Charges paid, by Robert Pierpoint at the South End.” Thats the earliest incidence I could find anyway.

      Thanks for reading and asking the question.

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