Journey to the Isles of Shoals New Hampshire in 1882

Boat Landing at Star Island, Isles of Shoals, c1910, Library of Congress

My earliest New Hampshire ancestors hailed from the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire (or Maine, depending on your perspective).  I have often pondered on their origin, as the surnames are not found on any known ship list.  They could have been servants of David Thompson (1623).     Perhaps they were Spanish or Portuguese fishermen who arrived early and remained on the new continent (DNA from the Iberian Peninsula shows up as part of my ancient ancestry).

An important part of genealogy is to study the history in which your ancestor lived.  I came upon an 1882 story of the Isles of Shoals in a newspaper [The New York Times, 25 July 1882, page 5 ] that I found to be the best description of the area with its history.  Even though written 100 years after my ancestors were removed from the Isles during the American Revolution, this story provides me (and you) with intriguing insight into the Isles of Shoals and its people.

ON THE ISLES OF SHOALS. HOOKING AND LANDING FISH IN DIFFERENT STATES.  Studies Among The Pools of the Islands — Singular Movements of Shell-Fish — The Old Church And The Romantic Gorge — How Lobsters are Caught and Canned.

Map of Isles of Shoals from “The Isles of Shoals: An historical sketch, by John Scribner Jenness, 1901

ISLES OF SHOALS, July 15 — Two hundred and seventy-seven years ago today, late in the afternoon, a small craft of about 15 tons bearing down the coast of Maine, discovered a group of small islands, upon which we now stand, in quandary as to whether we are in Maine or New Hampshire. The vessel had for passengers Pierre du Gnast, Sieur de Monta, a nobleman of the household of Henry IV, bearing commission as Lieutenant-General dating from Fontainebleau, 1603, his orders being to colonize Acadia from the fortieth to the forty-sixth parallel, and upon the parchment that bore the broad handwriting of Henry were lines authorizing the bearers to make war or peace, and to have the sole privilege of dealing in skins &c., for 10 years. Besides these gentlemen were Samuel Champlain, geographer and 20 sailors. The first account, however, given of the islands was that of Christopher Levett, who wrote: “The first place I set my foot upon in New-England was the Isle of Shoals, being islands in the sea about two leagues from the main. Upon these islands I neither could see one good timber tree nor so much good ground as to make a garden. The place is found to be a good fishing place for six ships, but more cannot well be there, for want of convenient stage-room, as this year’s experience hath proved.”

These venturesome mariners would, without doubt, be astonished if they could see to-day the shoals which they considered only valuable as fishing stations. The once deserted spot bristles with hotels and where the gulls laid upon the rocks and the Indians from the mainland occasionally fished the vagaries of fashion are found–a curious change. The visitor at the Isles of Shoals must necessarily reside there for a given time before he discovers which State he is really in, as the group lies in both, and a few strokes of the oar may make a great difference, as an example: A person sitting in the stern of a boat would be subject to a heavy fine and imprisonment for selling a glass of beer, wine, or liquor, while the man in the bow, safely over the line in New-Hampshire, would be free to carry on the business undisturbed. Anchored on the line we cast our lines from New-Hampshire and ruthlessly drag in cunners from the waters of Maine. Duck Island, perhaps the most dangerous, Appledore, Smutty Nose, or Haley’s, and Cedar belong to Maine, while Star, White, and Londoners [now called Lungers Island] are the sole property of New-Hampshire. In all there are eight islands, if we count the little rock sometimes called Malaga, an offshoot from Smutty Nose, and they can hardly be considered part of the mainland, as they nine miles south-east of the entrance of the Piscataqua River and about 20 from Newburyport light.

The shoals are most conveniently reached from Portsmouth by steamer, the trip out bringing into view many other points of interest. We are fortunate in having our own craft and skipper, and slipper cable are soon showing our heels to the waters of the Piscataqua. Pierce’s Island on the right, Seavey’s on the left, where still the batteries used in the Revolution can be seen rushing by. “Pull and be d—-d Point,” which, by the way, is well named, we are upon the bue ocean. The shoals dead ahead, the old city, its spires scanty shipping, the trim navy-yard are behind us, with New-Castle Island, Fort Constitution, the Whale’s Back Light, and Gerish Island, and soon, with Odiornes Point on our quarter, we are forging before a “master breeze,” as our skipper has it. Far to the north is Born Island Light, its shapely pillar in strong relief against the sky.

Sketch of an Isles of Shoals cottage from “The Isles of Shoals: An historical sketch,” by John Scribner Jenness, 1901

“It don’t look very invitin’,” remarks our skipper, contemplatively: “but I’ve seen the time when I felt a dretful call to get ashore. The island lies right off what they call the ledge–mostly where we fish in the Winter. Cod fishin’s dretful cold work and when it comes up a blow afore we can get ashore, the best we can do is to make for the island, where you’re always sure of a welcome. One night I was tellin’ ye of, me and my son was about 15 miles off shore in the dory when it commence to blow from the westward. We had 300 pounds of trawl lines and 1,500 of fish, and it wasn’t long afore we saw that it wa’nt any use to try for shore, so we bore away for the light. A lot of the boys had got in before us and stood ready, and as we came on they grabbed us before the sea went back and landed dory all high and dry. The next boat came in empty. It was so cold that every drop froze on ye as it struck. The dory came tumblin’ in, and just then one of the boys caught sight of somethin clinging to the weeds, and we made a rush. It was a man, Mr. Perkins, over there at Ogunquit. He was alive, but his oil-skin suit was frozen so stiff he might as well have been in armor. His boat went to pieces, but we thawed him out all right. It was Boon Island that night to use, sure, and it has saved the lives of a good many fishermen.”

Star Island Old Church, Isles of Shoals, glass negative, c1900; Library of Congress.

Rapidly making the once barren rock, we rounded to in the little harbor formed by Appledore, Star, and Haley’s Islands, and here we are impressed by the utter recklessness in which the islands are thrown together. Assuredly he was a brave mariner who first approached them in a storm. All about the group are sunken and dangerous ledges that, though not apparent in clam weather, develop terribly in the easterly storms. Such are Square Rock, west of Londoners, while Island Ledge, nearly south of that island; Anderson’s ledge, near Star Island to the south east, and Cedar Island ledge to the southward of Smutty Nose. The islands themselves are, indeed little better than ledges, and in the heavy gales it would be a different matter to find a spot where the salt spray was not borne. White Island is three-quarters of a mile long, Star Island about the same, and a half-mile wide. Londoners if five-eighths of a mile in length, Duck Island seven-eighths, Appledore a mile, Haley’s the same and Cedar Island a third of a mile long, the entire group representing about 600 acres. Each island has its beauties, peculiarities and objects worthy of visit. The meeting-house upon Star Island, is, perhaps, the most conspicuous object, and can be seen far off to sea, and before the erection of the hotel was a landmark for the coasters bound up and down. It was built in 1800 and has been used since both as a school and house of worship. Its rough walls are built of the island stone, with a roof and low tower of wood, from which a dreary, mournful bell grinds out a midday call. The first meeting-house on the island was erected in 1706, with the Rev. Dr. Moody of Salisbury, Mass., as Pastor. In 1730 he was succeeded by the Rev. John Tucke, and at this time, or for a century previous to the Revolution, the Shoals were prosperous, boasting a population of over 600 souls. But in 1800 there were abut 20 persons on Smutty Nose, 92 on Star, or Gosport as it was called, Appledore being deserted. In the old burying ground near the church we find the last remains of the minster, the lines upon the stone being as follows:

are the remains of
the Rev. John Tucke, A.M.
He graduated at Harvard College A.D. 1723,
was ordained here July 2d, 1732
and died Aug. 12, 1773.
AEt. 72,

For nearly 40 years the good man cared for the spiritual welfare of the inhabitants, every man of whom paid him a quintal of Winter fish and carried his wood for him. He was teacher, doctor, general book-keeper and friend, and his old-time hand-writing can still be seen in the records of the place.

Miss Underhill’s Chair, Isles of Shoals old postcard.

On one of the loftiest eminences of the island is Smith’s monument erected in 1864. Following round upon the westward side, we come upon the old fort that at the beginning of the Revolution mounted nine cannon, and still further along the beach to Betty Moody’s Hole. Tradition has it that the Indians, knowing that the men were away, pounced down upon the island, carrying off many of the women, but into this cavern Betty Moody fled with her child, strangling it for fear its cries might attract the savages. This was probably during Philip’s war. But perhaps the most fascinating spot upon the place is the Gorge. Here the sea has made a masterly advance, wearing away the igneous rock and dislodging the trap inch by inch, until a wide breach, 50 or more feet deep, is seen worn in the very vitals of the island. The lower part is skirted by a fringe of weed that waves to and fro in the tide as if possessing life; the sea rolls into the chasm with a hollow, murmuring sound, which as the wind freshens, rises to a wild roar; its echoes seem to be hurled from side to side, back and forth, with ever increasing volume, while the metallic clatter of the flint pebbles that are dragged back and hurled onward by the waves, adds to the tumult. Masses of foam churned to milky whiteness rise 30 feet in the air, falling back with thundering-crash, seeming to shake the island to its very foundation. Here, in 1848, a lady lost her life, and “Miss Underhill’s chair” marks the spot. A tidal wave washed this lady from the ledge into the terrible gorge, and a week later the body was found 20 miles away upon the beach at York. From here the view shore-ward is very fine. Far away are the White Hills and Agamenticus, to the south the white sands of Rye, Hampton, and Squam beaches; the steeples of Portsmouth and Newburyport pierce the sky to the west, while far north, headland, bluff, and cliff succeed beach, cove and haven, telling of Newcastle, York and Wells.

The fish-houses upon the island, though, perhaps not suited to aesthetic tastes, are worth visiting. Rude in construction and generally of one story, they illustrate the life of the fishermen. In the rafters is a spare dory not yet launched; the great caldron in the corner with its unsavory odor, contains the livers of dog-fish fast becoming tanner’s oil. The proprietor hands us a sample of his cod-liver of his own trying that is as clear and good as the market affords, and for which he receives 50 cents per quart. In great baskets are the trawls, long lines covered with hooks, that are anchored at sea and taken in once in two or three days–an innovation introduced at Lynn and Swampscot by the Irish, and much to be lamented. Another pile of nets is used for mackerel, and here is the wooden axe for grinding up mackerel bait; piles of cod lines, hooks, home-made gedges, a boulder caught in a crotch, cribs of rope, millions of flies, and everywhere scales that flash like diamonds as the sun follows us into the dingy interior. The master sits upon an upturned basket: “ganging” hooks upon his trawl, or mending his lobster-pots. “Lobsters always have a call,” he tells us, “and in some plats are getting right scarce. There is a law to protect them, and you can’t sell a lobster under 10 inches, but that doesn’t hinder your eating of them, and there’s might few that I’ll throw one back. They do a big business at canning lobsters are Deer Island. The law allows it between the months of March and August, and I’ve caught ’em weighing as much as 20 pounds. At South St. George, near Rockland, if you ever go that way you can see the claw of a lobster that weighed 43 pounds. The Deer Island factory and Green’s Landing employs about three or four smacks and 150 men and girls, and Harpswell, Casco Bay, Castine, South-west Harbor, Mount Desert, Oceanville, and Burnt Cove factories are about the same. They generally open at one end upon the dock where the smacks land, and the lobsters are toted up and tossed right into the boilers, going in green and coming out red in about 30 minutes. The critter,” continued our informant, “is then scooped out and passed to the cracker, who, with a big knife, cuts off the big claws that as passed to the girls, who pick them out with forks. The meat then goes to another gang of girls, who place it in the cans. The first drops it in, the next weighs it, suiting to the measure one or more pounds, the next puts it under a stamp, forcing the meat down, and then the can is sent to the header, who puts on the tin cover. Now they are put in another tray, and when they accumulate they are passed to the solderers, who seal them up; then they are put into another tray and lowered into a cauldron and boiled, the air blown out, then sealed and boiled again for two or three hours, when your canned lobster is ready, all but the fixing up of the cans and putting on the labels, which is done in a special department. Pay? Wall, the solderers get $12 TO $16 a week; ordinary help $7 to $10 and gals, $3.50 to $4, and a good many prefer it to teachin’ school.”

Without the fish-house are the racks covered with branches and twigs, where the fish are cured or “saved,” and spread to dry after salting. The ease with which the fish are skinned, spit, cut, or headed, is quite miraculous to the uninitiated who has attempted it.

From Star we find our way over to Smutty Nose, where Mr. Haley, in building his causeway to Malaga, discovered some bars of solid silver, the remains of pirates, and, in fact, the ghosts of some of the victims of the old buccaneers are still to be seen about Appledore, if we may believe the oldest inhabitant. Here is the old Haley homestead, and near the grave of Samuel Haley are several others referred to as follows in the Gosport records: “1813, Jan. 14, ship Sagunto stranded on Smutty Nose Isle; Jan 15, one man found; 16, six men found; 21, seven men found.” Here is also the house where the Karen murder was committed in 1873. From the hotel at Appledore a rare view is to be enjoyed. Here is the great chasm or ravine almost dividing the island in two. On the occasion of [Nathaniel] Hawthorne’s visit in 1852, he records that during the storm that overthrew Minot’s Ledge light, a monster tidal-wave passed entirely through it. He says: “Laighton describes it when it came in from the sea as toppling over to the height of the cupola of his hotel. It roared and whitened through, from sea to sea, 20 feet abreast, rolling along huge rocks in its passage. It passed beneath his veranda, which stands on posts and probably filled the valley completely. Would I been here to see.” From all the ledges there is fine fishing–large pollock, rock cod, and cunners that would astonish the Long Island fisherman, weighing three and a half pounds. If the visitor would indulge in shooting, game can be found at Duck Island. At every move of the boat snipe dart form the rocks and wheel away with piercing cries, perhaps to attract our attention from their young.

Perhaps the most picturesque island of the group is White. Up on the east head cliff, that stands 50 feet above high water, rises the light-house, connected to the shore by a covered way over a roaring chasm. Everywhere, as the name implies, the rocks were a blasted, whitened appearance, as if the foam of the sea had been photographed upon them. For a number of years the light was kept by Thomas B. Laighton, afterward owner of the Appledore, whose daughter, Mrs. Celia Laighton-Thaxter, often trimmed the lamps, and had poetically told the story:
“I lit the lamps in the light-house tower,
For the sun dropped down and the day was dead;
They shone lie a glorious clustered flower,
Two golden and five red.”

The protection afforded the mariner off the Massachusetts coast has not long been extended. In 1793 there were only eight light-houses on the entire coast, and these were of wood, so that they could be removed to conform with the sand-bars, but now the coast fairly bristles with warning to the seafarer. Perhaps one of the most valuable is the automatic whistling buoy whose shriek can be heard 10 miles when the wind is fair. A brig once came ashore, crashing onto the rocks in the dead of a Winter’s night, within a few feet of the White Island light. It had been blowing for five days, and the keeper being shut off from the land the first knowledge he had of the wreck was a knock at the door, which, upon opening, showed an enormous negro to the terrified inmates. He had escaped as the came ashore, and with him the keeper returned to the rocks and by superhuman work rescued the entire crew. Almost every rock, stone, and bit of land upon these curious island has its history, so that the numerous visitors at the hotels are not confined to fishing and boating to pass away time. Among the rocks and pools the naturalists find ample scope for study and observation. At low tide the tangles of kelp are dotted with red and pink star-fishes standing out in bold relief against the black and green background. Putting aside the waving curtain we find hordes of echini ensconced in the rocks, covered with bits of shell and stone; curious crabs, shells, and other forms swarm in every pool and crevice, calling attention to nature and her works. Occasionally a squid is caught, and near here, in deeper waters, they are often caught in great numbers by means of a jigger, for bait; beautiful creatures, certainly, to be used for such a purpose. They are provided with curious methods of progression, propelling themselves along by forcing water from a singular siphon that they have under the mouth, this sending them along tail first. In another kind, found in deep water, the long tentacles or arms are connected by a web-like membrane that is probably turned to account in their travels. The name of this is the Histiotenthis. Some of the octopods, one of which is found off the shoals, move along in very much the same way, but they travel on the bottom, and are such skillful crawlers that they often pass through crevices hardly one-third their seeming size.

Star Island taken from Appledore, Isles of Shoals NH; glass negative, c1911; Library of Congress

The scallops found among the rocks, possessing beautiful eyes and numbers of them, attract great attention from the strollers by their curious movements. When the scallop or pecten wishes to change its location it commences a vigorous opening and shutting of its valves that causes it to jump from the bottom, turning this way and that, now up, now down, rising with a dart, and anon making a swoop to the bottom, becoming as demure as possible. From these erratic movements they are called dancing scallops, and their performance can be compared to an old-fashioned jig into which is introduced a great deal of “balancing to the right and left” and a prodigious amount of “forwards and backs” and “up and down the centre.” Another shell, the flying lima, presents a strange and beautiful sight as it rushes along with a train of long pointed filaments floating behind, and others hanging over the front, twisting, writhing, and coiling like so many snakes. Such an object flying through the water does not fail to create a decided commotion among the sight-seers, who spend their mornings peering into the pools. Numbers of young cunner join in the chase and dart about the dying mollusk, snapping at its long whiskers, for such they seem, until it suddenly draws them in and sinks to the bottom, appearing innocent and still, the last shell you would suspect of creating such a furor in the ocean world. The cockle has a mode of traveling somewhat similar, only its journeys are not so extended. The curious foot is seen coming out, and suddenly the shell gives a spring, sometimes several inches, then another, and so by short hops and jerks they move along. But the most interesting of all jumpers is the donax, a relative of which we find here. They are shapely shells, highly polished, with marks that radiate from the hinge-like rays of the sun. In some waters they are esteemed as food. At times they buy themselves in the sand or mud, throwing out several curious feet-like members, but if left high and dry upon the beach their movements can only be compared to a party of boys in a sack race.

Boat Landing at Appledore, Isles of Shoals, c1901; Library of Congress

The effect of the myriads of shells upon the rocks at low tide is often remarkable. Here a huge head-land is exposed, white as snow, encrusted with countless barnacles, which, however, are not shells. The next rock, perhaps, is jet black from a colony of clams, and an hour can be well spent in detaching one from its bed and watching its efforts to climb. By a very remarkable and laborious process it is enabled to move up the abrupt faces of the rocks. The shell is a little black fellow, sometimes with a spot worn away, showing the pearly interior. They too, depend upon a foot to help them move along, although it is not the real motive power; it looks like a tongue, and can be stretched out to great length and drawn back at the will of the mussel. At its base is a little gland, from which curious threads or ropes are produced that are alike the anchors and cables of the animal, whose movements might be compared to those of a ship that is being warped off shore. We see it lying at the bottom of a mimic cliff under the water; the curious foot is out-stretched and touches the rock, and as it withdraws a delicate hair cord is seen to have been attached; now another is added, and by a little tug on the part of his mussel-ship shell and all are seen to draw nearer to the rock, out comes the foot again, this time reaching above and attaching another silky cable; higher yet another is placed, and presto, the shell moves slowly and clears the bottom. The foot is always ahead planting cables, and the lifting goes on until the shell has been warped so high that the first cables put out now pull back; those ahead are strengthened, and with a tremendous tug, the “back stays” are broken off, and so by placing new cords higher up and breaking off the older ones, the mussel moves slowly up the rocky wall.


New Hampshire Tidbits: Miscellany of the Isles of Shoals

Isles of Shoals New Hampshire: No Hogs, No Women

Isles of Shoals Landmark: Miss Underhill’s Chair

New Hampshire Missing Places: Gosport, Isles of Shoals

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6 Responses to Journey to the Isles of Shoals New Hampshire in 1882

  1. gachap says:

    Thanks Janice, very interesting.

  2. emptybranches says:

    Interesting history. I learned something new today. Even my husband, who is a geography buff, hadn’t heard of them. He guessed they might be off the coast of Scotland. Who were your ancestors?

    • Janice Brown says:

      The Vrin/Urin/Youring/Uran and the Cate Families were from the Shoals/Portsmouth area. The Uran family especially I was referring to. I found another line with similiar name spelling settling in Salem County New Jersey in the 1600s but that is one mysterious line I need to research, they could be related.

  3. Laurence says:

    Hi Janice; Nice narrative. I’m researching the earliest families of Smuttynose, in particular, and all the names you reference are in the records. Good luck with knotting them all together! ~ Laurence

    • Janice Brown says:

      Laurence, I am descended directly from Richard Vrin/Urin/Youring/Uran who was an early Shoaler, not sure if he is included in your list or not. I honestly do not know which of the Isles that he lived on except that he would bring his children to Portsmouth for baptisms, etc.

  4. June Saxon says:

    Janice–I just had a chance to read your blog about the Isles of Shoals. We were fortunate to go to Star Island in 2009. I have always wanted to go there having been born and raised in Portsmouth. I don’t think I have any early shoalers in my lineage but enjoyed reading what you posted. I did take a picture of Smuttynose from Star Island when we went. Very intrigued about the murder on Smuttynose and have researched it from different books. Thanks for taking me back to my favorite place in New England!

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