J. Dennis Robinson
I have yet to catch the genealogy bug. While I’m told someone carrying my DNA stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, I’ve never had the urge to check. There might be saints lurking in my family tree, or maybe serial killers. Not my problem. Mostly, I’m guessing, there’s been a long plodding line of Johns and Janes, like me, just trying to make it through the winter.
My passion for the past is largely geographical, possibly territorial. Its epicenter is the heart of Market Square, my adopted home. It widens out in every direction as far as a few gallons of gas will take me. I like to know how what happened here impacted the planet, and vice versa. Outside that small circle of understanding, things get fuzzy.
We’re fast approaching the 400th anniversary of that fateful day when the Pilgrims didn’t really step onto the legendary Plymouth Rock. And I was early in line to buy a few sets of the gorgeous new 55-cent Mayflower “forever” stamps issued last month by the U.S. Post Office. For the record, Mayflower stamps issued for the 300th anniversary in 1920 cost a penny and a nickel each.
But my motive for buying the stamps is less than puritanical. Whenever I see the Mayflower, it reminds me we have no image of the ships that first arrived in the Piscataqua region, nor of the first New Hampshire settlers. The iconic pious Pilgrims (rediscovered and reinvented in the early 1800s) still get all the press, while New Hampshire’s founding remains as obscure as a foggy day at the Isles of Shoals.
History has taught us to see the Mayflower as a lone vessel, tossed among fearsome seas or standing safe at harbor, dark against a colorful sky. We imagine a horizon uninterrupted for more than a century from the days of Columbus, who never really came here, to the arrival of English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia, and Plymouth, Massachusetts. We ignore the continuous journeys of fishermen who filled the gap. Historian David B. Quinn estimates at least 650 European fishing and trading ships made the transatlantic journey to North America in the century before 1612. Then the transatlantic traffic really kicked in.
Before its only Atlantic crossing with its famous passengers, the square-rigged, 100-foot-long Mayflower usually transported lumber, tar and wine from port to port in Europe. Its 180-ton rating tells us the Mayflower could carry 180 casks (or “tunnes”) of wine. New Hampshire’s version of the Mayflower, the “Jonathan of Plymouth” by comparison, was rated at 160-tons. The little we know of her comes from David Thompson’s 1622 indenture as he planned to set sail to what would become New Hampshire the following year. But will we get a lovely stamp depicting the Jonathan in 2023 when New Hampshire celebrates its 400th anniversary? Don’t hold your breath.
Thompson and his fishermen (no more than 10) agreed to build a house – it really was an armed fort – and to set up a fishery, at what is now Rye. They likely brought along a good-sized “shallop” or sailing ship and perhaps smaller boats, built in England and transported to the New World aboard the Jonathan. Jonathan also delivered a large store of provisions, guns, cannon, tools, trade goods and fishing equipment. Thompson set up his fortified fishery at what is now Odiorne State Park. No trace of it remains.
While almost half the Mayflower passengers died within the first winter, by the way, Thompson’s crew, his wife Amias, son John and servants all seem to have survived the perilous journey intact. Although David mysteriously disappeared in 1628, Amias Cole Thompson, historians believe, remarried and survived in America for half a century until 1672. Instead of my unknown ancestors, those are the things I’ll be thinking about as I stick those pretty Mayflower stamps on my monthly bills that keep the electricity, propane, water, internet, health care, mortgage, taxes, and an ocean of other bills at bay.
Historic Portsmouth is presented every Thursday. J. Dennis Robinson is the author of books about Strawbery Banke Museum, Wentworth by the Sea Hotel, and the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders. His newest book, “Music Hall,” was named best 2020 history book by the Independent Book Publishers Association, and is available online or at your local bookstore. This is weekly image number 851. You can contact Dennis at dennis@mySeacoastNH.com or visit www.jdennisrobinson.com.