Sunday, February 26, 2017

Could your early New England ancestors be from the Isles of Shoals?

The Isles of Shoals are nine rocky islands about 10 miles from the Maine and New Hampshire coast. In fact, the state boundaries go through the middle of the islands. Kittery, Maine lays claim to Appledore, Cedar, Duck, Malaga and Smuttynose. Rye, New Hampshire has Lunging, Seavey, Star and White islands. Star Island, the second largest of the group, is on the National and New Hampshire Historic Registers.

Why are these islands important to our genealogy research?   

Fishing!  Europeans since the mid – 1500’s have explored this area – the French looking for safe harbors; the English looking for profits.  They were interested in the riches that could be pulled from New England – tall stately pine trees were harvested for building the English ships.  When they didn’t find spices or minerals of worth in this area, they turned to harvesting fish.  At first, the Europeans worked and traded on the coast but didn’t settle there.  They would come for the season, staying in trading camps and leave as soon as the season was over.  They found the ocean was deep and cold and the fish were bountiful. Once the proprietors found they could make a profit, families created permanent dwellings.
These were the islands that protected the ships sailing with the Angel Gabriel during the hurricane of 1635.  The islands are situated in such a manner that they give good protection against the winds and weather.

Explorer John Smith 

Although he didn’t land there, the explorer, John Smith included the islands on his 1614 map calling them “Smythe’s Isles”.  At one point he noted that he would like to come back and start a colony here.  He was granted the islands for commendation of his service to the Crown but never started a colony on the islands.

Families established 

It’s hard to determine when the first fishing group arrived in this area but documents show that Christopher Levett brought about 300 fisherman to the Shoals in 1623.   Many seacoast families first started at the Shoals: David Thompson, William Pepperell and the Cutts brothers John and Richard and others established families throughout the coastal area.  By the mid 1600’s the islands were home to 600-1000 residents.  

Enlarge map for names
Because these islands were shared by both Maine and New Hampshire the provincial governments decides to split everything down the middle. When Maine was submitted to Massachusetts rule, the people at the Isles of Shoals were taxed.  Many moved to Star Island and established the town of Gosport. 

From 1732 to his death in 1773, Rev John Tucke of Hampton NH was the missionary on Star Island with the purpose of civilizing the residents to the laws, manners, religion and other aspects of normal society.

When the Revolutionary War was ramping up, British naval forces threatened the residents of the islands, the provincial government ordered all residents to the mainland.  They brought their homes, dismantling and floating them to shore.  Reportedly, many of these homes are still in existence from Kittery to northern coastal towns in Massachusetts.

After the Revolutionary War, the fishing industry never recovered.  The Civil War brought about the fading cultural aspects of the fishing industry at the Isles of Shoals and with that, the town of Gosport declined from its previous growth and headed quietly into the obscurity of the 21st century.

Along with the development of the fishing industry, other towns were developed.  For instance, Dover, NH was primarily founded for fishing.  The Hiltons, Thomas Roberts and several others in their party were fishmongers in England, the people who prepared and cured fish for shipping. 

The Shoals Today 

At the Isles of Shoals today you will find summer homes and marine life and birds.  Several major universities in the area hold classes to study the ecosystem and wildlife. 

Day trips are available from Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the “Thomas Laighton”.  Thomas Laighton was poet Celia Thaxter’s father.  He was the light house keeper on White Island for most of Celia’s young life.  Her poetry is  composed of her experiences on the island.   Also of interest is the murder mystery at Smuttynose in 1873.

·         Christopher Levett was the uncle of Deacon John Levett of Hingham, Mass.

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