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375 Years of History

By Paul Peter Jesep

Portsmouth is the pearl of New England. Its quaint streets, stately homes, and eclectic shops made if one of the most popular tourists destinations in the region. But Portsmouth is about more than tourism dollars.

Heroes, patriots, entrepreneurs, fishermen, and gifted furniture makers abound here. The celebration of Portsmouth's 375-year legacy is not just the commemoration of one community, but of the nation's heritage as well. Every state in the union has a connection of New Hampshire's colonial capital. Because of men like John Paul Jones and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the city has played a key role in forming and later preserving one of the greatest democracies in the world.

Just as importantly, the citizens of Portsmouth have greatly contributed to creating the American identity of individualism, self-reliance, and boundless optimism, among other things. In the 1600s, rugged individuals lived and fished for cod off the Isles of Shoals. Entrepreneurs later became great merchants of ship builders.

At one time, this ancient city competed with Boston and Philadelphia as the busiest port in the northeast. Her sea captains, considered some of the best trained in the world, made their way to the far reaches of the globe. Majestic ships brought back china, exotic spices, and fine fabrics like silk. Extensive trade with the West Indies helped to romanticize the seafaring life.

According to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, "Just prior to the American Revolution, the Piscataqua area ranked third in the colonies in exports, shipping nearly 5.000 objects to communities from Newfoundland to the West Indies."

Between 1760 and 1820, despite the disruption of two wars, Portsmouth enjoyed its first significant "golden age." Wealth brought with it more status for its citizens who wanted the finest, prompting one observer to say, "No town in New England claimed to be more aristocratic ... In no town was society more exclusive and pretentious."

In the mid-19th century, the city earned an international reputation for making some of the finest three-masted ships in the world. Records for trans-Atlantic crossings were shattered by Portsmouth-built vessels.

Men like John Langdon, a wealthy Portsmouth merchant, exemplified the emerging definition of Americanism. He had the most to lose in politically and financially supporting the Revolution. His commitment to the new concept of "liberty," so eloquently defined by Thomas Paine in The Crisis, Common Sense, and The Rights of Man, made it impossible for this man of honor, courage, and character to choose any other option.

"I have one thousand dollars in hard money," Langdon told New Hampshire officials prior to the Revolution, "I will pledge my plate for three thousand more, and I have seventy hogshead of Tobago Rum, which will be sold for the most they will bring. They are at the service of the State (in the fight for American independence)."

On December 13, 1774, Paul Revere delivered a warning to Portsmouth that British troops would soon be dispatched to re-enforce Fort William and Mary on the island called New Castle.

Langdon joined a group of patriots to raid the fort and remove its 100 barrels of gun powder. This fire power was later used at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Incidentally, not until 1775, does Revere make his famous ride to Lexington exclaiming, "The British are coming!"

Langdon later financed the Battle of Bennington in Vermont. After the Revolution, he served as governor of New Hampshire and President of the U.S. Senate. In the latter capacity, he administered the oath of office to Washington and Adams.

John Paul Jones was a contemporary of Langdon. The dashing naval officer and father of the American navy rented a room in the large yellow house at the corner of Middle and State Streets. This famous Portsmouth resident is best remembered for his exclamation to a British officer who sought his surrender during a naval battle, "I have not yet begun to fight!"

During the Civil War, Gov. Ichabod Goodwin was one of the first chief executives to send troops when President Lincoln summoned the call to arms. While abolitionists were prominent here so was slavery. Some Portsmouth families engaged in slavery through much of the 18th and part of the 19th century.

In the 19th century, Frank Jones, mayor, congressman, gubernatorial candidate, and state Democratic party chairman, not only owned the brewery that produces the most ale in the country, but his role in state and national politics is still felt to this day. In 1882, Jones, a notorious deal-maker, welcomed President Chester A. Arthur to Portsmouth. After closed door negotiations, he convinced Arthur not to close Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

The legacy of Jones is still felt in commerce. The Portsmouth Board of Trade, an important association of prominent business leaders in the 19th century, received much of its support from Jones. Now it's called the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, it took a nationally known red light district overlooking the Piscataqua to make way for today's Prescott Park. The Prescott sisters, after successfully challenging their brother's will, which left nothing to them, purchased much of the land that now serves as a beautiful place of relaxation and enjoyment for families.

A thriving ethnic community also existed alongside the city's brothels. The 1920 U.S. Census shows that immigrants from Sweden, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, Ireland, and Scotland, among other places, contributed to the rich social fabric of Portsmouth.

Collectively, all of these people and events made this city what it is today. Portsmouth is about to embrace a new century. The city also approaches its 400th birthday, in 25 short years, with vision, confidence, and a strong sense of identity and purpose. The city's future looks brighter than ever because of the men and women who have paved the way for the citizens of today.

Those who are active members of the community have a sacred duty to their forefathers and mothers. They must be vigilant in working for the city's best interest, protecting neighborhoods while carefully allowing for commercial development. And just as importantly, today's residents must preserve Portsmouth's history and protect her beauty for the next generation.