Impetus for this unit came from the Plymouth 400th Anniversary celebration in 2020. While we wanted to participate in those celebrations, we also wanted a viable unit that we could provide living history experiences for the communities in the Maine/New Hampshire coastal area. We were focused on the very beginning of settlements along the Piscataqua (pronounced peh-SCAT-a-kwa) River. Our interest in the firearms of the period drew us to want to include a local defense impression, but we knew that none of those early settlements had the numbers or organization on their own. Thus, we decided to call ourselves a name that could draw on all those communities but with no real original unit connected to it, until subsequent research led us to an actual incident involving such a mixed unit of men from the settlements, a real “Piscataqua Company.”.
History of the Piscataqua Settlements
In 1622 in England, a grant was made by the Council of Plymouth to two of its more prominent members, Sir Ferdinando Gorges and Capt. John Mason. They would jointly control of all the land between the Merrimack and Kennebec Rivers, extending back to Canada. Original documents indicate they intended to call it “Maine,” but in the end named it after their company, “Laconia.”
The company sent over men in 1623 to settle their new land and begin the process to make it profitable. David Thompson (always referred to as a “Scotsman”) stopped at the west side of the mouth of the Piscataqua River at place called Little Harbor. He would build a house at Odiorne Point and a salt works, the salt needed to salt fish. This settlement was sufficient enough to help Plymouth Colony that first year when they needed food. Myles Standish arrived, and Thompson accompanied him back to Plymouth with the supplies. Thompson would leave for an island he wanted the following year.
The other men sent by Mason and Gorges were Edward and William Hilton. They proceeded up the river about eight miles and settled on a point of land now called Dover Point.
About the same time (1623) men established themselves in Kittery, men involved in fishing, fur trading, and lumber. The original grant for Kittery included present day Eliot and the Berwicks.
The settlements remained in place, although they did not really prosper at first. We do know that in 1628 they joined the chorus against Thomas Morton at Merry Mount (now Quincy, MA) because Morton was selling guns to the Indians. The New Hampshire settlements urged Plymouth to do something about Merry Mount. Myles Standish marched to Merry Mount and arrested Morton.
In 1629 Mason and Gorges received new patents dividing their holdings between them rather holding it jointly. The dividing line was the center of the Piscataqua River with Mason getting the western section and Gorges the east. The Hiltons got a patent for their land in 1630, although it was still part of the Mason holding.
In 1631 Mason sent over agents and stewards to care for his land and enterprises. Captain Walter Neal would be the agent for “Piscataquack” and Captain Thomas Wiggins the agent for Dover. Neal and Wiggins laid out the towns of Portsmouth and Northam (Dover). Ten stewards would control different aspects of the colony, including fishing, saltworks, sawmill, trade, building and farming. Renald Fernald was a surgeon. Humphrey Chadbourne built a house at the present site of Portsmouth, although more commonly called “Strawberry Bank” because of wild strawberries that grew in the area. Walter Neal settled at Odiorne Point. Edward Godfrey had been living there for a year or two and had been in charge of fishing. He had six “great shallops,” five fishing boats and 13 skiffs.
That same year Ambrose Gibbons, another steward, built a trading post at Newichawannock on the east side of the river to trade with the natives. There was a palisaded storehouse and a large dwelling with an ample supply of ammunition for defense. Gibbons also built a sawmill. sawmill. Newichawannock is now South Berwick and the site was somewhere near Vaughn Woods. Gibbons did not remain long and was replaced by Humphrey Chadbourne.
Edward Godfrey did not remain at Odiorne Point long either, for he built the first house in York around 1631.
In addition to sending these prominent men, Mason sent eight “Danes” who were expert lumbermen, and twenty-two women. Supply records indicate there had been women before this, but it is assumed these women were sent to be wives of the workers.
So certainly by 1635 there were five viable communities along or near the Piscataqua River: Portsmouth (Strawberry Bank and Odiorne Point), Dover (Northam), “Old” (South) Berwick (Newichawannock), Kittery, and York.
“The Piscataquack Company”
Captain Mason provided the means for his colonies to defend themselves. Mention is made of four “large cannon” being sent to establish a fort to protect the harbor, and other small cannon were provided. The company supply lists in the early 1630s list harquebuses, muskets, fowlers, carbines, swords and belts, halberds, bandoliers, powder, shot and match. These weapons were meant to be distributed to the men as needed for defense. One such occasion occurred in 1632 when men were drawn from Portsmouth, Dover and South Berwick.
In 1632 a pirate named “Dixy Bull” with fifteen men had captured several boats along the coast and “rifled” the fort at Pemaquid. Captain Walter Neal, the agent in Portsmouth, working with the agent in Dover, assembled a force of 40 men (all they could spare) from Portsmouth, South Berwick and Dover in four boats to go after the pirates. Massachusetts Bay agreed to send a boat with 20 men “to join with those of Piscataquack.” They sailed to Pemaquid, but the winds failed them and after three weeks they returned. Dixy Bull had sailed eastward, eventually went to England where he was hanged. So, we have a military force assembled from the communities along the Piscataqua River, an actual “Piscataqua Company,” and they even went to Pemaquid.
The Piscataqua Company Recreated
So, this Piscataqua Company represents the settlers along the Piscataqua River, 1623-1640, including Dover, Portsmouth, NH, “Old” Berwick, York, and Kittery, ME. Unlike the Pilgrims at Plymouth and the Boston area under the Massachusetts Bay Company, these were not Puritans seeking freedom to worship as they wanted, they were men under contract by landed proprietors to establish economically viable communities. As such there was a focus on fishing, salting, lumbering, and trade. Part of the responsibility included defense of the communities, as illustrated in the incident with the pirate Dixy Bull. The Piscataqua Company attempts to remember those men and women that first settled New Hampshire and Maine.
The information above drawn partially from the following sources:
Charles E. Clark, The Eastern Frontier (1970)
Charles Edward Banks, History of York, Maine (1931)
Jeremy Belknap, History of New Hampshire (1831)
Nathaniel Adams, Annals of Portsmouth (1825)