New Hampshire

John Winthrop Disrespects the Isles of Shoals

You’d never know it from the journal of John Winthrop, but the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire were once an important fishing entrepot in  transatlantic commerce.

The Isles of Shoals by Childe Hassam

The Isles of Shoals by Childe Hassam

The nine Isles of Shoals lie about six miles off the mainland, windswept, treeless, with no permanent year-round homes. They are best known now as the former site of Appledore House, where Celia Thaxter tended her famous garden and hosted artists, writers and intellectuals such as  Ralph Waldo EmersonNathaniel Hawthorne and Childe Hassam. But well before that, the Isles of Shoals were a prosperous fishing community.

They were first fished in the 16th century — maybe earlier — by Basque, French, Portuguese, Irish and English fishermen. They first set up seasonal camps. The English, who were Anglicans, incorporated the first town on Appledore Island in 1661.  The Anglican fishermen harvested the teeming cod from the deep water off the isles, dried and salted them. They they sold them into European and Caribbean markets. As many as 1,000 people may have lived on the Isles at one time. All that was pretty much forgotten.

Unlike the religious Puritans, who came to North America to build a city on a hill, the Anglicans came to fish. And since there was a civil war going on in England at the time, the two sides didn’t always view each other kindly. Unfortunately for history, the Anglicans on the Shoals were too busy fishing to record their own history. And the Puritans certainly weren’t going to do it for them.

Dissing the Isles of Shoals

The Puritans did occasionally write about the Shoalers, but with disparagement. Massachusetts Gov.  John Winthrop showed some in this April 24, 1644  journal entry.

Mr. Vines came to Boston with a letter from himself and the other of Sir F. Gorges. commissioners, and other inhabitants of the province, between 20 and 30.

Three fishermen of a boat belonging to Isle of Shoals were very profane men, and scorners of religion, and were drinking on the Lord’s day, and the next week their boat was cast upon the rocks at the Isle of Shoals, and they drowned.

There was little rain this winter, and now snow till the 3d of he 1st month, the wind continuing W. and N.W. near six weeks, which was an occasion that very many houses were burned down, and much chattels (in some of them) to a greater value than in 14 years before.

This story was updated in 2022.

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