'Bery Short Takes

Occasional observations from Strawbery Banke Museum about history and historic houses, people and events related to the Portsmouth NH waterfront neighborhood of Puddle Dock.

January 18: Happy birthday, Daniel Webster.

New Hampshire’s state motto is famously, “Live Free or Die,” derived from a toast made by Revolutionary War veteran General John Stark (remembered today with a statue in front of the New Hampshire State House – and a vodka, the first distilled spirits manufactured in the state in modern times.)

Yet another State House statue and an even more resonant quote comes from native son Daniel Webster, born in Franklin NH ion January 18, 1782. Daniel Webster is probably the biggest reason the “Old Man of the Mountains” remains the official New Hampshire emblem found on license plates, State Trooper badges and the New Hampshire quarter. Even though the Old Man collapsed in the night in May 2003, there is still a viewing platform in Franconia Notch, with memorial pavers and a line-of-sight sculpture that allows the thousands of visitors who stop by to see what the rock outcropping looked like when the face was actually granite.

The Old Man, or Great Stone Face, was reported by English settler and woodsman Nathan when he accompanied local Abenaki through their mountain trails in 1805. Decades later, Daniel Webster proclaimed, “Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men."

Though claimed by Massachusetts whom he represented as US Senator, Webster is as immortal in New Hampshire and those who wish to follow his trail can do so with many stops: in West Franklin, where the family farm, The Elms (a National Historic Landmark) was saved from development in 2005; his own peak Mount Webster in the White Mountains; and Dartmouth College in Hanover from which he graduated in 1801.

Portsmouth is on that trail, too and some say he loved his time in Portsmouth (1807 to 1817) best. Webster moved to Portsmouth in 1807 and set up his law office in sight of Market Square. The family lived in another house lost to the Great Fire of 1813 before moving into the building that originally stood at #58 or #60 High Street. That building, the Webster Family home from 1814 to 1816, is now owned by Strawbery Banke. It was moved to the museum in 1964 to save it from demolition and is now leased to a private individual and not open to the public.

The Webster House at Strawbery Banke at the corner of Hancocl & Washington Streets.

?February 8, 2019 -- Black History Month 

The Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail links 24 sites important to the history of Africans and African-Americans, whose first documented arrival in Portsmouth, enslaved, was in 1645.

The Trail interprets the stories of people and places up through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and includes both the 1842 visit of Frederick Douglass who spoke at The Temple (predecessor to The Music Hall) and Rev. Martin Luther King (whose future wife, Coretta Scott, was a member of the choir who sang at his appearance at The Pearl in 1952.

Four of the bronze tablets explaining the history of Black Heritage in Portsmouth are positioned on historic buildings at Strawbery Banke. The stories are rich in detail and offer opportunities for further research:

Stoodley’s Tavern – home to James Stoodley and his wife, a daughter Elizabeth, a son William, and two enslaved Africans, Frank and Flora. Stoodley also hosted auctions in this building, enslaved Africans were sold in 1762 and 1767, along with barrels of rum and bags of cotton.

Sherburne House – where the Sherburne Family’s burgeoning prosperity was aided by the free labor of two enslaved Africans whose names are lost to time. Patricia Wall’s 2017 book Lives of Consequence documents the many NH and Maine Seacoast families whose circumstances directly benefitted from the same free labor. According to the Black Heritage Trail, "Joseph, was a mariner, merchant and farmer. He lived here with his family and two slaves who are listed in a 1744 estate inventory as "one Negro man [pounds] 200, one ditto woman [pounds] 50." The man probably worked for Joseph at sea, on the dock, in his store, and on Joseph's outlying farmland. The woman probably worked for Joseph's wife Mary at food preparation, cleaning, textile production and maintaining the kitchen garden behind the house. White Yankees typically assigned their enslaved people to sleeping space in attics, cellars, and back ells. The black Sherburnes probably slept in the attic of this cellar-less house.”

Penhallow House – where Judge Penhallow notarized  both manumission and slave auction sales receipts. Penhallow House originally stood at the southeast corner of Court and Pleasant streets. It was moved to its present site in 1862. The Trail plaque says, "There were a few free black people in colonial Portsmouth, and increasing numbers were freed after the Revolution. To certify their status and prove their exemption from slave curfew laws, free black people secured freedom papers from their former owners. Some also registered with the town clerk or a justice of the peace, such as Samuel Penhallow who lived in this house." Recent research by the Curator delves into the history of the Richardson Family who lived in the house in the 1950s. Mr. Richardson was the first Black superintendent at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and an activist in the New Hampshire NAACP.

Pitt Tavern – where tavern owner John Stavers kept an enslaved African, James. The Trail tablet tells of the night Stavers was accused by a Revolutionary-era mob of being a Tory. “On January 29, 1777 Mark Noble, backed by a mob, tried to chop down Stavers’ tavern sign. Stavers sent out his enslaved African, James, to stop them. James hit Noble in the head with an ax, knocking him unconscious. Noble recovered but within two days the Portsmouth Committee of Safety arrested Stavers and along with fifteen others "notoriously disaffected to the American cause" turned him over to the New Hampshire Committee of Safety at Exeter, and sent testimony from men who had frequented Stavers’ tavern expressly to eavesdrop.” James was not charged because he was considered only property.