The Piscataqua’s first European settlers set up at two sites

From the git-go, there’s been a rivalry between Portsmouth and Dover, though a closer look reveals it’s more nuanced than what we usually think.

The 1622 contract for developing the Piscataqua watershed allows for more than one vessel to arrive and more than one settlement to be planted along the river.

Scotsman David Thomson is the head of the operation. He sets forth in the Jonathan and establishes his fortified Pannaway plantation at the mouth of the river in today’s Rye – not Portsmouth, contrary to the Port City’s claims of founding. He’s highly placed politically, somehow having the ear of King James I. And specifically, he’s the only one named in the grant.

Pannaway faces the open Atlantic, with salt marsh to its back.

As the scene stands today. The landscape has changed but not the waterways.


IN CONTRAST, when the Providence arrives a month later, she apparently sails straight up the river to today’s Hilton Point aka Dover Point, where Edward Hilton and Thomas Roberts then set up operations. They disembark at Pomeroy Cove, which they name for Leonard Pomeroy, one of the three principal backers of the project. He’s also Lord Mayor of Plymouth, England, home of the company, and co-owner of the ship that’s brought them this far.

As I detail in my upcoming book, Hilton likely knew of the site even before setting sail. It was far enough inland to be sheltered from violent storms. Vast forests extended from the riverbanks, with timber for shipbuilding, piers, and barrels as well as homes and bridges and wild game for the taking. Best of all, the point was a confluence of rich tidal waters, with the Great Bay estuary on one side along with its tributary streams and, on the other side, the Piscataqua and its Cochecho and Salmon Falls rivers. Cod, salmon, sturgeon, eels, herring, oysters, clams, and lobsters are bountiful. Why go out to sea when the fish come right up to you?

While Pannaway is thoroughly documented, in part through its stream of visitors, its existence is short-lived, and the site’s abandoned by 1626, when Thomson relocates to an island in Boston Harbor and disappears soon after. His widow then promptly marries Samuel Maverick – yes, the source of that word. It’s a rough-and-tumble world.


OUT OF THE SPOTLIGHT of documentation, Hilton and Roberts continue on, in time joined by Edward’s brother William and their sister or possibly cousin Rebecca along with more family.

Either way, Roberts and Rebecca soon marry and start a farm about a mile from the point – they later move it another mile-and-half – but theirs will still be the oldest family-owned farm in the future United States well into the 20th century.

The Hilton Point settlement as it’s commonly been envisioned.

It must have been lonely through much of that first decade. The Hilton-Roberts clan was definitely on the frontier, and ongoing war in Europe cut off much ship traffic.

How much, if anything, did Hilton Hall originate in the early settlement at Dover Point? If the house was anywhere near this size, my perspective changes completely.

Edward Hilton is, however, definitively rewarded for his six years of habitation and hard labor by a charter giving him clear control at Dover Point. And they must be prospering, as seen in assessments placed on their province or his brief return to England for the legal document, perhaps a fish delivery, and definitely a marriage.

While Thomas and Rebecca Roberts remain in Dover for the rest of their lives, her brothers eventually move on – Edward to Exeter and William, by degrees along the Maine side of the Piscataqua. All of their lives take colorful turns along the way, which I relate in the book.

Even though Portsmouth baldly claims 1623 as its founding date, it had no European settlement until the Laconia Company chose to set up operations there in 1629 or 1630, calling their site Strawbery Banke. Yes, that was one more convolution of investors.


AND THAT’S THE BARE-BONES VERSION. There’s plenty in my upcoming book to flesh it out, some of it rather earthy – especially when we get to the contemporaneous and scandalous Merrymount plantation down on Plymouth Bay.

Fact: New Hampshire is the second-oldest state to be settled in New England. Older than Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, or Vermont.

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