One of my key insights into Dover’s early character came after noticing that the majority of its early residents came from Devonshire – or Devon – rather than the East Anglia shires of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Cambridge that dominated New England’s Puritan migration, construction, and social order.
And that holds for even the Puritans who take over Dover in 1633 (or so).
In his groundbreaking Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), David Hackett Fischer elaborates on what he calls the various folkways of four distinctly different regions of Britain, which in turn gave Colonial Massachusetts, Virginia, the Delaware Valley, and the Backcountry their unique natures – divergences that continue, to various degrees, today.
I had already observed that Dover and, for that matter, New Hampshire’s only other towns of the first 70 years – Hampton, Exeter, and Portsmouth – weren’t built around a definitive town square with its church, town hall, and common, as were typical towns in Massachusetts. It’s a hint that the differences run much deeper.
While Fischer goes into great detail on East Anglia’s impact on Massachusetts, he does not in turn examine Devon. At most, he touches on it as he turns to a larger and vaguer area that provided the Cavalier migration into Virginia, one with a center more in South England rather than the South West of Devon. And much of his presentation focuses on the ways they evolved in Virginia, contrasting life in Massachusetts.
Still, he points to differences that go back into antiquity. The language and laws of Devon and its neighboring shires for example, were shaped by West Saxons to the east and Celts to the north and west. In contrast, East Anglia’s are rooted in its Danish occupation.
From the little I’ve been able to glean thus far comes statements that Devon was regarded as backward by many, a repository of the “old England” of superstition and legend. It was a place of seafaring, with Plymouth as a principal port and Bristol just to the north, and of large manors with their landed gentry.
There are also suggestions of crucial ways its social manners and religious affinities deviated, affecting how Dover residents interacted with the itinerant Quakers.
No, the English weren’t all alike, not by a long shot. Often, they couldn’t even understand the dialect from another part of Britain.
I would love to see a comprehensive study of those Devon folkways along the lines of Fischer’s earlier work. It would no doubt give us a much more detailed picture of life along the Piscataqua in those seminal decades of settlement. How they cooked and dressed, for instance, or raised their children or treated illnesses or buried their dead, as starters.
Still, my upcoming book shares what I’ve found so far.