A map is seen much differently from the water

One awareness I’ve gained living in New England is that when you’re out on the water – say in a sailboat, fishing boat, whale watch, or ferry – the geography fits together quite differently than it does on the land.

For example, where I now live in Maine, it’s only four miles or so from our downtown to the one just south of us. That is, if you’re just looking, going by water, or a bird. To drive, though, you have to head north and loop around Cobscook Bay, a distance of 38 miles and about 46 minutes. At least it has no traffic lights.

The water perspective is especially important in understanding the dynamics of early Dover, centered as it was at Hilton Point and Dover Neck between the Piscataqua River and Great Bay. For example, the heart of the town of Kittery was in today’s Eliot, just a mile away by water but 18 miles by land. And today’s Kittery was ten miles downstream or even longer by land.

Hilton Point was just to the left of the “cat” in Piscataqua, while the Shapleigh Kittery House was just to the cat’s right. Getting there by land, though, means going all the way up to the Salmon Falls River. Even finding a map like this of the watershed can be a challenge. Usually, it’s divided by the state line that runs up the river.

Oyster River, or today’s Durham, was only four to eight miles to the west, depending whether you were stopping at wharves along the way or going all the way to the Lamprey River’s falls and the landing.

A trip by boat between Eliot/Kittery and Oyster River/Dover was – and still is – no big deal.

In fact, by water they were closer to Hilton Point than was the village at Cochecho Falls, today’s downtown Dover.

For perspective, I’ve read that a man on the Isles of Shoals thought nothing of rowing ten miles – six of them on the open ocean – for an evening in Portsmouth and then ten miles back in the dark.

In comparison, the relocation of families from Eliot/Kittery to Oyster River becomes much more sensible than a land-based movement would suggest, and much less puzzlingly.

Also, the boundary between New Hampshire and Maine largely dissolves. The watershed becomes the defining perspective.

In terms of understanding history, “Piscataqua” can mean not just the original settlement at Hilton Point but also the expansion across both sides up and down the river. That seems to be the case when Portsmouth, Kittery, and New Castle all claim a 1623 founding.

You might even say it muddies the water.


Welcome to Dover’s upcoming 400th anniversary.


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