A History of the Piscataqua River Region

Author: Tim Colletto

1602 – Early 17th Century Explorers

(rough draft)

( add https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuper%27s_Cove )

In 1602, the Concord, commanded by Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, learning from members of the earlier voyage Humphrey Gilbert, reached the southern part of Maine, possibly Cape Porpoise, Kennebunkport, and held parley at what is now York. The explored New England, possibly as far south as Martha’s Vinyard. No colony was established yet.

Gosnold, as did the other explorers, called the natives “indians” under the belief that they were the inhabitants of the Indies, which they were seeking through the mythical Northwest Passage (10).

The first European to explore and write about the Piscataqua river was 23 year old English explorer Martin Pring in 1603. Pring is believed to have sailed his ship up the Piscataqua River all the way into Great Bay looking for sassafras, considered to be a plant with great medicinal value. None were found, but he camped at the spot where Portsmouth was to be founded.

in 1605 George Weymouth visited Monhegan, explored the coast, captured 5 natives, brought them back to Europe, and taught them English. Three of them he gave to Sir Ferdinando, by whom one of them was sent back in 1607 with Captain George Popham. Years later, these natives were to have an major impact on the early pioneers of the the New World.

In 1606 Captain Henry Challons left Plymouth, England, but was captured by a Spanish fleet.

The Plymouth and London Companies, named after their respected locations in England, were joint-stock companies founded in 1606 by James I of England. Rich merchants in the London and Plymouth area agreed to finance settlers in return for repayment plus interest out of profit made. Popham was the first attempt at a settlement for the Plymouth Company and Jamestown the first attempt for the London Company.

Popham is in Maine and “SA” is Saint Augustine FL a Spanish Colony

In 1607, Captain George Popham, with the help of Pring and Captain Challons, tried to make the first ever English colony in New England at the mouth of Sagadahoc, Kennebunk River (Google Maps search for Popham Beach). (18) The story and failure of Popham Colony will not be expored here. The failure did, however, discouraged English attempts at exploration and settlement for roughly 16 years. These companies fizzled out but were replaced by The Council for New England in 1620.

In 1610, John Guy petitioned the King and esablished a colony in Newfoundland called the Cuper’s (Cupids) Cove Colony. This was the first official English colony in Canada and second in North America only behind Jamestown.

Other European Empires were not dormant. In 1604 Frenchman De Monts received a legal monopoly of the fur trade in the new land, from Newfoundland to Philadelphia. De Monts, Samuel de Champlain, and Jeal de Potrincourt left on two ships for Nova Scocia. (18)

They explored the Bay of Fundy, named a now famous island “Isle des Monts Deserts” and La Cadia, later called Acadia, sailed up the Penobscot River. He also explored the modern area of Bangor, possibly to the foot of Oak St, named the St. John River, St. Croix, and also sailed to Cape Cod. (18)

De Mont returned to established a colony at St. Croix. 2/5ths died the first winter. Spring brought provisions but they refused to spend another winter. Before the end of the summer they moved across the bay to Port Royal Nova Scotia. The first military battle between English and French over the territory of New England happened near here, at Sommes’ Point, and did not commence until 150 years later with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Most or all of the French Settlements were destroyed by the English, who launched from the Virginia Settlement, though Champlain did go on and found Quebec.

John Smith of Jamestown fame, at age 38, started working for Ferdinando Gorges and the Plymouth Company, much to the anger of the Virginia. He sailed to the Maine coast and landed at Monhegan in 1614. Like other exporers, he search for percious minerals and found none. He took a small group and then sailed from Monhegan to Cape Cod while mapping the coast along the way. He named the Isle of Shoals “Smith’s Isles” and cited the area as an excellent spot for a harbor. I think he is cited as the first person to name this area “New England.” (2)

While the majority of these expeditions had a goal turning profits through gold silver, and resources, it’s interesting to note that in Description of New England he envisioned towns along the coast where men and women would live with children. “No landlords to rackle us with high rents, no struggle to get justice in the courts. Here every man may be master of his own little harbor and land. Could I have but meanes to transport a colonie, I would rather live here than anywhere.” (6)

When John Smith reported this to Prince Charles, he said “Call it New England.”

“In 1615 Smith set sail with two ships and sixteen colonists… but was captured and taken to France. Gorges settlement was again delayed.” (9) In 1617, Smith tried returning again with three ships, but were stuck in harbor by contrary winds for so long that his supporters lost heart. (2) For John Smith, that was his last adventure to the New World and he died in London in 1631. (18)

In 1615, Sir Richard Hawkins sailed from England with a comission from the Council of Plymouth to do what service he could for them; but upon his arrival, he found a destructive war prevailing among the naitives, and passed along the coast to Virginia. (18)

Gorges personally paid for a crew to attempt to “winter” in Maine. In 1616 He sent Captain Richard Vines, who became prominent in the early history of Maine, to winter on the Maine Coast at the mouth of the Saco River. Known as the “Swanckadocke River,” there were many native who lived in the area, including Samoset who greeted the Pilgrims in Plymouth.

A civil war broke out in Maine, and those who managed to survive were mostly killed by plagues that decimated New England, killing upwards or 9/10 Natives. Vimes wintered at Leighton’s Point, which they called Winter Harbor still to this day (18). In 1618 Gorges persuaded a few people to spend the winter at Monhegan. (9)

It was one of these men, Thomas Dermer, brought back two natives that had been captured earlier, named Squanto. If you’re reading this, you should be familiar with the Squanto of Plymouth Plantation fame. (9)

Financial loses caused the Plymouth Company to fold, so King James issued a new patent called “Great Patent of New England” in 1620. This patent was made up of 40 noblemen and merchants. (9)

The next settlements that Gorges sent over established a fishing and trading post at Monhegan in 1621. It became important for supplying people in Massachusetts Bay during the hard winter of 1623. This was the first settlement which continued for any considerable length of time within any part of the territory of Maine. (18)

We also find that a settlement was commenced at Pemaquid in 1625, which became the most populated settlements on the entire coast of New England, numbering 500 people. It continued to increase without interruption until it’s destruction during King Phillips War in 1675.


(References are undergoing formatting updates)

  1. J. Dennis Robinson, Strawberry Banke
  2. Louis Clinton Hatch, Maine Historical Society, Maine a History Volume 1
  3. Eliot Historical Society, “Eliot History Bicentennial Walking Tour”
  4. Edward C Moody Agamenticus Gorgeana York 1623-1914 York Publishing Company 1907
  5. W Woodford Clayton History of York County, Maine: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches
  6. Ola Elizabeth Winslow Portsmouth, The Life of a Town The Macmillan Company New York 1966
  7. http://www.seacoastnh.com/History/History-Matters/finding-the-first-house-in-new-hampshire/?showall=1
  8. Russell M Lawson Portsmouth, An Old Town by the Sea
  9. Marion Jaques Smith, A History of Maine, From Wilderness to Statehood, 1949, Book Craftsmen Associates Inc, New York
  10. Charles Edward Banks, History of York, Maine, 1931, Boston, Old York Historical Society
  11. http://www.seacoastnh.com/portsmouth-and-dover-still-feuding-over-1623-nh-founding-date/?start=1
  12. http://www.oldberwick.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=375:the-first-permanent-settlement-in-maine-c-1926-everett-s-stackpole&Itemid=126
  13. Piscataqua Pioneers
  14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exeter,_New_Hampshire
  15. https://www.exeterhistory.org/exeter-history/2016/6/24/early-exeter-history-1638-1887
  16. Green Acre on the Piscataqua, Third Edition, BaHai Publishing Trust, 2012
  17. Nathaniel Adams, Annals of Portsmouth
  18. History of York County, Maine. With illustrations and biological sketches of its promiment men and pioneers. W. Woodford Clayton. Philadelphia, Everts & Peck 1880
  19. History of Centennial of the Toan of Eliot, Augustine Cladwell, 1912
  20. Ralph Sylvestor Bartlett, History of York Maine, Reynolds Historical Geneology Collection, 1938
  21. Sherburne F. Cook, “The Significance of Disease in the Extinction of the New England Indians,” Human Biology, vol. 45 no. 3 (September 1973): 489-90
  22. Edward T. O’Donnell, “Of Plague and Pilgrims: How a Devastating Epidemic Shaped the First Thanksgiving.” Web. http://inthepastlane.com.
  23. John Marr & John Cathey, “New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic Among Native Americans, New England, 1616-1619,” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 16, no. 2 (February 2010).
  24. William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, Volume 1 (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010), 220.
  25. Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643
  26. History of the Town of Durham
  27. https://archive.org/stream/piscataquapionee00pisc/piscataquapionee00pisc_djvu.txt
  28. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/34873656/thomas-wiggin
  29. https://www.dover.nh.gov/government/city-operations/library/history/Heritage-Walking-Tours/1998-heritage-trolley-tour.html
  30. http://earlynewenglandfamilies.blogspot.com/2012/05/morrell-family-of-new-england.html
  31. https://www.geni.com/people/Anthony-Emery-Sr/6000000002923767034
  32. Pickett, Dwane W, “Captain William Hilton and the Founding of Hilton Head Island” 2019 Arcadia Publishing
  33. Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England 1500-1643, 1982
  34. Old Kittery and Her Families
  35. Burrage, Henry S. Gorges and the Grant of the Province of Maine, 1923
  36. Hinsdale, B.A, History and Governement of Maine, 1898

1634 Nicholas Frost Eliot

(More coming)

Born in 1585, Nicholas Frost and his decendants were major pioneers of the Piscataqua area and still own land here today. From Tiverton, England, he probably first built a house at Sturgeon Creek in Eliot, and then moved two miles inland, sailing up the creek to the very bottom of what was known as Frost’s Hill. This second residence was built towards the back end of 617 Goodwin Road.

The First house at Sturgeon Creek is said to be the first residence in Eliot Maine. The land was given to him by Thomas Wannerton, though evidentally not legally, and became neighbors of Alexander Shapleigh and James Treworgy.


1500s Pre Colonial Exploration

There is some evidence of Eurpeon activity in New England before the 15th century:

  • Mystery Hill, American Stonehenge, Salem, New Hampshire may be the oldest surviving man made structure in New England. You can find more information at their website https://www.stonehengeusa.com/ and read about it in Harvard Professor Dr. Barry Fell’s book America BC. Or it was just built by early colonists.
  • L’Anse aux Meadows is the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America, with carbon dating having the site at 950-1030 CE. The Vikings may have traveled through Canada, possibly through Maine, and had a settlement in Rhode Island. The story goes that “Leif” was sent by King Olaf of Norway to introduce Christianity abroad. He discovered a place with an abundance of grapes growing which he named Vinland or Wineland. The actual location of “Vinland” is unkown. Two attempts were made to establish a colony but they failed. No European DNA has ever been discovered from Native Americans. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brendan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Anse_aux_Meadows
  • Christohper Columbus did not have any voyages that reached North America
  • Italian explorer John Cabot, leaving from Bristol in 1497, it is thought he reached Cape Breton, Nova Scocia, and during a second voyage in 1498, traveled further south and was possibly the first European to discover (or rediscover) Maine.

An Ottoman-Turkish named Admiral Piri Reis, in 1510, mapped a huge amount of land, including parts of North America Europe, North Africa, parts of South America, the Canary Islands, and Antartica.

Piri Reis Map

While the Spaniards were winning the “Empire Wars” with their exploits in South America, France and England were about to fight it out for second and third place in North America. Starting in the 16th century, the English and French began sending fishing and scouting missions to the region. This slowly escalated into conflict and it did not end until the The War of 1812.

The French were the first to take a more active role in the region, primarily in northeastern Maine and Canada, which included the beginnings of perpetual trade between Europeans and the New England Native Americans.

Giovani da Verrazano, in 1524, reached farther south than the Cabot expidition. He reached the shore of Wilmington, NC, and then sailed north.

Estavan Gomez, sailing for the Spanish in 1525, explored the coast of Maine and named some of the places he visited. The Penobscot, which he detailed vividly, he named the “Rio De Gomez.”

In 1527 an Englishman named Rut explored the Maine coast and stated that the area was “peculiarly fitted to repay expenditures made in colonizing it.” (36)

In 1534 Jacques Cartier, commishioned by King Francis I of France, discovered the St. Lawrence River and sailed up to the Native village of Hochelaga, modern day Montreal. He attempted to plant a colony near Quebec in 1541 and the Bay of Fundy in 1598. (2) His exploration of the region propelled France to futher explore and colonize the region in the 17th century.

In 1556, a French Catholic priest explored the coast named Andre Thevet explored the coast and was particularly taken of the area between the Piscataqua and Penobscot. (36)

English fishermen were known to frequent the coast, especially Newfoundland. In 1565 John Hawkins sailed along the Maine coast. They did make a stop and traveled inland, and sailors David Ingram, Richard Brown, and Richard Twide may have been the first white men to visit the interior of Maine.

In 1578, the English Queen Elizabeth allowed Sir Humphrey Gilbert to explore the new land, took formal possession of Newfoundland for the Queen, but was unable to establish any official footprint on the new world.


Andres Thevet speaks of the Penobscot as Norumbega, but says that the natives called it Agoncy. The name Norumbega was used by early explorers to designate the entire coastal region of Maine. Their vivid imagination say rich empires, huge cities, splendid towers, palaces, gold, silver, and opulent in all the riches of the East. (36)

At the end of the 16th Century, there were no colonies in New England, but knowledge of this land was now readily available, and was so for a long time. “These accounts of the New World aroused in the minds of enterprising men of Europe a spirit of adventure and enthusiasm, which finally resulted in the conquest of the natives, the destruction of the forest and fisheries, and the building of a nation.” 36

1622 Ferdinando Gorges

(rough draft)

Ferdinando Gorges is a name largely forgotten in American history, but he is considered “The Father of English Colonization of North America.(2)” His interest specifically in Maine and the Piscataqua region was decades in the making.

His father, Edward Gorges, was the nineteenth descendent of Ranolf de Gorges from Carentan, in Lower Normandy. Ranolf crossed the English channel with the followers of William the Conquerer as part of the Norman conquest. Wraxall, near Plymouth England, became the English seat of the Gorges family. (2)

Although he was the owner of all the land from the Piscataqua to the Kennebec, he went on to specificly found “Gorgeana” which was later named to York. More about this can be read here: http://piscataquaplantations.com/1623-agamenticus-gorgeana-york/

As we have seen, many reasons contributed to European colonization on the East Coast of the New World including natural resources, logging, gold, silver, fish, trade, and the survival of the Virginia Company in Jamestown, and other colonial powers. They were competing with the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and other rivals for land and power.

Ferdinando, from Plymouth, England, became a rich and powerful man. Through military service, he was knighted by the earl of Essex. He became governor of the fort at Plymouth.

In 1605, George Weymouth returned from Maine, arriving in Plymouth with five captive Native Americans. Gorges kept three and sent two others to George Popham. He learned about the rivers, islands, safe harbors, where great men lived, how they were aligned, and what enemies they had. Gorges and Popham agreed that any colony should be through royal decree.

Just one year later, in 1606, King James issued a charter for two companies, the first being London and second Plymouth. The London compnay was able to move quickly, and they had ships out immediately headed towards Jamestown. The northern colony needed more exploration.

Since Sir Ferdinando Gorges had chartered several of the earlier expeditions to the region he knew of the strange epidemic and it’s catastrophic impact on the native populations noting “their vulnerability to European microbes and power.” (25) It is by no genuis stoke that by 1620, Gorges was chief agent for the Council for New England.

Gorges met John Mason through Sir William Alexander, who was seeking the Nova Scotia area and knew John Mason was involved in Newfoundland. Alexander ended up getting a slice of Nova Scotia through The Council of New England.

In 1622, Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason received a large land grant from The Council which they named “Ligonia” or Plough Patent. The name Ligonia derived from Gorges Mother’s maiden namewhich was Lydon and Plough because the first ship sent over was on The Plough. (2) The word Ligonia was later annoted as Laconia. The original boundaries of land granted to them both extended between the Kennebec River south to Merrimack River in Massachusetts. Mason acquired the area between the Piscataqua and south to the Merrimack. Mason’s portion became New Hampshire, and Gorges’s portion, was from the Piscataqua north to the Kenebunk, Maine (1).

In Maine, the present towns of Kittery, the Berwicks, and Eliot were originally part of the Piscataqua Plantation, with initial settlements at Quamphegan Falls, Spruce Creek, Sturgeon Creek and at Kittery Point, which in the 1630’s collectively supported a population of about 200 people. The plantation on the east bank of the Piscataqua River at Sturgeon Creek Village was renamed Kittery in about 1647. (1) In my website, I’ve decided to include all the surrounding towns that were settled around this time.

Mason/Gorges’s attention were diverted when England went to war against Spain in 1624 and France in 1626. By the time they ended, “The Great Puritan Migration”, which occured between 1620-1640, saw a huge number of settlements in the Bay Colony, but populations in NH/Maine stayed smaller. By the time they were able to redirect they attention overseas, they were both at the end of their life.

Gorges’s nephew Thomas was said to be perhaps the most significant and influencial, helpful to settlers, and was held in high honor (2). (move this)

Sir Ferdinando Gorges died in 1647 having never visited New England. King Charles I was beheaded, and Puritans under Cromwell gained control of England. During the King’s struggle, Gorges had remained loyal to him. It was perhaps well that he died two years before the king and was spared the grief of seeing puratin control. Gorges had been on the loosing side from the beginning, first in his fishing monopoly, then in his ideas of government, and finally his love for the king. After his death, Gorges’s heirs, being royalists too, were unable to assert their claims in America (9).

He did not leave any direction or inheritance on his lands, and in Gorgeana, an assembly voted to rule independentaly until further notice. Edward Godfrey was voted Governor, and was thus the first person to be voted Governor in what is now the State of Maine (2).

Court cases and disputes between the Bay Colony and Maine continued until 1677, when they finally agreed to Gorges claim, however, were able to purchase the rights for 1250 pounds from his decendants. Game over.

1631 The Castle Fort William and Mary New Castle

1630 Quamphegan Newichawannock South Berwick

(Rough draft. Updated Nov 2020)

The settlement at current day South Berwich is considered the oldest permanent settlement in Maine, where Kittery is the first incorporated town and York the first incorporated city.

In May, 1630, the ship Warwick found its way up the Piscataqua and Newichawannock rivers. On board were Ambrose Gibbons, Roger Knight and probably Thomas Spencer. Their wives came the following year. It is reasonable to assume that there were a few other servants of Mason/Gorges in this first ship’s company. Anchor was cast at the foot of Little Johns Falls, where even at low tide the water is deep. The neighboring shore on the eastern side of the Newichawannock river soon came to be called the Lower Landing, or Pipe Stave Landing. The adventurers came to plant a colony, to carry on trade with the Indians and to obtain lumber. They meant also to explore a large region, hoping to find various mines (12).

The leader, Ambrose Gibbons, must have been somewhat acquainted with the river and his landing place. He was not sailing in the dark to a wholly unknown destination. Probably he had been there before and consulted with Sagamore Rowles at Quamphegan, giving some presents for a piece of land on which to establish a trading post. As early as 1621 the Council of New England at old Plymouth, Devonshire authorized Ambrose Gibbons to deliver to Capt. Mason possession of Cape Anne. For eight years he had been Mason’s factor at Cape Anne, where he built houses, brought cattle and set up the trade of fishery. In 1630 “the Massachusetts Colony violently seized upon that part the Province . . . “and turned the servants and tenants of John Mason out of their possessions.” (N.H. Prov. Papers, XVII, 534) The advantages of trade, the water power, the forest of pine, and the abundance of salmon and sturgeon determined his choice of this locality for a permanent settlement (12).

This original settlement at “Newichawannock” was built and fortified with a palisade and was used as a “trading post” until it burned and nothing currently remains of this settlement except the site of the old “well” which Ambrose Gibbons dug to accommodate the Newichawsannock settlers.

William Chadbourne, father of Humphrey Chadbourne (Portsmouth) built


GIBBONS, AMBROSE The plantation at Newichawannock (now South 
Berwick) was begun, probably, in 1631. Ambrose Gib- 
bons had charge. Mason and others wrote to him un- 
der date of Nov. 5, 1632, "We praie you to take care of 
our house at Newichawannock, and to look well after 
our vines; also you may take some of our swine and 
goates, which we pray you to preserve." This implies 
that a house had been built sometime before and vines 
planted. Here trade was carried on with the Indians, 
who sometimes came to the number of one hundred. A 
deposition shows that a piece of land was purchased of 
the Indians. It probably lay on both sides of the Little 
Newichawannock River, now called Great Works 
River. July 13, 1633, Gibbons wrote Mason that 
Thomas Warnerton had charge of the house at Pascata- 
qua, or Little Harbor and had with him William 
Cooper, Ralph Gee, Roger Knight and wife, William 
Dermit and one boy. Certainly this was not a large 
colony, but Capt. Walter Neal, Mason's agent in the 
GODDARD, JOHN, 1608-1660. He was one of 
Capt, John Mason's colonists who came over in the ship 
"Pied Cow," and landed in a cove a short distance be- 
low Quamphegan Falls (South Berwick), 13 July, 1634, 
He helped build the saw mill and grist mill at Great 
Works. Mr. Goddard was a carpenter and was under 
contract, with others, to work for Mason five years ; it 
appears he worked only three years, so in April 1653 
Joseph Mason brought an action against Goddard "for 
breach of contract in not keeping the saw mill and a 
corne mill in repayer and worke the full time of five 
years, etc." Goddard had come down river to Dover, 
where he got land on better terms than he could around 
the "Great Works." He had a lot on Dover Neck in 
1648. He was made freeman in 1653, and he is fre- 
quently mentioned in the Dover records. He owned 
land at Oyster River and other parts of the old town ; 
he was famous as a mill builder, being more active in 
business than in politics. His four daughters married 
men who became distinguished in the town and pro- 

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