Hampton River

Once Known as Winnacunnet,
Rich in Adventure and Enterprise

By Caroline C. Shea (in Haverhill Gazette)

[The Exeter News-Letter -- October 2, 1931]

Hampton River offers an important problem both to the town and to the state. The question of the erosion which has increased along the beach, many think by the change in the river's course, has been and is at present a subject for much discussion by men versed in the subject. The so-called mile-long wooden toll bridge is involved in no end of litigation as has been clearly and sufficiently explained by word of mouth and through the columns of the press.

Winnacunnet River, as it was called by the founders of Hampton, though small, has been of consequence in many ways; and of interest and concern to the country at large. For on October 14, 1638, Rev. Stephen Bachiler with his followers came in shallops up its winding course "through salt sea marshes to uplands brown," to settle in a wilderness to found a church and a town. From this little band in later years descendants went to all parts of the country to help found new towns and cities where they and their children have distinguished themselves in industrial, commercial and civic life. Some of the most famous men in the nation's history sprang from these pioneers who left their homes to brave the dangers of unknown seas, and to make new homes on unknown shores. Governor Samuel Adams, "the patriot," Major General Henry Dearborn, General Lewis Cass, Daniel Webster, John G. Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Honorable Amos Tuck are of the number. It is said that the first silversmith in America was a Hampton Moulton; and from the Moultons and Towles with their simple establishments in Newbury and Newburyport came the present Towle Manufacturing Company, while a descendant of Henry Dow, and grandson of Hampton's well known scholar and historian, Joseph Dow, founded the great Dow Chemical Company. Both the antiquarian and historian, Samuel Drake, and John Carroll Chase, president of the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, turn back to the Landing, where the shallops discharged their passengers from their forebears.

The river is formed by a number of brooks and rivulets, called rivers, the largest being Taylor's, Brown's Falls, and Blackwater; others the Nilus, Ass Brook from Exeter, Great Swamp River and Mill Brook. This river was very early in the history of the settlement of value for navigation, being deep enough to admit vessels of more than 80 tons. Winding through a marsh of 1000 to 1500 acres, it waters and also drains this area by the rise and fall of the tides through its numerous creeks; and used to facilitate the taking away of the crop of hay of much worth in those days. Owing to sand bars and sunken rocks at the bar, the entrance to it was dangerous.

The Landing where was discharged the first precious cargo of human beings was once called Freese's Landing, and it was here that the early business of the town was transacted, for the meeting house of both town and church was close by on the site of the unique Meeting-House Green Memorial but recently established.

The Great Ox Common

Along the banks of the river near the mouth was the Great Ox Common, an extensive area of upland, salt marsh, and thatch ground, nearly surrounded by river and ocean. This Common included portions of upland now known as Great Boar's Head, The Ridge, The Common, Sargent's Island, Easton's Neck and Eastman's Point. The marsh and thatch included Great Neck, Little Neck, The Common Marsh, Hendrick's and a part of Spring Marsh. At a town meeting March 23, 1641, it was voted to set apart this tract for an ox common "To the World's End." This was to be fenced in for pasturing oxen and the owner of a horse found therein was liable to a fine of 5s.

The first appalling disaster which came to the community came through the treacherous river, bringing gloom into every household. On October 20, 1657, a vessel which left the Landing for Boston was in a sudden squall, wrecked at the mouth, and all on board were drowned. There were four men, two women, two children: Reed, Swaine, Cox, Hilliard and Philbrick. Philbrick is the only name now on the town books. On the old records the fatality was thus entered:

"The sad hand of God upon
eight persons going in a vessell by
sea from Hampton to Boston, who
were all swallowed up in the ocean
soon after they were out of the Harbour."

Whittier wrote one of his best known poems founded on this event, "The Wreck of Rivermouth," and it was on the opposite bank of the river on Seabrook Beach that he pitched his "Tent on the Beach."

Rivermouth Tragedies

A young man named Smith, a witness in the trial of Goody Fuller for killing John Godfrey's child by witchcraft, in 1680 on July 14, was found dead in his canoe with a bloody face at the landing place soon after, and at the inquest July 31, it was found that "we washing and searching him, do judge that water was the cause of his death, by drowning." In 1742, Anthony Taylor was drowned near the rivermouth as was Joseph Ward in 1919. The saddest of all these drownings was that of Joseph Nudd and Thomas Hale Leavitt, both young men, the latter with a family, who lived on what is now the Wingate farm. Joseph Nudd was the son of Hampton's most enterprising citizen, ever before or since, David Nudd. He was a young man well-liked, engaged to be married to a beautiful girl and proprietor of one of his father's hotels, "The Boar's Head House." The late Judge Thomas Leavitt, of Exeter, was a lad of 15 at the time and lived at the Winnacumet House, his father's hotel. He tells the story (taken from the Exeter News-Letter):

"One afternoon, about five o'clock as I was walking home from school in October, 1847, I met Mr. David Nudd between the Causeway and Boar's Head. His chin was dropped on his breast, his breast heaved, great tears were coursing down his cheeks and his face wore such a look of agony as I pray to God, I may never see again. I was frightened and hastened on. As I turned the corner of the Winnacumet House, I saw my father and two other men talking. I told about Mr. Nudd, and my father said a dreadful thing had happened -- that the 'Northern Light,' with Joseph Nudd and Hale Leavitt on board, had sunk near the 'Boiler' rock in Hampton river -- some men had gone, trying to find them. The black darkness, covering land and sea, was in keeping with the gloom over all hearts as they bore him to his home. The tide had ebbed only a short distance when they found him. About a month after, Philip Nudd and I were going to the river's mouth before daylight. We turned on to the beach -- the tide was out and we walked along by the water's edge. When nearly opposite the house of Oliver Nudd (now Mrs. Charles Ross's), I saw a dark object a little further on and half way up the beach. I turned to it and found the body of a man that had drifted ashore. We went to Oliver Nudd's and called him out with a lantern. By the light of the lantern, we recognized the body as that of poor Hale Leavitt."

River Navigation

In the early days the road for commerce with Boston was by the sea, and navigation by the river soon began. The first vessels were small, manned by two, and coming up the Hampton River they went into Brown's River to where was after the site of the Tide Mill, to unload, and to load. Later large vessels sailed from the Landing through the tortuous Taylor's to the main river and across the bar. On Taylor's was a place known as The Shipyard where vessels were built, some of many tons. A bend in the stream was known as Mooring Turn, and in the records, it is written that here the vessels "do usually ride at anchor." In 1682, James Philbrick was one-fourth owner in the barque, Adventure. In 1699, the brigantine Increase, 40 tons, was built on Hampton Common Landing Place. In 1705, sloop New Design, 16 tons, was sold in Boston harbor November 13, to Peter Garland and Samuel Nudd for 106 pounds. This went from Hampton to Boston and is said to have arrived at its landing place six successive Saturday nights making the trip in a week, a feat in those slow-moving days. A clearance paper dated June 23, 1707, said she had "no guns," was navigated by two men and "hath here loaden and taken on board pine boards and staves."

In 1714, brigantine Mayflower, 35 tons, was sold to Caleb Shaw and Samuel Nudd by William Barley, of Scituate, Mass., for 130 pounds; 1723, brigantine Friend's Adventure, was built in Hampton by four men, Colonel Joshua Wingate later selling his share for 90 pounds. Colonel Christopher Toppan was a large shipowner.

Later John Johnson and David Nudd were the most important builders and owners, Johnson usually commanding his vessels for one voyage. Some of them were Clarissa, William Tell, which he built in Hampton Falls, a sloop which brought the first coal from Philadelphia ever carried into Boston harbor. On her first trip she was struck by lightning, both masts being split. She made 52 trips to Boston from Hampton River in one year, one a week. Finally she went down in the fatal river and there remains what is left of her.

For Distant Ports

Others were Young Tell, Virginian and Union. Johnson's brig,Mary Jones, went fruiting to Malaga and to Texas for timber. His schooner, Harriet Neal, 130 ton, went on two fishing voyages to the Mediterranean, also the West Indies. In 1849, she carried 100 passengers to Chagres, Isthmus of Panama, on their way to the gold fields in California. Mr. John Perkins, a sailor, caught the gold fever at Chagres and left for the mines with only a Spanish fourpence in his pocket; he worked his way there and was successful in his search for gold. A center-board schooner, a coaster, the Mail, carried the United States mail. Virginia and Belle were the last schooners which Johnson built.

Mr. David Nudd built and owned Franklin, Industry, Rapid, Tremont, which sank at Newport, R. I., three named Victory, Two Sisters, Enterprise, Atlas, Constitution and Good Intent. Other schooners were also built and operated by Hampton men.

Mr. David Nudd formed a company to build a canal by which the two and one-half miles course through Taylor's River could be shortened to one-half mile. A dredging machine described as "capstan-like, ten feet long, with two sets of bars" was dragged up and down to loosen and throw out earth until the tide could rush in and complete the excavation. The master-workman was one Hinekley and the cost was said to have been a hogshead of rum. The canal was wide and deep enough to float any vessel which could come up the river. Many of the vessels going out to sea went on fishing trips to Labrador and the Grand Banks or off shore mackerelling.

Salt Works Built

Salt used in curing large fares was taxed and expensive. Mr. Nudd visioned salt works. He employed an expert to test the saltiness of the water along the shore and in the river. He found the saltiest at the Landing, and here the works covering two acres of ground were placed. The water went into a trench to be pumped by a windmill into vats. This enterprise was successful. Twelve hundred bushels of salt, more or less, was the annual output from 1827 to 1840. Then the work was discontinued as salt became too cheap to make at a profit.

The Hampton founders were essentially farmers, but at an early date, they began the fishing industry, probably at first not for trade. The earliest fishing boats went out from Hampton River; and in 1656, it was voted that Sargents Island, near the mouth, should be set aside for the use of fishermen in curing their fish. Later the industry was also conducted from the beach. The Hampton whaleboats are mentioned in a United States government report which said:

"They will beat up Boston bay in winter in a nor-easter when a ship cannot." These sturdy seagoing craft were 19 feet long, seven wide and three deep; they were strong and flexible and carried two sails, "fore and aft," each made from 15 to 25 yards of the heaviest cotton drilling. Two to four men would start out at night for the fishing grounds, catch their bait, and fish until daylight. Hake began to bite soon after dark and cod at midnight. At sunrise the boat went ashore with from one to two thousand pounds of hake, cod, and haddock.

When fishing became an established industry for trade, a wherry was built, not so large as the Hampton whaleboat, and it was intended for rowing so that one man took the oars to "hold up" the boat while the other tended the lines. Holding up the boat prevented the anchor from being dropped overboard, which would have frightened the fish. Bait came often from the flats along the river where clams were plentiful. The Indians made great use of the clams as the settlers later discovered when their plows ran into huge heaps of buried shells on farm lands where the savages had once lived.