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Cultural History

Cultural History of the Great Bay Region

The natural landscape has shaped the history and culture of the region. Native Americans of the Abenaki and other nations inhabited the region for thousands of years taking advantage of the rich natural resources. The Native Americans that lived on the shores of Great Bay survived on the fish, shellfish, waterfowl and mammals that were found in abundance in and around the estuary.

The first European to explore and write about the area was 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. The early 1600s brought the arrival of permanent European settlers hoping to take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of resources that had sustained the Native Americans.

a photo of a historic catamaran
Gundalows were used to transport heavy
loads over shallow waters.

Courtesy of Devin Bartz

The first true settlers were fishermen who landed on the Isle of Shoals in 1623. The islands became an important fishing area for the early British and French colonies. Small settlements were also established the same year at Odiorne Point (called Pannaway) in Rye and Dover Point where Edward Hilton set up his trading post. Today, Dover Point serves as the eastern boundary of the Great Bay NERR.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire's only port, was later settled by English immigrants in 1630 and named Piscataqua after the Abenaki name for the river. It was later called Strawbery Banke for the wild strawberries growing along the riverbank. The Town of Portsmouth was incorporated in 1653, named after the colony's founder, John Mason, a ship captain from Portsmouth, England.

These early residents used the Bay to transport their harvests. The tidal influence was the perfect way to move goods without much human or animal effort. A simple, flat-bottomed boat called a Gundalow was developed to make use of the tides and carry heavy loads in shallow waters. Dried fish, furs and lumber were exported from the region in exchange for much needed supplies. The waterways of the estuary also provided access to settlements on the tributaries and the Native American tribes.

Control of the region was contested throughout the French and Indian Wars. At first, contact between the tribes and settlers was peaceful and trading venison, corn and furs for European goods such as iron tools and weapons was common. This changed in 1694 when 250 Abenaki warriors upset by the terms of a treaty descended in the dark of night upon the Oyster River Plantation (now Durham).

The war party attacked both sides of the river, killing or capturing nearly one hundred settlers and burning half of the settlement to the ground. While the attack devastated the small colony, peace was eventually restored and settlers returned to the area. The tidal portion of the Oyster River is included within the Reserve boundary.

The Captain Adams Gundalow
The Captain Adams Gundalow
Courtesy of GBNERR

Gundalows transported many types of freight. Saltmarsh hay, lumber, fish, clay and textiles were just a few of the cargos. Salt hay harvested along the shores was used as food and bedding for horses and cattle. Sawmills located along the tidal rivers produced lumber that was exported through Portsmouth to other US ports. The lumber produced also fueled the shipbuilding business along the Piscataqua River and in 1800 the country's oldest naval shipyard was established in Portsmouth (now part of Maine).

In addition to sawmills, over 40 brickyards eventually dotted the shores of Great Bay and its tributaries. The rich blue marine clay was harvested from along the estuary shores and made into bricks that were used to build locally and all around New England including some of the finest homes on Boston's Beacon Hill.

During the late 1700s and early1800s, tidal towns such as Exeter turned from the sea to manufacturing. Exeter was home to the state's first paper mill in 1777 and the first sailcloth factory in 1790. The first cotton factory opened in Dover in 1815 and the city became an important manufacturing hub.

In 1835, the Boston and Maine railroad made its debut in New Hampshire and essentially took the place of Gundalows. Speed and year round operation made the rails the choice for shipping cargo. By this time, most of the trees around the estuary had been cleared and the blue clay deposits largely exhausted.

Commerce Comes at a Price
The exploitation of Great Bay's natural resources over three centuries was not without its cost. By 1750, salmon were already in decline because of the sawdust from the mills and the construction of dams that closed off their spawning grounds. In 1790, the State passed a law prohibiting the throwing of "ballast, rubbish, gravel, earth, stone, dirt, ashes and filth" into the Piscataqua River. By the 1900s, the estuary became the dirty backyard as towns began looking inward and away from the water. It quickly became a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. During World War II, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard specialized in the construction of submarines and kinds of waste were dumped into the river. This practice did not end until 1976.

The Pease Air Force Base, which was located on Great Bay and operated from 1951 to 1991, also dumped hazardous materials on site. Many of these contaminants eventually found their way into Great Bay and remain in the sediments.

The largest threat to Great Bay came in the fall of 1973 when Aristotle Onassis proposed to build the world's largest oil refinery on Durham Point. The citizens of Durham rallied against the project and it was eventually defeated in 1974. This close call set in motion efforts to protect Great Bay from future development and led to Great Bay being designated a National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1989. Today, Great Bay is enjoyed for the recreation, education and research opportunities it offers.

Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
New Hampshire Fish and Game Department