What was life like for Portsmouth settlers? As Portsmouth celebrates the 375th anniversary of its 1638 founding, a treasure of documents held by The Portsmouth Historical Society may help us answer questions about life in early Portsmouth. An ongoing project at the society has been the organization and transcription of these papers to language we can understand today. My resolution in honor of our 375th celebration is to pick some interesting documents, try my best to transcribe them, and then share them with you in blog form. I’m not an experienced transcriber, but I have some background in Portsmouth history and working with primary sources.
These official records may not be what you imagine. The high cost of paper necessitated frugality so they are often literally scraps of paper. Sometimes they are written on the backs of used paper. But it was the high quality of that paper that allows this communication to survive three hundred plus years after pen was put to paper. Through the photography of Bruce Westgate and a data base created by Eileen Westgate the documents are available for research. We can work with the images and not handle the original documents. Assisted with a grant from Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, our records are now in a digital form available at the Society and the Portsmouth Free Public Library. Many of our documents are hand written copies of originals and the first that I want to share with you falls into that category. The actual record is a scrap of paper about six inches by ten inches and is dated the 20th of the 6th month, 1638. It was copied from the second and third pages of a “Chapp Book.” It is basically an agreement that orders that the remainder of the hay on Hog Island would be granted to a Mr. Brenton (William) in return for his “mowing” (my best guess). It is signed by some of the same signers of the Portsmouth Compact: William Coddington, William Hutchinson, Jr. (husband of Anne Hutchinson), John Clarke, Samuel Wilbore, John Sanford, William Freeborne, Philip Shearman, Richard Carder, Randall Holden, Edward Hutchinson and William Dyer.
Trying to decipher this document was like solving a puzzle. I looked for pieces of information to confirm my guesses. I know that the settlers had a grant to Hog Island. They used the island for grazing their pigs because no fencing was needed to contain them. The names listed in the document were confirmed by looking at a list of the original signers of the Portsmouth Compact. The name of the person who was granted the hay rights was more of a puzzle. I worked out the name “Brenton” by comparing letters in words I could decipher. But was Brenton in Portsmouth the “20th of the sixth month, 1638”? My research said he arrived in Portsmouth in August of 1638. A note in the Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth gave me the clue I needed. The Julian calendar was used during that period and the year began on March 25th. March was the first month, so the 6th month was August or later.
This may be a simple document, but I could draw some interesting points from it. Even at that early time, within months of Portsmouth’s founding, Portsmouth settlers were conscious of recording agreements. The town fathers were acting together as a “body politic” to make decisions. This is probably one of the earliest records of William Brenton on our island. The Brenton name still is alive as a place name on our Island - Brenton Cove, Brenton Reef.
Transcribing a document like this one gives me the rare privilege of discovering the world of Portsmouth’s settlers through their own words.