Early Star Island History

Monument to John Smith, Discoverer of Star Island

Some of the rugged flavor of the Isles of Shoals’ early history is well-depicted in this excerpt from Along New England Shores (Chapter 12, “The Haunted Isles”), by A. Hyatt Verrill, 1936:

“It must have been a nerve-racking experience for the old voyagers to have cruised along the New England coast three centuries ago. There were no charts or maps to guide them, no warning beacons or lighthouses, no buoys marking shoals and channels. The sea was as treacherous as it is today; there were the swift currents and tides, the dense New England fogs, the same black-fanged submerged rocks which even today spell the doom of many a ship.

The wonder is that all of the pot-bellied clumsy old vessels did not leave their bones on the countless reefs, shoals and ledges, the beaches and the bars of the then unknown coast of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Of all the danger spots none were more fraught with peril than the Isles of Shoals. No doubt Verrazano and Gomez, Gosnold and Walker and many another of the early navigators sighted the group of eight islets a scant ten miles off the New Hampshire coast. If so they regarded them as so forbidding and so dangerous that they gave them a wide berth and passed them by with never so much as a comment on their presence, and it was not until Captain John Smith explored the New England coast that “ye Islandes of Shoales” appeared on maritime records and the crude inaccurate charts of the times.

Then, in 1623, Christopher Levett, seeking a propitious spot wherein to settle, visited the group of rocky isles. Levett, who to quote his own words was “an ancient traveller by sea” even if “a younge schollar” wrote a most interesting book on his experience and in this says; “The first place I sett my foot in New England was the Isles of Shoulds.” He adds, “Upon these islands I neither could see one goode grounde as to make a garden. The place is founde to be a goode fyshinge-place for six shippes, but more cannot well be there for want of stage-roome, as this yeare’s experience hath proved.”

Hence we may safely assume that Levett was not the first to have “sett” foot upon the “Isles of Shoulds” for it is obvious that at least six fishing vessels were there, and as a matter of fact, the Isles of Shoals had been a resort for Basque fishing smacks for years. Even as early as 1578 there were over one hundred Basque vessels fishing for cod on the Shoals. I can remember, when as a boy I visited Portsmouth and the Isles of Shoals, seeing a number of small fishing boats with lateen sails, a type wholly foreign to New England and undoubtedly handed down by the hardy Spanish fishermen, who, three centuries earlier, had anchored their craft in the “stage room” at the Isles of Shoals and dried their “bacalao” on the reef-surrounded islands.

The Basques were merely birds of passage, however, and the first real settlement was established in 1628. At that time, no women were permitted on the Isles, but man-made rules never yet deterred the female of the species once she made up her mind to accomplish a purpose, and in 1647 a woman not only defied the anti-female law of the islanders but managed to hold her own and to remain there. By 1676 there was a large settlement, and a century later the Isles of Shoals had a settlement of nearly one thousand people. At the outbreak of the Revolution most of the inhabitants, who were in sympathy with the British, fled to England and to Canada and never returned, and by 1800 there were less than 100 humans on all the eight islands of the group. Isolated from their fellows, even if only a few miles separated them from towns ashore, and made up of the roughest type of human beings, including smugglers and not a few ex-pirates, the inhabitants of the Isles of Shoals at that time formed a community which was probably the most ignorant, vicious, lawless and illiterate in all America, the islands being referred to as the “Godless Isles.”

Few could either read or write, there were no records of births or deaths, few knew even their own ages, marriage ceremonies had been dispensed with, promiscuity was almost universal, and every man was a law unto himself. Also there were ugly stories of wrecking and of vessels deliberately lured to destruction upon the rocks and reefs. No doubt there may have been a modicum of truth in these tales, although there was little need of the islanders conducting such a nefarious trade for there were ships a-plenty constantly being wrecked by misadventure on the Isles, and one of the islets — Malaga, received its name because of a Spanish vessel laden with Malaga wines, olive oil and raisins having been wrecked there. For many a year, too, the Isles of Shoals were a notorious nest for smugglers, while more than one famous or infamous pirate’s ship swung to its moorings in the shelter of the one protected harbor.

White Island Lighthouse Postcard

These islands are under the combined jurisdiction of Maine and New Hampshire. The former owning Duck Island, Appledore, Cedar Island, Smutty Nose or Haley’s Island, with Malaga connected by a causeway. New Hampshire has Londoner Island, Star Island, and White Island with its lighthouse. With a total area of barely six hundred acres, the Isles of Shoals are about the most desolate, barren and forbidding bit of real estate in all New England.

Three centuries ago Levett remarked upon the entire absence of trees and the paucity of soil, and today there is even less of both, for what little vegetation the islands once possessed was long ago destroyed by a few sheep and by being gathered for fuel, and in most places even the scanty thin soil between the ledges has been burned as fuel. On Appledore, the largest island of the group, which is about a mile in length by half a mile in width, the only soil is that carefully enclosed by low stone walls to form tiny gardens reminiscent of those of the Isle of Aran off the coast of Ireland, and even this has been brought from the mainland. Yet at one time Smutty Nose was a little kingdom, so to speak, where the Haley family held sway and not only raised garden truck and kept a cow, but had a windmill, salt works, a shop, a brewery and even a distillery. Today, only traces remain of these or of the earlier inhabitants of the various islets. On Star Island is the monument of Captain John Smith, and here and there are the walls of houses and a church or two. There are several old cemeteries, with the rude stones marking the graves so much like all the other rocks that one might easily walk through one of the old burying grounds without realizing it.

Oceanic Hotel Postcard

For many years Appledore was owned by the Honorable Thomas B. Leighton of Portsmouth who built a summer hotel which was burned in 1914. He was the father of Celia Thaxter, the famous authoress and poetess, and both she and her father are buried on the island. On Star Island, where the steamer from Portsmouth lands passengers, there is the Oceanic Hotel, owned by an association of the Unitarian and Congregational Churches who hold conferences here, while on White Island is the lonely lighthouse, with a life saving station on Appledore.

As there was no wood to be had upon the islands, the inhabitants built their homes of rough cobbles. These, combined with the rocky, barren character of the Isles, the ever-breaking waves, the lack of vegetation and the fisherfolk types of the inhabitants, give the place a wholly foreign effect far more like a bit of the Shetlands or the Orkneys, or perhaps even more like the Falkland Islands, than like New England territory within sight of the coast of New Hampshire and Maine.

Yet barren, desolate, almost worthless as the islands were, with their only denizens rough, illiterate and somewhat degenerate fisherfolk, smugglers and worse, yet the Isles of Shoals were not lacking in their share of drama, tragedy and romance. On Star Island is the so-called Betty Moody’s Hole with its story of stark tragedy that is hard to equal.

Emerging from Betty Moody's Cave

It was during the King Philip’s War that Indian warriors, knowing the men of the islands were usually absent in their fishing boats during the day, attacked Star Island. Hoping to escape the savage raiders, Mrs. Moody seized her children, and unseen by the Indians, reached the Hole where she cowered with her brood in the fissure of the rocks. Each moment she expected that her hiding place would be discovered. She could hear the screams of terror from her unfortunate neighbors, clearly to her horrified ears came the shouts of the raiding warriors. Then, just as she felt she was safe, one of the children commenced to cry. Realizing that the savages could not fail to hear the sounds, and that in a moment more she would be dragged forth and either tomahawked or carried into captivity, insane with terror, she grasped the throat of the whimpering child and strangled it. Too late. The Indians had discovered her refuge. Filled with horror at what she had done, maddened by remorse and fear of the Indians, she clasped the other child in her arms and flung herself into the sea.

Far more romantic, even if not as tragic as the drama of Betty Moody, is the tradition of the ghostly woman of White Island. According to those who claim to have seen her, the lady specter is a very beautiful wraith, the spirit of a young girl — “a tall shapely figure wrapped in a long sea-coat” — with flowing golden hair, with a face of unearthly beauty, but as white as marble. There is no mystery about this young lady ghost, at least in the minds of the islanders, for according to the story she was the sweetheart of a Scotch pirate, a companion of the infamous Blackbeard, who if we are to believe the legend, made White Island his home and buried thereon a vast treasure. Why any self-respecting pirate with gold aplenty and to spare, and accompanied by a lovely young lady companion, should have selected barren White Island for a love-nest rather than some sunny, palm-fringed tropic isle, is inexplicable. Possibly the spot reminded him of his own bleak Scottish coast. At all events, whatever the reason may have been, here he dwelt with his treasure and his lady-love, until at Jast the call of the sea was too strong to resist, and making his sweetheart swear a great oath to remain and guard his loot until he should return, “even if it was not until doomsday,” he sailed away on another piratical venture.

Fate turned against him. He fell in with a warship and finding that he could not hope to escape he fired the magazine of his ship and blew the vessel with himself and all hands to fragments. Faithful to her trust and her oath, the golden-haired lassie still watches over her pirate laird’s treasure, standing for long hours of the night upon an outjutting point of rock and gazing across the sea for the lover who never will return.

Neither is the young lady’s wraith the only ghost on the Isles of Shoals. On nearby Appledore is the ghost of a long-dead pirate, and so often is the specter seen, so long has he been haunting the island, and so thoroughly accustomed to his presence and his appearance have the islanders become that they regard him almost as a member of the community and speak of him as casually and with the same familiarity as though he were merely another fisherman, and call him “Old Bab.” That despite the fact that he really is a most horrifying and fearsome specter, with a villainous face, with snaky, greasy hair and whiskers, and with his scrawny neck scarred by the mark of a hangman’s rope. Although there is no such detailed tradition regarding his origin and his identity as that of the White Island lady ghost, yet it is generally conceded that the hanged pirate’s wraith guards a vast treasure hidden on Appledore. As the natives are unfamiliar with the lesser lights of the piratical profession and the less spectacular members of the brotherhood, they credit the source of the hidden hoard to Blackbeard, even if there is no reason to think that Teach ever came within hundreds of miles of the Isles of Shoals.

Even so, pirates did visit the ocean-washed, barren islands, and at least one pirates’ treasure was buried on the Isles and much of it still remains there as far as any one knows to the contrary. This was the loot of John Quelch, as villainous, as despicable and as murderous a scoundrel as ever scuttled a ship, albeit his career of infamy was short-lived and he never occupied a conspicuous niche in the piratical Hall of Fame.

Like poor old Captain Kidd, Quelch started forth as a pirate-catcher, when in 1793 the law-abiding citizens and merchants of Boston decided that it was high time to do something about the numerous pirates cruising off the New England coast. What they did was to fit out the eighty-ton brigantine Charles, properly armed and equipped, and appoint Captain David Plowman her commander with a commission to hunt down and destroy all pirates he might meet. The skipper was handicapped from the start. His very name was against him, for what true deep-water, tarry seaman would sail under a plowman.

Moreover, pirate-hunting was not a particularly popular recreation nor an attractive profession and at the end of a month the Charles still swung idly to her moorings at Marblehead with only a skeleton of a crew on her decks. In addition, the worthy captain was far from well, and becoming utterly down-hearted and discouraged, he begged to be relieved of his command, and advised the authorities not to carry out the plan of sending the brigantine after pirates as, “it will not do with these men who may go as crew.”

When the sponsors of the project reached Marblehead, they arrived too late, for what Captain Plowman had foreseen had taken place. The crew had decided to turn pirates themselves. Under the leadership of a rascal named John Quelch they had locked the skipper in his cabin and had seized the ship, and the impotent officials could only rave and shake their fists at the Charles, whose topsails were hovering above the eastern horizon. Once away from the land, Quelch had the helpless skipper dragged on deck and tossed screaming into the sea, and hoisting his pirate flag — a black square with, “in the middle of it an Anatomy (skeleton) holding in one hand an Hours Glass; and a Dart with the Heart with 3 drops of Blood proceeding from it in the other hand,” — Quelch started on his career of butchery and bloodshed.

He had truly phenomenal luck. Prize after prize was taken by the pirates and within three months they took nine vessels carrying an enormous amount of booty. Not a man, woman or child was left alive to bear testimony to the pirates’ actions, for Quelch invariably murdered every living soul on the vessels he took.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, the officials were not sitting idle. Through their own carelessness they had let loose the most dangerous pirate of them all. Letters were dispatched to all the West Indian islands and to all southern ports, warning the authorities of the Charles‘ true character and urging that Quelch be apprehended. But the brigantine seemed to have vanished from the seas, or rather from all known ports, and nothing was heard of her until one May morning in 1704 when to the utter amazement of every one she came sailing brazenly into Marblehead and dropped anchor in the harbor.

It was the greatest piece of effrontery ever known. So audacious an act that the officials were dumfounded.

Quelch had a story as brazen as his appearance. Captain Plowman, he declared, had died at sea and with his last breath had begged Quelch to take command of the vessel. They had not, he averred, been lucky in capturing pirate craft, but they had found a wrecked Spanish ship from which they had salvaged considerable treasure, as well as general cargo which he had brought to his home port. But Quelch rather overreached himself. Among the commodities in the hold of the Charles were sugar and tobacco, salt and flour, which no Spanish galleon would be likely to carry, and these bore no signs of having been aboard a wrecked and abandoned derelict. Moreover, members of his crew had been having a merry time of it in the taverns ashore, and with tongues loosened by rum had talked a bit too freely of their recent cruise. While finally, much of the Charles‘ cargo was identified as being Portuguese and not Spanish. So Quelch was promptly clapped into jail, together with all but a dozen of his men who had foreseen what was coming and had vanished with all the coins, bullion, gems and gold dust looted from many a scuttled ship. In a small sailing vessel, the Larrimore Galley, they had slipped away, treasure and all, and had headed for parts unknown. But they were reported from off Cape Ann, and at once a boat manned by volunteers in command of Major Stephen Sewall started in chase.

What followed is best recorded in an extract from the Boston News Letter of June 11, 1704, as follows:

“This afternoon Major Sewall brought into this Port the Larrimore Galley and Seven Pirates, viz: Erasmus Peterson, Charles James, John Carter, John Pitman, Rancis King, Charles King, John King, whom he and his Company Surprized and Seized at the Isles of Shoals the 10th. Inst. viz: four of them on Board the Larrimore Galley and three on shoar on Starr Island, being assisted by John Hinckes and Thomas Phipps Esqrs., two of her Majesties Justices of New Hampshire who were happily there, together with the justices and the Captain of the Place.

He also seized 45 ounces and Seven Pennyweight of Gold of the said Pirates.”

A few weeks later John Quelch and five of his crew were duly hanged, but the execution of the six scoundrels did not reveal the hiding place of the treasure which had been buried on the Isles of Shoals before Major Sewall arrived on the scene. He recovered the inconsiderable amount of forty-five ounces and seven pennyweights of gold, or in other words only about one thousand dollars’ worth of the loot of more than fifty thousand dollars which still lies concealed on the Isles. So it is not so very surprising that a pirate’s ghost should haunt the island, and as Old Bab so plainly bears the evidence of having been hanged when a mortal, what more probable than it is the ghost of John Quelch himself who haunts Appledore Island?”

Appledore Postcard

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