By D. Allan Kerr
The seaside town of Kittery, Maine, is best known for its famous stretch of retail outlets along US Route 1 and for being the home of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard — which is NOT located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but that’s another story.
In the Seacoast region, Kittery is popular for its natural “hidden treasures,” locations along Spruce Creek and Portsmouth Harbor which tend to be tucked away from sight of the tourists flocking to the aforementioned shopping outlets. In recent years, the town has drawn attention for its remarkable concentration of exceptional eateries.
But Kittery is also a place of significant history, laying claim as the oldest town in the entire state of Maine. In fact, over the next year Kittery is celebrating the 375th year of its existence. As a member of the 375th Celebration Committee, I decided to write a series of monthly articles exploring aspects of Kittery’s fascinating past.
And what, I figured, could be a more appropriate subject to kick off this series than a look back at the birth of the town itself?
Local lore tells us Kittery was first incorporated way back in 1647, more than a century-and-a-quarter before the birth of the US of A. The year is right there on our town seal, below the iconic image of the Fort McClary block house. It’s also listed on the official logo of our yearlong 375th celebration.
I figured I could just go to Town Hall and dust off our copy of the original incorporation document, like Kittery’s very own Magna Carta. Maybe get some nice photos of it to run with the piece.
But the town of Kittery has no such document.
In fact, while I tried really hard to do so, I could not even verify the official birthday of 20 October 1647 the town has touted for so many decades. I checked with various agencies throughout both Maine and Massachusetts, at the York County Registry of Deeds in Maine and the Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire, at Portsmouth Public Library and our own Rice Public Library, and no one was able to confirm the existence of originating documents dating to 1647.
It turns out October 1647 is just one of THREE dates over a five-year period which can legitimately be listed as Kittery’s official birthday. But ultimately, surprisingly, the specific calendar date might not even matter.
Apparently, this 1647 reference comes from The History of the State of Maine by William D. Williamson, a politician and historian who briefly served as Maine’s second governor. In his two-set volume, published in the 1830s, Williamson noted that “at the court of elections, Oct. 20, 1647, the Piscataqua plantations were formed into a town by the name of Kittery.”
A few decades later, however, an author by the name of Everett Stackpole referenced Williamson’s claim in his own 1903 book “Old Kittery and Her Families” and noted, “I have searched the court records in vain for confirmation of his statement.”
“The earliest date on the town records is of a meeting held 19 March, 1648,” he added.
Almost 120 years after Stackpole’s book, I reached out to Kittery’s town clerk and deputy town clerk – Karen Estee and Kim Tackett, respectively – to see if they could unearth any parchment related to a 1647 birth date. Their research turned up nothing earlier than the same reference to a March 1648 meeting.
But also, according to these records, “at a town meeting held at Kittery July 16th 1648,” Major Nicholas Shapleigh, John Heard and Nicholas Frost were “ordered and agreed” to serve as townsmen and rate makers, and to collect all fines within the township. These documents were transcribed in 1852 by Isaac Phillips, the town clerk at the time. Some of the original papers are so faded they are illegible.
Tackett even contacted the office of Massachusetts Archives in Boston, Massachusetts, since Kittery (and the rest of Maine) was at one time under the jurisdiction of our southern neighbor. But they have no records to indicate the 1647 date either. In fact, while Williamson in the 1830s cited a “court of elections” taking place in October 1647, Caitlin Jones of the Massachusetts Archives says her curator “found that there was no ‘court of elections’ in the province of Maine on that date.”
Which brings me to an admittedly off-kilter theory.
The folks at Massachusetts Archives, and Stackpole and other sources, have cited at various times another general court ruling issued 16 October 1649 in what was then Gorgeana, which reads:
‘It is ordered by this Court and power thereof that the Inhabitance (I believe they mean “Inhabitants”) of Pascataquacke wthin the jurisdicktion of this p’vince have the Free power of a towneship as any other townes wthin this jurisdicktion have and that all the inhabitance from Brabot harbor and so eight miles above Newichawanocke with the Isles of Sholes to be within a Towneship.”
The Kittery region used to be known as the Piscataqua Plantations, and Newichawanocke refers to the area we now know as Berwick, Maine.
Now, if you’ve ever read old manuscripts from the 17th and 18th centuries, you know scribes of the day had a very elaborate, downright flowery style of handwriting. I have to wonder if Williamson, in putting together his history in the 1830s, misinterpreted the date of this 1649 ruling, and then other authors and historians simply regurgitated this information in the decades since.
Kim Sanborn, our devoted Kittery Historical & Naval Museum director and a fellow 375th Celebration Committee member, doesn’t buy this theory. She’s not inclined to dismiss centuries of local tradition because of a missing piece of paper.
What’s more, she believes the original incorporation document might still be out there somewhere, and notes as an example someone from Exeter, New Hampshire, recently donated to the museum a 1666 Kittery land grant.
“What we do know is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” Sanborn said recently of the town’s history. “It amazes me how documents, deeds and wills continue to surface after so many years. Stored in attics, cellars or barns, when these items are found they can be preserved and shared using the technology we possess today, bridging the span of 375 years.”
Tom Hardiman, keeper of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, points to another possibility. He maintains the recording of a court ruling in 1647 intended to help “shield the townspeople from the encroachments of Massachusetts” could have simply been delayed for two years. We’ll get more into that in a bit.
But he also acknowledged this could all be a “historical mistake.”
“Since Williamson would have relied on handwritten copies of the court records, someone could have copied the date incorrectly,” Hardiman said. “We may never know for sure.”
In addition, a 17th-century gent known as Basil Parker, who also used the name of Thomas Brooks for reasons not documented, served as the recorder of deeds for York County around the time of Kittery’s reported incorporation. After he died, some of the writings in his care were missing. By at least one account, papers were left with the owner of Gunnison’s Tavern in Kittery, where Parker reportedly died.
A court order issued in 1653 called for anyone in possession of the missing papers to return them to the succeeding recorder or be fined a ten-pound penalty. It’s quite possible Kittery’s incorporation document was among those missing papers.
But there’s also yet another theory regarding Kittery’s emergence as a town, which I find intriguing.
If any one individual could be considered the Father of Maine, it should be Sir Ferdinando Gorges. Gorges was a colorful English adventurer and a bit of a rogue, and should really be more widely acknowledged in our state’s history – even though he never stepped foot on American shores.
We’re not quite sure when he was born, but it’s believed Gorges wasn’t more than 21 years of age when cited as an “eminent chieftain” in the Queen’s military forces. As a soldier, he was taken prisoner by the Spanish around 1588; was wounded in action at the siege of Paris in 1589; and in 1591 was knighted at the Battle of Rouen, in Normandy, for his military deeds.
As a seaman, Gorges also commanded ships in service of the Crown.
In 1595, he was placed in command of fortifications at Plymouth, England, in defense against the Spanish armada, a position he held for many years.
Gorges was a protégé of the infamous Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. In fact, it was Lord Essex who bestowed knighthood upon Gorges on the battlefield. Essex is well-known in British history for his tortured and perhaps romantic relationship with the much older Queen Elizabeth I, until he attempted in 1601 to seize the Queen’s court to demand a change in government leadership.
(I still remember as a kid being fascinated by the classic 1939 black-and-white film “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” featuring film legends Bette Davis and Errol Flynn as the tragically-fated pair.)
The Essex plot failed and Gorges was among the conspirators imprisoned. Gorges essentially saved his own neck by ratting out his former mentor, who was subsequently beheaded. After testifying in court, face-to-face, against Lord Essex, Gorges was not only eventually freed from prison but also restored to his previous command at Plymouth.
Legend has it that Gorges became fascinated with the American continent when an English explorer kidnapped several Native Americans and brought them back to England. Gorges acquired three of the natives and learned much about the New World from them.
Some accounts contend one of the Native Americans enslaved by Gorges was Tisquantum, better known as Squanto in our Thanksgiving folklore. However, historians discount this claim.
Gorges was a primary supporter of the failed Popham Colony in what is now Phippsburg, Maine, in the early 1600s. Although disappointed when the experiment fell apart, Gorges continued to push for the colonization of New England, and for a prominent role in that effort.
Eventually, in 1639, Gorges was granted a charter for the Province of Maine by the king of England, starting at the Piscataqua Harbor entrance and up “into the River of Newichewannock” (now the Salmon Falls River), and northeastward along the seacoast and so forth. This was the culmination of previous grants and patents he had received. Gorges was later appointed governor-general of the province, and in various accounts is referenced as Maine’s protector, proprietor, and even “lord.”
Gorges oversaw – from overseas – the establishment of settlements in this territory. He envisioned his province as something of a personal fiefdom, in which he would dispense grants of land to gentrified folks loyal to him.
He required appointees to swear an oath of allegiance pledging they would each “be a faithful servant and councilor” to Gorges as “my Lord of the Province of Maine,” and to his heirs. Perhaps recalling his own shady past, he also insisted they would “not conceal from him and his Council any matter of conspiracy or mutinous practice against my said lord, his heirs and assigns.”
Gorges died in England in May of 1647, just a few months before Kittery reportedly incorporated as a town. For obvious reasons, news traveled slowly in those days. Hardiman says folks in this area might not have learned of Sir Ferdinando’s death until late summer.
“If the residents of Pascataquacke wanted to incorporate to avoid being absorbed into another jurisdiction, they would have done so in the October term of court,” he explained.
Personally, I like to think that once Gorges was out of the way, the citizens of this plantation took the opportunity to just claim the township as their own. For what it’s worth, Stackpole in his 1903 book suggested the same thing.
“On his death in 1647 his affairs in America were neglected,” Stackpole wrote. “The new town of Kittery assumed that all the land within her borders belonged to her and could be given away to whomsoever she chose.”
The Maine Historical Society cites a third option for what could be considered the official incorporation of Kittery.
“All signs point to 1652 as the date,” Jamie Rice, the society’s deputy director, recently wrote via e-mail. “This is the date Kittery accepted Massachusetts as its government, ie. incorporated. The 1647 doesn’t appear to be ‘wrong’ and 300th anniversary activities in 1947 would support such a date, however, it’s about the word ‘incorporation.’ ”
See, back in 1651, the leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to send “a loving and friendly letter” informing Kittery residents they were within the jurisdiction of that colony. Months of legal wrangling and protest and negotiation followed, but ultimately in November 1652, local inhabitants were called to the home of William Everett to submit themselves to the government of Massachusetts.
“After a parley of four days 41 of the principal inhabitants subscribed to articles of submission, and a government was duly organized like that in force in Massachusetts,” WW Clayton wrote in his 1880 History of York County, Maine.
The declaration signed on 20 November 1652 confirmed Kittery was to remain a township with the same protections and privileges as other Massachusetts towns. Additional Maine towns soon followed – the very fate the Athenaeum’s Hardiman believes some may have been avoiding with the previous court actions.
“Other sources we consulted allude to the 1652 date as the official year (of incorporation),” Rice noted. “However, 1647 might be the ‘accepted’ date when Kittery felt it was a proper town.”
One of the complicating issues in all this is the recorded reference to “town meetings” dating back to 1648, and the listing of Kittery by name, prior to both the 1649 and 1652 dates.
Naturally, it’s impossible to pack 375 years of history into a single article, but here are some other interesting things to note about Kittery’s earliest days:
- In the beginning, the town included the areas we now know as Berwick, North Berwick, South Berwick and Eliot. Eventually each of these parcels splintered off to form their own township.
- At one point back in 1641, Kittery joined with Portsmouth, Exeter and Dover – all now located in New Hampshire – to create an independent republic “for purposes of protection and government,” according to Clayton’s History of York County, Maine. However, Portsmouth and Dover shortly thereafter placed themselves under the protection of Massachusetts.
- While Kittery is considered the oldest town in Maine, Gorges decided to incorporate Gorgeana – which he envisioned as his provincial capital, and of course named after himself – as America’s first city in 1641 or 1642, depending on your source. Gorgeana was later reincorporated as the town of York in 1652, and is considered the second oldest town in Maine.
- The town derived its name from Kittery Court, the family home of early settler Alexander Shapleigh in Kingswear, England. However, in his Old Kittery and Her Families, author Stackpole somewhat cheekily recounts the local legend of a Strawbery Banke lad who in the 1630s pursued a young lady called Kitty Rye, who lived near the current site of Fort McClary. So, according to this tale, folks would say the young man was off to visit Kitty Rye across the Piscataqua River, and this evolved into the town’s name.
“We have an amazing amount of history in Kittery,” Sanborn, our local museum director, said this week. “As we continue to learn of the events in our past, it is so important that we remember everything that made Kittery the first Incorporated town in Maine.”
And as far as she’s concerned, Kittery is turning 375 next October.
“If that document is found (and I hope it is) eventually, that may change the date in our history,” she said, “but until then I believe we have to go with all the circumstantial evidence.”
D. Allan Kerr is a history buff and member of the Kittery 375th Celebration Committee.