Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: THE MAST-SHIP

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents


For a long series of years even till the Revolution, the sovereigns of England claimed exclusive right to every white pine tree in New Hampshire and elsewhere, fit for a mast for the service of the royal navy. Such trees, growing outside the townships granted before the 21st of September, 1722, were branded with the "broad arrow," and no man might dare cut them down, even on his own land, under heavy penalty. Large ships brought to our shores goods we were forbidden to provide for ourselves, and carried away cargoes of our best pines. What wonder then, that, as the exactions of England grew more and more rigorous, a "mast ship" became a hated object!

Such a ship, with a valuable cargo, was wrecked on Hampton beach on the night of November 30, 1764, not, it is believed, on account of rough weather, but owing to the pilot's ignorance of the coast. The ship drove on to the sands a little to the south of the present line of fish-houses on the north beach, whence the crew, without much difficulty, got ashore. The pilot, Capt. Willliam Branscomb, afterward settled in this town, and became the third husband of Prudence Page (nicknamed "Old Prue").

The disaster of November 30, was announced in the next issue of the New Hampshire Gazette as follows:

"Portsmo, Dec. 7, 1764. -- Last Friday Night, the Mast Ship, St. George, Capt. Mallard, bound from Boston for this Port, was cast away off Hampton. She had Goods on board to the value of about Ten Thousand Pounds Sterling belonging to sundry Merchants here; great part of which are much damaged. The Men's Lives were saved, but the Hull of the vessel will be entirely lost."

The master of the vessel hastened to Portsmouth, to report to the Court of Admiralty. Meanwhile, so exciting an event as a shipwreck on their shore attracted large numbers of people to the spot. Some of these, either through ignorance or avarice, appropriated and carried away goods found strewn upon the beach. As soon as possible, therefore, keepers were appointed, viz.: Col. Christopher Toppan and Col. (afterwards Gen.) Jonathan Moulton.

On the 20th of December, The Court of Admiralty issued the following:

"Province of New Hampshire.

Pursuant to a Decree of said Court, the Goods saved out of the wreck of the St. George Mast Ship will be exposed to sale by Auction on Thursday, the 27th Instant at the stores of Samuel Maffatt and John Sherburne, Merchants in Portsmouth; And the Hull of said Ship, stores, Rigging, Anchors, and other Goods (which cannot now be transported), at Hampton, at the store of Jonathan Moulton Esq. -- on Tuesday following. -- The Goods at the Respective Places to be seen the day before the Sale, where Attendance will be given for that Purpose.

  Per curiam, John Sherburne, D. Rec."

The above decree, while it shows that all that could be saved from the wreck was secured within a month from the time of the disaster, gives no hint of the difficulties encountered. Many looked with envy and malice upon Colonels Moulton and Toppan, claiming that they had no more right than others to carry off the goods, and that they were enriching themselves on false pretences. A riot ensured, as is shown by the following order issued by the governor a month later:

"Province of} By his excellency Benning Wentworth, Esq., Capt.
New Hamp.} Generall, governor & commander-in-chief in and over the Province aforesaid: --

To the Honble Meshech Weare, Esq., Coll of the Third Regiment of Militia in sd Province or to the Lieut. colo or Major thereof: --

Whereas it has been represented unto me by his majesty's Attorney general & by the High Sheriff that some ill disposed persons having purloined sundry goods from the Lading of a ship lately stranded on Hampton Beach in this Province while the ship & cargo was under the direction of & in the custody of the admiralty court; & warrants being issued for the apprehending sundry persons supposed to be guilty of the said Breach of the Law, who being apprehended for the same & in custody of the officer, when as is further suggested, the prisoners were by a number of evil-minded persons in a violent, riotous & tumultuous manner & being disguised, did assault the officer & him beat, wound & evilly entreat & did release the sd prisoners & let them go at large whereby they made their escape & that since the abovesd action (which was on the 28th day of this inst) a great number of the inhabitants of the sd town of Hampton have in a riotous, roysterous & tumultuous manner assembled, & being armed with clubs & staves, have menaced & threatened the officer & bid defiance to all lawful authority, & tho his Majesty's Proclamation agreeably to the law of the Province has been read to them, they still repeat their unlawful assembly to the great Terror of his majesty's good subjects, & the Sheriff of the Province having supplicated the aid & assistance of a suitable number of the militia with proper officers might be ordered to attend him in the execution of such precepts as he might receive from the civil authority to disperse & apprehend the offenders & bring the authors and abettors to justice, being apprehensive he shall meet too great opposition in the execution of his office without the assistance & aid of the Posse, which being lawful and at this time necessary:

You are therefore respectively impowered & directed upon the application of the High Sheriff or his deputy, to detail as many men under arms out of your Regiment under the direction & command of an officer, as may be necessary to assist the sd Sheriff & his deputy in the execution of any lawful precept that may be directed to him to separate the said rioters & to apprehend the authors and abettors of the aforesaid violet & illegal practices, that they may be dealt with as to law & justice doth appertain, & for which is your authority.

Given at Portsmouth in the Province aforesd this 29th day of January in the 5th year of his Majesty's reign annoque Domini, 1765.

  B. Wentworth."

Though the meaning of the above order is clear, a grammatical analysis would be difficult.

While Colonel Toppan was at the beach, engaged in unloading the mast ship, one of his vessels, a brig from the West Indies, appeared off the coast, passing along inside of the Isles of Shoals and so near the main land as to be easily recognized as his own vessel. The next day, he went to Portsmouth expecting to find her in port, but was disappointed. He afterward learned that the brig had been spoken some days before, and that the crew were badly frozen. In the evening after she was seen off our coast, the wind veered to the northwest and blew with great violence. It was supposed that the crew, in their suffering condition, were unable to manage the vessel, and that she was blown off and lost, with all on board. The supercargo was Benjamin Hobbs of North Hampton, a graduate of Harvard College.

Near the close of the summer of 1768, a large schooner owned by Christopher Toppan, Esq., sailed from Hampton, bound on a fishing voyage to the Grand Bank, having eight men on board. The vessel was lost, and here captain with all his crew perished. Benjamin Randall, the captain, belonged at Rye; the crew at Hampton.

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents