A Book of New England Legends
(Excerpts In Prose and Poetry)
and Folk Lore
By Samuel Adams Drake
The strip of coast extending from the Merrimack to the Piscataqua is an almost unbroken line of hard sand-beach washed by the ocean. Salisbury Sands begins and Hampton and Rye continue the line that is only interrupted where some creek cuts a way through it, or some bleak foreland thrusts itself out from the shore. Salisbury has for more than a hundred years been celebrated for the annual gatherings that its citizens hold on the beach there, in imitation of the "clam feasts" of the Indians, with whom the custom originated, and who made the occasion one of much ceremony and solemnity, inasmuch as the sea was to them a great harvest-field provided by their God of Plenty for the sustenance of his red children.
Whittier's "Tent on the Beach" was pitched at the mouth of Hampton River, at the extremity of the Salisbury Sands; and this is also the locality of the "Wreck of Rivermouth," found in that collection, which is something in the manner of Longfellow's "Tales of a Wayside Inn," the "tent" here doing the duty of the ancient tavern there. Both are, however, in their method, a distinct reminiscence of the "Decamerone" of Boccaccio. But Whittier's is a voice arising from the sea, full of its charm and mystery. Standing at his tent door, --
Of sand-hills; southward stretched a plain
Of salt-grass, with a river winding down,
Sail-whitened, and beyond the steeples of the town.
That is Boar's Head; the Merrimack, with Newburyport in the distance.
Again, the poet points us to --
East of the grisly Head of the Boar;
and then to where --
Disk of a cloud the woodlands o'er.
So we feel that the "Tent on the Beach," instead of emanating from within the narrow limits of four walls, where the doors are securely bolted and barred against the weather, is the voice of Nature herself, -- of the free breeze, the billows, and the foam, which imparts the invigorating quality to these verses, and gives them a distinct and captivating out-of-door flavor.
Of his legendary stories that are associated with Hampton the poet says: --
Of credulous days; old fancies, that have lain
Silent from boyhood, taking voice again
Warmed into life once more, even as the tunes
That, frozen in the fabled hunting-horn,
Thawed into sound.
Hampton, formerly the Indian Winnicumet, is an old border settlement of the Bay Colony, that was transferred, through the blundering of her agents, to New Hampshire when the long dispute about the boundary between the two governments was finally settled. The singular and apparently eccentric course of this line, resembling a Virginia fence, is not due to chance, but to the crookedness of Colonial politics. 'While this controversy was pending, the legislative bodies of both governments once held a session at Hampton Falls, -- which course, it was thought, by bringing the rival interests together, might end the dispute, but did not. Whereupon some poetaster of the period gave the following rhymed version of the "pomp and circumstance" attending the entry of the Massachusetts dignitaries into the humble frontier village. He says: --
As yesterday morning was seen before night.
You in all your born days saw, nor I didn't neither,
So many fine horses and men ride together.
At the head the lower house trotted two in a row,
Then all the higher house pranced after the low;
Then the Governor's coach galloped on like the wind,
And the last that came foremost were troopers behind.
But I fear it means no good to your neck nor mine,
For they say 'tis is to fix a right place for the line.
As soon as you have crossed this line, the people, pointing toward their mountains, will tell you that there is no air like New Hampshire air. As soon as you shall have passed beyond this boundary you no longer breathe the atmosphere of the old Puritan life, but one emanating from a different and antagonistic source, -- into which, nevertheless, the more vigorous currents originating on the other side of the border constantly infused themselves and kept it pure.
The most interesting thing about Hampton, apart from its legends, is the singular promontory of Boar's Head, which is one of the noted resorts of the New England coast, and one of the earliest to be visited for health or pleasure.
Boar's Head is indeed a puzzle. It is a heap of drift gently ascending from the marshes to the crumbling brow of a lofty headland, against which, far below you, the sea dashes wildly. The bowlders sticking in its sides look as if they might have been shot there in the days when stones supplied the want of cannon-balls; for we look around without seeing anything to account for their presence. It is wind-swept and treeless. A few dwarf junipers and some clumps of bushes cling mournfully to it sides, which they are unable to ascend. A low reef stretching out towards the southeast, resembling the broken vertebrae of some fabled sea-monster, shows in what direction the grand old headland has most suffered from the unremitting work of demolition carried on by the waves, which pour and break like an avalanche over the blackened bowlders, and fly hissing into the air like the dust rising from its ruins. As if to confirm this theory, nothing grows on the southeast point, while on the northeast grasses flourish and daisies nod to the cool sea-breeze. We say again, Boar's Head is a puzzle.
It is indeed an inspiring sight to see the surf breaking on each side of you in a continuous line of foam from the mouth of the Merrimack to Little Boar's Head, and then, turning towards the offing, see the dark cluster of the Isles of Shoals lying low on the still more extended expanse of the ocean.