Rye: Then & Now

It all started with Captain John Smith on the Isles of Shoals

Bob La Flamme

Photo by Gail Beamer, Rye Reflections

Sunset view of Rye mainland that early settlers would have had from Isles.

To begin the story of Rye, we must go back to the Isle of Shoals, circa 1614, and Gosport Island, now Star Island (in 1602 Bartholomew Gosnold, explorer for merchants in England, explored the coast of New England).  From approximately 1615 to 1623, there were no settlements, just a few fishing and trading outposts on the Shoals.  Explorer Captain John Smith named the Isle of Shoals after himself on his 1614 map, calling them: Smythe Isles.  Later they were named the Isle of Shoals due to the numerous schools of fish.  In 1876 four of the islands were annexed to what is now Rye, New Hampshire.  They were/are: Londoners (now Lunging), Gosport (now Star),  Massachusetts had he wished.  Passaconaway was no longer written about in history around 1666. This was about the same time period as the Mohawk raid on the Penacooks.

Battles with the Indians during the King Phillip War led to the September 29, 1691, Brackett Massacre at Sandy Beach.  Between twenty and forty Indians came down from York, Maine, and swooped down on the farmers while they were working in their fields.  Twenty one were killed, their homes burned and some children and possibly some women were captured.  The captives were taken to Canada.  Anthony Brackett was killed by the invaders and several of his children were captured.  Brackett came to the new world in 1630 to Portsmouth then to Sandy Beach (Rye) on Saltwater Brook close to the north end of what is now Wallis Sands State Beach.

Bernice Remick was one of the young girls kidnapped and taken to Canada. Once an adult and able to leave, she returned to Sandy Beach and reclaimed some of her family's land.  The property is now owned by the Rye Conservation Commission and can be seen on 605 Brackett Road.  It is open and free to the public.

Two views of Brackett Massacre graveyard site on preserved land.

In 1692 there was another Indian attack.  As John Locke lay there dying, he managed to cut off the nose of the Indian who attacked him with his scythe. Only a single stone now marks the spot of this massacre.  The Saltwater Brook area is just a marsh today.  That same year a small pox outbreak also hit the area.

1692 was also the year of the Salem Village Witch Trials in Massachusetts. Just 36 years prior in 1656, Goody (meaning Good wife) Eunice Cole of Hampton, became a victim of witch hysteria, was found guilty and convicted as a witch.  For much of her last 20 years of life, she was in a jail in Boston. She died broke, old and sick.

About 1696 Indian attackers landed their canoes at Sandy Beach, headed for Little Harbor, which was near the present Odiorne State Park.  They proceeded to murder 14 farmers at their work.  Captain William Shackford, of the militia, chased them down to Breakfast Hill (North Hampton), where the Indians, with their captives and loot, were having breakfast (hence the name).  The Indians made a quick escape by canoe onto the ocean, around the east side of the Isle Of Shoals, back to York, Maine, leaving everyone and everything behind.

Capt. John Locke (1627-1696) came to the new world in 1644 and settled in Dover.  He later moved to Hampton, Portsmouth and Rye at Locke‘s Neck, then Hampton (later to become Rye), with his wife, Elizabeth.  The Old Locke Burying Ground is on Locke's Neck in Rye, and is where John and Elizabeth (Berry) Locke are buried, with several of their children and probably a few generations that followed.

In 1726 Rye became Incorporated.  The Battle of Rye Harbor occurred during the period of the War of 1812, in 1813 and was not a major battle of the war. In 1727 there was a great earthquake centered close to Hampton.

In May 1735 disease broke out and the plague spread up and down the total Atlantic coastline.

Tower Cottage on Ocean Blvd. was restored after 1975 fire.

Between December 14th and the 15th, in 1774, several hundred men and boys, from Portsmouth, Rye and surrounding towns, overtook the English fort, William and Mary (named after the king and queen at the time), in New Castle, now named Fort Constitution, and took gunpowder and supplies. This occurred after Paul Revere's ride to Portsmouth on December 13th.  This was one of the first actions taken against the British during the American Revolution.

There were 1,000 men from New Hampshire who joined the battle of Bunker Hill, that was really fought at Breeds Hill.  It appears that Bunker Hill was chosen first, but strategically Breeds Hill was to their advantage.  The men from New Hampshire were greater in number then the troops from Massachusetts and Connecticut combined.

At approximately 6 p.m. on the evening of June 16, 1774, the troops marched forward to Breeds Hill from Cambridge, Mass. Men and boys from Rye were also part of the troops.  On October 30, 1789 George Washington addressed crowds in Portsmouth, and I am sure there were many from Rye in attendance on that day.

The 1800s saw a boom to tourism in Rye.  Rich Victorians arrived by the droves from all over the East coast, bringing their maids, nannys, and trunks of clothes.  Ephraim Philbrick built the first hotel in Rye, called the Atlantic House. The name was changed the next year to the Farragut Hotel, named after a famous admiral of the Civil War who stayed there in 1865.  

There were many fine and elegant hotels during that time, such as the Prospect House, run by Daniel M. Foss, a Civil War veteran. After being stuck by lightning on June 26,1890, it burned down.  The Tower Cottage faired better, as it can still be seen at Foss Beach, although it was gutted by fire in 1975 and was renovated.  There was also the Ocean House which was owned by Job Jenness.  Locke’s Bath House was another favorite of the Victorian influx of tourists.

The Rye Jenness name goes back a long way to Hampton, England when Francis Jenness was born circa 1634, and died on August 27, 1716 in Hampton, N.H. John Jenness was born on June 14, 1678, in Hampton, N.H. and died in Rye in 1741. His parents were Francis Jenness, and his mother was Hannah Swaine.  John’s first wife was Hannah Foss.  They were married on June 25, 1702.  John married his second wife, Mary Mason, on November 25, 1718, in Rye, N.H. and had three children.

Just to name a few old and prominent names of Rye are herewith:

Philbrick        Locke        Farragut        Drake        Jenness     Sawyer          Marden      Fuller             Marsh        Perkins        Seavey        Odiorne                                       Thomson/Thompson        Berry        Walker

A landmark that has survived is St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church that was built in 1876.  The Philbrick family donated the land for the church.

There is also the lonely life of Bertha Foss, of Foss Beach, and the daughter of Sylvanus Foss.  She preferred to care for her parents and never married.  After the death of her father and mother, she chose to live alone in the former boarding house, The Elms.  In the big and cold house she was known to wear several layers of clothing to stay warm, as the old house had no central heating, no electricity nor running water.  In 1959 when an arsonist burnt out her house, she was moved to a nursing home in Portsmouth.

One of the many ship wrecks in Rye waters were the Victor 1882 and the Lizzie Carr in 1905, both off Concord Point.  During the 17th and 18th centuries some with few scruples would light fires on the rocks and lure ships to their doom. The ships were looted and passengers and crew who survived were murdered in the surf.  Locals have told me that there was a barge that wrecked circa 1910-15 not far from Petey’s Summertime Restaurant, just south of the Red Roof.  As I understand the story, a few men died but most survived.  The barge can be seen only at very low tide.

Nowadays here on the coast during the summer even the tourists have changed.  No longer are people dressed in their Sunday best to stroll the beach with their umbrellas, but are wearing bikinis and less, lying in the sun, applying suntan lotion and wearing sunglasses.  We have surfers and SCUBA divers now too.

Fishing and lobstering still continue out of Rye and Rye Harbor, as they have for several hundred years.  Can you imagine the time when the Pilgrims could find no good use for lobster except for pig food?  These were the days when lobsters crawled on the beaches like crabs as they were so bountiful.

The Red Roof (left) and what was Rye on the Rocks (right).

Some buildings have remained such as the Red Roof, now Petey’s Red Roof on Ocean Boulevard, just south of Wallis Sands State Beach.  

Little known facts:  Washington Road was called Sandy Beach Road.  In the mid to late 1930s Rye Harbor was used by rum runners.  Members of the Charles Remick family of Brackett Road were the major players in preventing Aristotle Onassis from building an oil terminal and refinery on the Isle Of Shoals. The problem?  The pipeline would have run through their land.  There is no one Rye Beach.

Most old buildings were lost to fire and the rest to redevelopment.  In all of the wars and conflicts, Rye’s men and boys were there; so were the women.  Rye is not only a beautiful seacoast town, but a town rich in American History and local hospitality.


Rye and Rye Beach - by Lewis T. Karabatsos

Rye and Rye Beach - by William M. Varrell

Portsmouth An Old Town by the Sea - by Russell M. Lawson









March, 2006