The Mayor's Blue Ribbon Cemetery Committee of Portsmouth, New Hampshire


Portsmouth is a city rich in history. Being one of the oldest cities in the United States, glimpses of the past are at every turn, found in it’s colonial buildings and museums, and written in stone at the graves of those in whom the sum of their lives created it.

Although their had been temporary fishing colonies in the area since the late 1500’s, a permanent settlement was established in 1623, only 3 years after Plymouth Colony in nearby Massachusetts, by a group of people seeking to make their fortune in the fur trade and abundant fishing located in the nearby rivers and ocean. They, unlike their pilgrim neighbors, weren’t interested in religious freedom as much as freedom of trade. A permanent settlement was created, originally named Strawberry Banke after the abundant wild strawberries that lined the riverbanks.

It was these early settlers that established the first and oldest cemetery in town, Point of Graves. Although the Puritan philosophy did not govern the residents as it did in towns to the south in Massachusetts, its influence is even still distinctly seen in the carvings of winged skulls and crossed bones on these early graves. Many stones from the late 1600’s are still intact and their elaborate symbolism and artistry are deeply defined in the gray slate.

Thanks to the deep harbor waters of the mouth of the Piscataqua and being only 2 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Portsmouth was an important and bustling seaport, filled with the sails of merchant ships importing and exporting goods from around the world. Many stories of brave captains, shipwrecks and pirates have come from the voyages of that era. It was also the location of the first and oldest Naval Base in the United States, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and once home to John Paul Jones, the founder of the American Navy. Established in 1690 when the first naval warship was constructed in North America, the HMS Falkland, built for the British Royal Navy and launched into the Piscataqua, the shipyard is still in operation 315 years later. The graveyards are filled with numerous sea captains, sailors and shipbuilders with their devotion to the sea inscribed on their gravestones.

Portsmouth was the capital of New Hampshire from 1679 until 1774 and the Revolutionary War. Because of this it was home to and the final resting place of many colonial governors, political figures, loyalists and revolutionaries. Paul Revere made a less famous ride from Boston 4 months before the one we’re educated on, meeting with revolutionaries in town to warn that the British were coming to seize the ammunition from nearby Fort William and Mary (now Fort Constitution) on the island of New Castle. It was this warning that prompted Portsmouth’s citizens to join together in the first actual conflict of the Revolutionary war on December 14, 1774. Hundreds of townspeople ascended on the Fort and its meager defense of 6 British soldiers, easily overtaking the Fort and its supplies with no casualties and only a single cannon fire in defense. This powder was later used against the British in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Many of these notables are found in the North Cemetery. In the same small area you can find General William Whipple, friend of George Washington and signer of the Declaration of Independence, buried nearby to his former slave and brave revolutionary war veteran Prince Whipple, nearby to Governor John Langdon, signer of the Constitution. The stories of this cemetery come from a diverse group of people from all walks of life and who played a part in every event of note in this country’s history.

Each monument in the graveyard is a tribute to a life that has gone by, and each of those lives has many historic tales to tell.

-Jenn Marcelais

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