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Paradise on the Piscataqua: An Earlier View of Durham, Portsmouth and Environs

A few years ago, while on a visit to St. John, New Brunswick, my wife Diana and I had an unusual experience. We were standing on a street corner admiring the Georgian (Federalist) architecture of an elegant old historic building that was not open to the public. We noticed that there was an event going on inside involving some number of rather elderly people. One of them noticed us and invited us in, insisting on serving us tea and cake. It turned out they were the descendants of United Empire Loyalists who had been forced to migrate from New England to New Brunswick at the time of the American Revolution and arrived as refugees in New Brunswick. They still self-identified as "loyalists" after 240 years! They took interest in our New Hampshire residency and insisted we stay awhile, dining with them, and they awarded each of us official pins of the United Empire

Loyalist Society.

Fast forward to today. Reading the research and writing of British-born Canadian historian and novelist Thomas Raddall, I stumbled once again onto something unexpected about our region's history here in the Piscataqua Basin of New Hampshire and Maine, something related to those United Empire Loyalists of a few centuries ago. Anyone thinking of colonial times in America views the British loyalists to the Crown, the Tories or Loyalists as they were called, with a certain degree of condescension as we learn of their flight from New England either to Canada or to England. We don't necessarily realize that most of them were American-born and were looked askance by the English of their day as Americans and not as English men and women. Their lives here inevitably made them American and eroded their "Englishness". You might say that their continued adherence to the King, to the Crown, and their attempt to identify as English cost them dearly and ultimately forced them to lose their homes and their livelihoods and, as well, forced them to flea. Their plight is seen differently just across the border in Canada or in England than it is seen by modern American students of our nation's history.

Here in New Hampshire, the colony's last Royal Governor, John Wentworth, the King's representative, was himself American-born, not English (and in fact a Portsmouth boy born and raised). Yet his position guaranteed that, with an American victory in the Revolutionary War, he and his family would be driven out under extreme duress, driven out by the American rebels within an inch of their lives, never to return. Subsequently, Wentworth wound up in England and eventually in Halifax, Nova Scotia as the Royal Governor of the King's colony of Nova Scotia. What is less well known is that he spent all his years of exile from the mid-1770s to his death in 1820 embittered over his loss of and rejection from his "Paradise on the Piscataqua" as he called our area, an area he knew quite intimately, his precious Portsmouth and Great Bay estuary.

Wentworth had little warmth for England or for Nova Scotia for he considered himself a true American (even if Americans would regard him as an enemy), and all his affection was reserved for his "Paradise on the Piscataqua". Wentworth also fell in love with the inland pine forests, his royal road into the interior, the "Province Road" he built to Winnipesaukee, and the home and colony he started on what is now Lake Wentworth near Wolfeboro, a town he named after General Wolfe. (Governor Wentworth also named Strafford, Rockingham and Grafton Counties all after friends in England, friends who were close to the Crown and friends whose support he sought in his dealings with the King. His life-size portrait can be seen in Government House in Halifax.)

Might we too find our "Paradise on the Piscataqua"? For many of us living in 21st century America, Durham, a town Governor Wentworth knew, is that paradise. And might we strive to keep and protect it, to keep our river and our Great Bay, our land and water, our history, our ambience, our local economy, healthy and true? Johnny Wentworth, as he was known to his peers, lost his "Paradise on the Piscataqua". Will we keep ours?

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