by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr.
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Not so long ago, but long before there was a city of Laconia there was a Province of Laconia. The history books don’t emphasize that fact, perhaps understandably so when one reads the confusing accounts of the earliest immigrants to what is now New Hampshire. When the New World was indeed new to the English adventurers and speculators there were, perhaps, a few thousand, maybe five thousand, native Americans living in what is now New Hampshire. These natives were often referred to as savages by the foreigners who soon claimed the land for themselves and expected to find an abundance of gold, silver and precious gem stones that would make them wealthy investors. But trying to figure out who owned what land, when and where, is a difficult task, particularly when it appears that the grantors of New England land were themselves in a state of confusion, sometimes seemingly granting the same portion of land to different people.
The granting of land in what had been named New England by Prince Charles had its beginning in 1622 when a group of Englishmen, called The Plymouth Council of New England, having been established in Plymouth, England “…for the planting, ruling, ordering, and governing of New England in America” by authority of the King of England , issued grants including a large one to two London men consisting of a parcel of land between the Merrimac and Sagadahock (Kennebec) Rivers. Those men were Sir Ferdinando Gorges (Sir because he had been knighted) and Captain John Mason, a former merchant and a naval captain. The grant was named the Province of Maine, but was also called Laconia.
The proprietors sent settlers over from England to take possession of the land on the Piscataqua River which resulted in settlements called Little Harbor, Strawberry Bank (Portsmouth) and Northam (Dover) being built. Part of the agreement of the grant was that Gorges and Mason would colonize land that had been given to them.
Adding to the confusion of land ownership in those days was the issuing of another similar but perhaps more expansive grant to Gorges and Mason by the Plymouth Council in the year 1629. The text of this grant states that Sir Gorges and Captain Mason intended, with the consent of the Council, to name the territory involved The Province of Laconia. Some might assume that Laconia is a Native –American word for a person or place, but that is not the case. It is, rather, a Greek word originally designating a section of the country of Greece.
The boundary lines for The Province of Laconia are difficult to interpret, at first appearing to be limited to land between the Merrimack and Kennebec Rivers, but with language that might be interpreted so as to extend the grant as far north as the St. Lawrence River and as far west as Lake Champlain or maybe even as far as the Great Lakes. The grant speaks of intended plantations in the area of the lakes of the Iroquois, a tribe more associated with present day New York and Canada. There was apparently never any governmental body organized under the Province of Laconia and Gorges and Mason agreed to separate their grant with Gorges receiving the land which became the State of Maine and Mason receiving the portion of Laconia that he named New Hampshire after his native county, Hampshire, in England. The Piscataqua River became the boundary line between the two states.
My conclusion of those first English Proprietors of the Province of Laconia (or Maine and New Hampshire, if you prefer) were treasure-seekers more than nation-builders. The grants themselves speak of “…mines as well royal mines of gold and silver, and other mines, minerals, pearls, and precious stones, woods, quarries..” indicating that these were some of the goods they expected to find in New Hampshire. There were conditions attached to the grants, one being that a portion of all silver and gold ore taken from the ground would belong to the Council. They were also required to establish a government in the land that “…shall be agreeable as near as may be to the laws and customs of the realm of England…” , and build a fort within three years with “..a competent guard and ten families at the least of His Majesty’s subjects resident and being in and upon the same premises…”
Wood, fur, and fish they found, but the silver and gold, along with precious gem stones were not as readily available as they had hoped. Knowing that the mountains in other lands produced the gold and silver they sought, the mountains of New Hampshire seemed a likely place to supply such. The historian George Barstow wrote that Mason and his followers “…looked to Laconia as a region where nature would smile in eternal fertility and bloom- where wealth would flow in upon them with the profusion of an ocean…”. As ambitious as they were , Sir Gorges and Captain Mason are said to have profited nothing by their investments in The Province of Laconia except for the land that was left for others to fight over in the property disputes that were to come, and the value of their contributions to America seems to have mixed conclusions among historians.
The two grant receivers did send people over to seek the riches they expected Maine and New Hampshire to produce , but in doing so they may have neglected to take full advantage of the resources that were available to them in their desire for silver and gold. A few towns were established and the churches that were considered a necessity in each one provided some stability and cooperation among the residents, but Barstow observed that, in violation of the grant given to them, “Gorges and Mason established no government.”
And the name Laconia seems to have been forgotten until a city brought it back into our vocabulary!
Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. lives in New Hampton.