By: Bethany Bryant, Interpretive Ranger at Bear Brook and Seacoast Parks
Looking off of New Hampshire’s beautiful coast, a keen eye may notice a few rocky out-croppings in the distance. Those mysterious islands are none other than the legendary Isles of Shoals. You may be able to spy one or more of the nine islands anywhere between the rocky beaches of Odiorne Point all the way to the sandy coast line of Hampton Beach. With a good pair of binoculars, you will be able to see Appledore, Star, and White Islands on a clear day. Star, White, Seavey, and Lunging Islands are claimed by New Hampshire. Appledore, Smuttynose, Duck, Cedar, and Malaga Islands are the property of Maine.
It was the explorer John Smith who first charted these isles in 1614, but evidence suggests English fishermen and Native Peoples were here long before that time. These islands have been shrouded in mystery and legend since their discovery. Many of the stories of the Isles of Shoals were recorded by renowned American poet Celia Thaxter in her book, Among the Isles of Shoals. Thaxter recounts that the infamous pirate Blackbeard is said to have buried treasure on there. Although, some say that the only treasure he left behind was the young bride he abandoned on one of the islands. Thaxter even suggests that ghosts haunt Appledore Island.
We may never know if Blackbeard actually traversed these isles or if ghosts haunt them. But we do know that the history of Shoals is still a checkered one. During early colonization, a Norwegian family lost two of their loved ones in a grisly jealous murder on Smuttynose Island. People were not the only ones to experience suffering on these islands. The tern colonies on Lunging Island experienced a massive decrease in population due to loss of habitat and over-population of gulls. In the mid 1900’s, Duck Island was used by the military at Odiorne Point as target practice — which you can imagine was quite disruptive to the Eider duck population nesting there.
Even though the Isles of Shoals may have a grim past, it is not without hope for a brighter future. Duck Island is now a protected wildlife refuge and provides a home to many Harbor Seals. Appledore Island provided great artistic inspiration for writers and artists like Celia Thaxter and Childe Hassam. Currently, Appledore Island is being used as a marine research lab by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University. Seavey Island now has an ongoing tern restoration project that hopes to restore the population back to its former glory.
If you are curious to learn more about these fascinating islands, New Hampshire State Parks are the place to be. Along the coast, you are sure to find island cruises at locations like Rye Harbor and Portsmouth. On these brave ventures, you will not only learn about the islands’ past but will also be able to walk on some of these extraordinary isles to be a part of their present. If you’re not looking to leave the mainland, join the history walks at Odiorne Point Seacoast Science Center for stories and histories of the isles. You can also visit the local SCA Interpretive Rangers on Thursday afternoons at Wallis Sands Beach and ask about the stories of Shoals. New Hampshire’s seacoast is rich in beauty and fascinating tales. Don’t miss out this summer!