The Early History of Plum Island


Nancy Virginia Weare spent 33 years at her family’s summer camp was at Plum Island. After the Parker River Wildlife Refuge was established, she moved to a home on Great Neck in Ipswich overlooking Plum Island. Nancy was a member of The Ipswich Historical Society, The Museum of Old Newbury, The Maritime Museum, The Sons and Daughters of Old Newbury, and The Friends of Plum Island Light. In 1993, after Nancy retired, she wrote “Plum Island: The Way It Was.” Nancy Weare passed away in December, 2017. The book is reprinted on this site with permission from her surviving sister.

Plum Island, the Way it Was
Chapter 1: Early History

The narrow barrier island of sand dune and marsh that we recognize today as Plum Island is believed to have started as a sandspit perhaps as many as 6,000 years ago. As it increased in area, its southern end eventually attached itself to four glacial-drumlin islands that are today called Cross Farm Hill, Bar I lead, Ipswich Bluffs and Grape Island. In length, the island extends nearly nine miles from its northern extremity at the mouth of the Merrimack River to Bar Head, which rises majestically to overlook the mouth of the Ipswich River.

Plum Island was first recorded on European charts in the early seventeenth century, and from artifacts found at kitchen middens on Grape Island, the Bluffs and Bar Head, we surmise that local Indians had found the island an agreeable summer habitation. There is some speculation but no agreement that Vikings had stopped there centuries earlier, and we know that Champlain sailed by the island during his exploration of the Massachusetts coast. Captain John Smith, who visited our shores in 1614, described the island in some detail, although he did not give it a name.

Captain John Smith New England

“…On the east is an isle of two or three leagues in length; the one halfe plaine marish ground fit for pasture, or salt Ponds, with many fair high groves of Mulberrie trees and gardens; and there is also Oaks, Pines, Walnuts and other wood to make this place an excellent habitation, being a good and saf harbor.” –Captain John Smith

The island was included in the 1621-22 land grant to Captain John Mason when the president and council of Plymouth granted to him, under the name Mariana, “… all the land lying along the Atlantic from Naumkeag River to the Merrimack River … to geather with the Great Isle or Island henceforth to be called Isle Mason lying neere or before the Bay, Harbor or ye river Aggawom.” However, the name Plumb Island is the one recorded on earls• local maps, very likely in recognition of its many plum hushes, and is the one that prevailed.

For the first one hundred and fifty years of the nearby settlements of Newbury; Rowley and Ipswich, Plum Island was treated primarily as a resource. In the beginning days of the colony, open pastureland was limited, and the island’s marshes, or meadows, offered grazing for the colonists’ livestock. The salt hay was also used for bedding and mulching and as insulation to batik against the foundations of houses. The trees mentioned in the earliest descriptions of the island were probably cut for lumber and floated to the mainland. We are certain that pines existed, since they were used to define the land boundaries in some of the early deeds. Only at the southern end of Plum Island, where the higher ground of the glacial drumlins provided rich topsoil, was there any attempt at settlement.

Plum Island was not included in the territories granted to the early settlers of Ipswich, Rowley and Newbury but was under the jurisdiction of the General Court. In 1639 two residents of Ipswich obtained permission to keep “fourscore hoggs on the island . . . from Aprille next untill harvest he got in….” The town of Newbury responded by asking for title to the whole island. For the next ten years the three settlements shared the island. Eventually in 1649 the General Court divided Plum Island among the townships, two fifths each being awarded to Ipswich and Newbury and one fifth to Rowley.

Most of Newbury’s land was held in common by the freeholders except for the valuable marsh along the river and eighty acres of upland near the Rowley line. In Ipswich and Rowley the land was surveyed and measured, and shares were allocated among the commoners. Since no fencing existed on the island, there was still much contention among the three towns. Ipswich complained that the horses and cattle placed on the island by Newbury residents to forage during the winter months were destroying the vegetation and “… would be the ruin and utter destruction of the whole island….” Even in colonial times there was concern about erosion, and the selectmen tried through regulations to prevent the destruction of the dunes lest the shifting sands overrun the valuable salt meadows.

A mid-1800’s view of the old fort on the Salisbury side of the river (Courtesy, Historical Society of Old Newbury)

In the summer of 1769 Newbury and Newburyport, which had by then become separate towns, joined together to share the cost of a hospital to be built on Plum Island in order to shelter and care for those who were ill with smallpox. This highly contagious disease was greatly feared, and it was the custom to isolate the afflicted. [he hospital, or Pest House, was located near the northern end of the island to make it accessible to ships arriving from foreign ports where seamen were often exposed to both smallpox and yellow fever and needed to be kept in quarantine. If an incoming ship had disease on board, it was required to be washed down with vinegar, and its soft goods, such as cloth, were buried in sand for nine days.

The Pest House was also used to care for local residents who had smallpox. Not all the patients were cooperative. Comments taken from a letter sent to a patient by Newburyport’s selectmen indicate how seriously these rules were to be observed: “. . . if you should come away before you are Cleansed 6 your Cloths shifted, the People in Town will Stone you out again….” Instructions to staff included the following: “… we desire you to be extremely Careful) that you Burn nothing in the fires, but to Bury ever; thing that is Offencive to cover it with earth as soon as put in the place for that purpose, and when the Cows shall be put into the Pastures we desire you to keep then away as far as you can from the Fence….”

At the time of the Revolution, forts were erected on both sides of the river to guard the harbor entrance. The funding’ for Plum Island’s fort was undertaken jointly by Newbury and Newburyport. The historian Joshua Coffin wrote that Newburvport “voted to allow the soldiers stationed on Plum Island candles and sweetening for their beer.” The fort, called Fort Faith, was eventually washed away; and during the War of 1812 a temporary fort was built.

An artist’s conception of the twin lighthouses, the signal tower and keeper’s house on Plum Islan d around 1800. The engraving was taken from th Newburyport Marine Society’s certificate of membership.

As shipping increased along the coast and particularly in the Merrimack, there was a need for range lights to guide incoming ships. In 1783 a group of private citizens provided the funding. These beacons were later replaced with two small wooden lighthouses and a keeper’s dwelling.

An ever-growing number of shipwrecks on the shores of Plum Island caused the Newburyport Marine Society in 1787 to build and equip two shelters for the use of shipwrecked sailors in winter storms. Unless a ship was stranded on an offshore bar, the crew were sometimes able to reach shore alive, but without shelter it was likely that they would perish from exposure before their plight was known. A few years later, in 1804, the Merrimack Humane Society added additional huts. The locations of such shelters along our coast were described in leaflets that were carried aboard ships using these waters.

In 1829 an attempt was made to increase the depth of water at the bar at the mouth of the Merrimack by the construction of a breakwater extending from Plum Island to Woodbridge Island. Congress appropriated $32,000 for the purpose, later adding to that sum before the project was completed in 1831. The breakwater did not prove to be effective and eventually was destroyed by wave and water action.

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