Women’s History and the Spirit of Place on the Isles of Shoals

Women’s History and the Spirit of Place on the Isles of Shoals

“I would rather live on the islands than anywhere else in New England.” Those were the words of explorer Captain John Smith when he sighted the Isles of Shoals in 1614, as he and his crew were fishing off Monhegan. He called them “remarkablest isles” and named them Smith Isles, after himself. He intended them to be his property, a payment for years of service to England. But although he wanted them at first glance and claimed them in his fashion, he never returned to make a home there. Aside from his hand-drawn map, the islands remained unnamed for another 50 years. 

Back in 1614, at the time Smith sailed around the area, the islands did not have the economic attractions of fertile soil or trees for timber. Before too long, however, the islands’ value increased, as they were useful to those who fished in the bountiful ocean. At the height of the islands’ early popularity, they supported seasonal camps of 600 hearty souls. The cold Atlantic waters were an abundant breeding ground for cod. The promise of profit from these large yields resulted in the division of the islands between New Hampshire and Maine by the land speculators, who were granted royal title to the area. 

Today, of the nine islands, four are in New Hampshire—Lunging, Seavey, Star, and White—while five are across the boundary in Maine—Appledore, Cedar, Duck, Malaga (a small island near York, not the island of the same name near Phippsburg), and Smuttynose. 

Just as there are two sides to every story, to every coin, there are two sides to every island. And these islands had a dark period that would affect the settling of the entire western portion of Maine. Helen Coffin Beedy in her book Mothers of Maine (1895) wrote how certain “disreputable men had brought to the islands weak women, owning them in shares as they did their boats.” 

Not much is known of these women. Their lives were held in such disregard that little was written of them. It is nearly impossible to find information about who they were or their circumstances. Perhaps they were indentured servants, purchased for their debts. We do know they were brought to the islands and, according to Puritans of the day, were prostituted against their wills to “profane men, scorners of religion, who drank on the Lord’s Day.” 


Maine, including the offshore islands, was a district of Massachusetts at the time. The Puritan government learned of such activities—of men who were far from the mainland and morals. In the interest of the virtuous development of Maine, they forbade all women from living there. Women were not allowed to live off-shore nor on-shore. This law would affect the mainland at least as far west and north as the town of Strong. Goats and hogs were also prohibited on the islands because they were thought to contaminate fresh water wells and to consume valuable fish. 

Captain John Reynolds had to petition the court in 1647 to be allowed to keep his goats, hogs, and wife. On the grounds that the goats and hogs ate the fish and spoiled the wells, his petition was not allowed, but Reynold’s request to keep his wife was granted. The court ruled that if “no further complaint come against her, she may enjoy the company of her husband.” Other petitioners were told their women could stay if they promised to “not sell neither wine, beare, nor liquor.” 

It was also a concern to some of the fishermen that women would bring bad tempers and incessant talkativeness. The males who were content with a womanless society argued that females disturbed the peace with their natural liberty of tongue. From their view, women talked too much and nagged too often. The courts stipulated that if a woman desired to live in the district of Maine, she must control her tongue and temper. 

Joan Ford of York is an example of what happened to an ill-behaved woman. After calling the town constable a “Cowhead Rouge,” she received nine stripes at the whipping post for her opinion. Mrs. Ford refused to repent, and for continuing to abuse the constable and revile her neighbors she received another ten lashes. 

The men of the day were strongly encouraged to move to and tame the interior wilderness, to build their farms and futures on that promising ground. They were given tracks of land, some as payment for military service, but the banishment of females proved to be an obstacle. 

Helen Coffin Beedy’s account went on to state, “Needless to add that all such efforts at colonization were failures; men alone could not make homes.” After days of taming the wild woods, men were not content to return to cabins that had a cold stove and a cold bed. Eventually the prohibition of women ended, and the successful settlement of western Maine began. 

By 1665 a name for the cluster of islands was settled upon: Isles of Shoals. Since that time, people have never agreed if “shoals” refers to the tidal ledges or the schools of fish. Fishing continued for over 100 years but declined drastically after 1780, when Massachusetts raised taxes on the catch, prompting families to abandon the smaller islands. Prosperity would end altogether with the onset of the Revolutionary War and the evacuation of the remaining population to the mainland for safety. The Isles of Shoals remained largely abandoned during the early 19th century, until revitalized with a differing economy by Celia Thaxter during the 1860s. 

Celia Thaxter was born to Eliza and Thomas Laighton in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1835. Within a few years her father agreed to become the keeper of the lighthouse on White Island, and in subsequent years the family also lived on Smuttynose Island and Hog Island. Thomas Laighton purchased the latter and renamed it Appledore Island after an historic fishing village in Devon, England. Throughout her girlhood Celia and her two brothers were home-schooled by their father. Celia received an unusually broad education for a girl of her generation, although she always felt inhibited by a lack of formal credentials. 

In 1847 a wealthy man from Watertown, Massachusetts, came to Appledore in an effort to recover from nervous exhaustion. Levi Thaxter was educated at Harvard College and trained at Harvard Law School, but he did not practice law. Instead, he spent his ample free time attending salons at Elizabeth Peabody’s bookshop in Boston. He was acquainted with the Concord Transcendentalists and all the leading literary and abolitionist figures in the region, from Margaret Fuller to William Dean Howells. 

During his visit to Appledore, Levi Thaxter offered to invest $2,000 so Thomas Laighton could build a resort hotel, the first on the islands. He also recognized the genius of 12-year-old Celia and agreed to become her private tutor. During the next few years, he paid for Celia to attend a boarding academy in South Boston. As soon as she graduated from this finishing school at age 16, they were wed, in what her biographer Jane Vallier in Poet on Demand (1982) describes as an arranged marriage. 

Although she and her husband resided in Watertown and then Newtonville, Massachusetts, Celia Thaxter established a summer artist colony on beautiful Appledore during the 1860s, attracting writers, painters, musicians, and poets. Numerous famous people—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Morris Hunt, Childe Hassam, and others of the Massachusetts elite—were visitors to the grand Appledore House. 

The Isles of Shoals were rocky, bleak, and greatly exposed to the severity of winter, but they had a refreshing, healthful atmosphere in summer, when those New England talents gathered to be inspired by nature. Celia and Levi Thaxter had three sons, but by 1872 they had become estranged. Although they began to lead separate lives, they continued to maintain a household jointly. In this period, Celia successfully pursued and published her writing career. Her renown as an author was assured by Among the Isles of Shoals (1873), a combination travel guide and natural history handbook. 

During 1880 Celia and Levi built the sort of mansion called a shingle-style “cottage” at Kittery Point, Maine, where Levi died in 1884. Celia continued to recite her poetry and host the summer gatherings on Appledore for the growing tourist trade. Her reputation was enhanced by My Lighthouse, and Other Poems (1890), which established her as one of the most popular poets in the country, and by the highly influential book, An Island Garden (1894). Illustrated by Childe Hassam, this book was an enduring prototype of personal essays about gardening. Celia died at the end of the summer season that same year, at the age of 59. She is buried on Appledore with her brothers, while Levi and their sons lie at rest at Kittery Point. 

From the anonymous, unknown women of the early Isles of Shoals to Celia Thaxter, who can be known as an eloquent author and distinctive personality, the island’s long history has its two sides.  Celia’s famous garden had provided fresh flowers for the resort hotel, its beauty inspiring many of the writers and painters who saw it during her lifetime. Although Appledore House was destroyed by fire in 1914, the garden was reconstructed in 1977 to look much as it did under Celia’s care in the late 1800s.  It is faithfully maintained by those at the Shoals Marine Laboratory, giving summer visitors the experience of stepping back in time.  

For more information, see Beedy, Helen Coffin. Mothers of Maine. Portland: Thurston Print, 1895; 

“What We Are Learning About the Isle of Shoals.” http://www.seacoastnh.com/History/History-Matters/what-we-are-learning-about-the-isles-of-shoals/  ; and  

“Isles of Shoals (White Island) Lighthouse.” https://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=664 . 



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Lew-Ellwyn Hughes

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