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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Fishing at Amoskeag Falls important to local economy

Special to The New Hampshire Union Leader

November 12. 2012 6:54PM

Historian C. E. Potter wrote in 1856, "The most important natural feature connected with Manchester is the Merrimack. It ever has been, and is now the source of prosperity."

In the early days of European settlement in this area, beginning around 1719 with the Scots-Irish, this prosperity was derived from two sources - water power and fishing. In the 18th and 19th centuries energy from the rapidly flowing waters of the Merrimack River was used to operate saw and grist mills that were essential to the local economy. The other major attraction of the river was the large quantify of edible fish available for the taking. Potter wrote, "Of fish, the Salmon, Shad, Alewife and Lamprey, were abundant in our waters." Potter was particularly fond of the salmon, which he described as "...a sweet, luscious meated fish, of great strength, and superior as a swimmer."

The "fishery at Amoskeag Falls" was as prized a source of food for the European settlers as it had been for the Pennacooks. According to Potter, "The Whites took the fish with spears, scoop nets and seines, and in large quantities; so that people coming from the surrounding country with their wagons and carts, could get them filled sometimes for carting the shad away, to make room for the salmon, and always for a mere trifling price."

Lamprey eels were particularly plentiful and became a staple in the local diet. They were often taken by hooks at the end of long poles. Potter wrote, "(The) eel beds were often so extensive on the Merrimack in certain positions about its islands, as to stop the canal boats for a time. When a boat struck upon an eel bed the boatman would stand in the bow of the boat, and commence rocking it to and fro; this movement would diminish the structure of pebbles and the boat would pass along, but the works and the hopes of the Lampreys were demolished with their ill-located beds."

In 1851 William Stark, a descendant of General John Stark of Revolutionary war fame, wrote a poem to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Town of Derryfield (Manchester's original name). In one stanza he salutes the sea lamprey, "From the eels they formed their food in chief, /And eels were called the "Derryfield beef!" /And the marks of eels were so plain to trace, /That the children looked like eels in the face; /And before they walked - it is well confirmed, / That the children never crept but squirmed."

In addition to serving as a major source of nutrition, both as freshly caught or as dried and salted, fish also had value as currency. Barrels of fish would often be traded and bartered for goods and services. Cash was scarce and a great deal of local economic activity took place as transactions between individuals, with "IOU" notes scratched in personal "day books" that served both as diaries and account books. Merchants and some individuals would transfer their account information into double-entry account books, with listings for the major creditors and debtors. This was an amazingly sophisticated system that relied on general agreement on the value of goods and services, and on a high level of trust and cooperation.

Fishing would take place throughout the year, but particularly during the "Fishing Time" in the spring when the migrating fish were making their way upstream to spawn. Matthew Patten, a Scots-Irish settler living in Bedford wrote in his day book on May 1, 1755, "Went to Namoskeeg Falls and Fished til Saturday night and got with Buying and giving and catching 126 Shad and one Salmon." On June 1 he wrote, ".the whole of what shad I got this fishing time was 175 and 2 salmon.and got 7 Lamper Elles (lamprey eels)." He also bought 38 salmon from other fishermen on the same day. On July 2, 1756, he wrote, ".Alexander gave me shad fish and some eels and bought 2 bushels of rie (rye) meal."

For decades the fishing activity at the Falls and in other areas of the river was vital in providing sustenance for families plus a modest amount of income that was hard to obtain within the hard-scrabble economy. .

Next week: The famous fishing places at Amoskeag Falls.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at


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