21 Dead in Rye

Posted on July 19, 2019


3 Rye Massacres: The one they told you about and the two they didn’t

How’s that for a face-grabbing lede?

On New Years Eve 2019, Amber and I detoured through Rye on our way to Plum Island. On the way in from 101, we came down Breakfast Hill Road, two miles from where I grew up, and I mentioned the Breakfast Hill Massacre and said “someday, I would like to find the exact location in the woods where it happened.”

She replied “Like there?” and lo and behold there was a roadside marker and a picnic table. Well of course the Indians would stop at a picnic table, how had I missed that all of these years? Actually it turned out to be an Eagle Scout project. I’m still dubious as to the exact location, but after 300 years, who’s to quibble?

If you grew up in Rye, or probably anywhere in the Seacoast (yes, there is only one), you probably heard of the “Breakfast Hill Massacre.” Chances are they tell you about this one because “nobody died.” Of course that is semi-fake news as the Indians coming from that raid had already killed 14 people and “others” (some accounts say 4) were taken prisoner that morning. I guess they didn’t want to fill our small heads with the facts. The original attack is called the Plains Attack and it happened where the ball field is at the intersection of the Middle and Peverly roads. Do any of you who live in Portsmouth know about this? I drove by it every day, and I just found out about it researching this article. Stop and read those road signs!

The story I was told about the massacre was that the militia surprised the Indian raiding party at breakfast, hence “Breakfast Hill,” a name the road still has to this day. Because shot was so valuable, the militia wouldn’t shoot unless the Indians were in front of trees. So no shots were fired, the Indians fled and were able to escape to the beach. However, Rye Beach resident John Locke, having discovered their canoes earlier in the day, slashed them and the raiding party had a long and arduous journey home trying to escape and bypass the blockade colonists had set between the shore and the Isles of Shoals.

The Indians have long memories and returned later that year to attack John Locke and his sons in the field. The sons fled but John was mortally wounded. I have heard but not found that there  is a sign there that says:

“In memory of Capt. John Locke who came from England to the shores about 1640. He was killed by Indians August 26, 1696 at the age of 70 years, while reaping his fields in Locke Neck “this town”.

I did find this sign.

I went to elementary and high school with families whose names are in the records since the late 1600s: Philbricks, Lockes, Joneses, Berrys, Randalls, and many others whose families are still in town. In fact, the Berrys, a founding family in Rye, married into the Tobey family two generations back. In Rye, the Locke family has the longest continuous family reunion in the United States.  Mrs Alma Locke was my JHS librarian, after she had been a back up singer for I want to say Barbara Streisand? Partially through her efforts the area where the attack happened, known as “Straw’s Point” my entire life was renamed in 1978 Rye’s annual town meeting back to the original name “Locke’s Neck.” Although it does not seem to have taken with residents who still refer to it by the former name, and every search I ran still uses the “Straw’s Point” nomenclature.

I turns out, this is not the only or even the first massacre in Rye. In 1691, Indians came ashore at Wallis Sand and killed 20 settlers in the salt marsh near Brackett road, kidnapping several more to sell into slavery in Canada. Children too small to travel had their brains dashed out on a rock in the intersection of Wallis and Brackett roads, a rock I remember going by everyday as a kid on the school bus. After all of those years, the town recently moved it for some reason. This very piece of land also became important 1974 when Aristotle Onasis tried to buy it to build an oil refinery. I still remember the uproar. As my mom would say “it went over like a cement cloud.” BTW, the creek in the background of the banner image is, Salt Marsh creek. It runs by Petey’s to Concord Point. It was the original center of town because it was the location of the first mill.

In a way, it’s both amazing that these sad little grave markers still exist, but also that nobody knows about them. This is the single biggest event in Rye history. But the historical markers only tell the victor’s part of the story. In fact, the most detailed account I found of this, in William M. Varrell’s book Rye on the Rocks, tells that this raid was a vendetta raid by the Wahowah, whose father and much of his Abenaki tribe had been slaughtered in 1675 when settlers in Dover invited them to a friendly war games mock battle and shot them all dead – and this is when the settlers were on friendly terms with the natives! The first attack was called The Oyster River Massacre and as I write this it, yesterday (7/18/19) was the 325th Anniversary of the event. In this raid, the Abenaki killed 104 and captured 27.  I bet Durham didn’t have a parade to celebrate this. The Brackett road massacre didn’t happen until the end of September of the same year.

It’s very hard to piece all of this together from various blogs. Here is the one account I found of the war games. All the more reason why it’s such a shame that the largest events in the history of our town was never covered in school. It took my sister and I a while to even find it., as there is no roadside marker. Later, when I went back with Amber to photograph it, the man who lived across the street came out. He said one day he was on his deck which overlooks the spot, and he saw a group of shadows moving through the woods. He watched them for a while and went to get his mom to show her, but when he came back they were gone.

Why do blogs matter? I talked about two of these historical issues in Remembering Rye. Since then, I have lost the books I used to research that, but when I went to research them online, the only reference I found was various blogs, including this one! We pave over, fence off, revise, and otherwise forget our history. But it’s important to remember the ugly divisive things that got us here, lest we subconsciously segue into a Manifest Destiny mindset. Chances are, where you live was founded on blood and we should pause to remember this, lest we repeat it. And although you can say that was long ago, in more primitive times, in policy and decision – are we more innocent then those who shot muskets and swung hatchets? I suggest not.









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