The people of the early Piscataqua lived with adversity. Beyond the rigors of life on the frontier and the sea, there were epidemics and forced labor. Many residents were killed, taken captive, or lost their homes and became refugees during a generation of warfare between the Wabanaki and the English that began with King Philip’s War in 1675.
Among those who faced the greatest adversity were the Scottish soldiers taken prisoner fighting for the king at the end of the English Civil Wars in 1650 and 1651. After forced marches, imprisonment, and transport to the English colonies, about fifty of them landed in the Piscataqua region as indentured servants. Here they were compelled to serve terms of five to seven years, usually in the demanding and dangerous work of logging and sawmilling. When they were freed, they often received marginal lands on the edge of settlement. This left them particularly vulnerable whenever war broke out with the Wabanaki.
Thomas Holmes was a Scottish prisoner of war who was indentured to millwright Henry Sayward and probably worked in Sayward’s sawmills in Hampton and York. After receiving his freedom, Thomas married Joan Freethy, the daughter of a York fisherman. In the early 1670s they moved from York to Berwick, where Thomas managed the sawmill at Quamphegan, which stood about where the Counting House Museum is today.
Holmes was one of at least twenty Scottish soldiers who settled in the Berwicks and never returned to their homeland. Most were young when they entered the military, between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five. Their shared hardship forged them into a close-knit group, and many families of descendants intermarried.
Holmes carved out an ample livelihood that was drastically altered in 1690 by the Salmon Falls Raid. Forced to flee to their garrison to defend themselves, his family watched as French and Wabanaki raiders burned their nearby home and barn. Although Thomas would die a few months later, his widow and children returned to Berwick to rebuild.
(From the Old Berwick Historical Society exhibit, 2017-2018, Forgotten Frontier: Untold Stories of the Piscataqua by Emerson Baker, Project Scholar, and Nina Maurer, Curator.)