Society for the History of Discoveries

Lawson, Russell M.  Passaconaway’s Realm:  Captain John Evans and the Exploration of Mount Washington.  Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2002. vi, 174 p.  ISBN 1584651679.  $22.95.

     Mount Washington is clearly the crown jewel of the White Mountains at 6,288 feet.  Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, Mount Monroe, Mount Madison, Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln all top 5,000 feet however, and in all, New Hampshire has 48 mountains of more than 4,000 feet.  Although no competition for the 10,000 feet-plus peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the White Mountains attract thousands of climbers even today with challenges like Tuckerman’s Ravine.

      Russell Lawson weaves a tale of the early exploration of the White Mountain wilderness from the 1600’s to the early 1800’s.  To tell the story, he begins with Passaconaway of the Ponacook Indian tribe.  He and his brethren revered the land and were in awe of the great mountains.  They regarded the Great Mountain or White Mountain as sacred and contended that it belonged only to the spirits.  They would not climb it.  Mr. Lawson describes the early frontiersmen in the area, the rangers and the scouts of the French and Indian War, the farmers, the men of the Revolutionary War, the adventurers, the preachers and academics, and the students of Harvard and Dartmouth.

      In this intriguing and detailed history, the author describes the earliest ascents of Mount Washington, or the Great Mountain as they called it in those days, first by Walter Neale in 1632, accompanied by Henry Josselyn and Darby Field.   John Josselyn, the brother of Henry, a physician from England, either climbed the mountain in 1638 or in the 1660’s, writing about it in New-England’s Rarities Discovered in 1672 and An Account of Two Voyages to New-England in 1674.  During Dummer’s War in 1725, a party of rangers and scouts under the command of a Captain Wales ascended the mountain as described by Jeremy Belknap.  Next we hear of Nicholas Austin who with eight others ascended the Great Mountain in 1774 and properly called the range the White Mountains.  Austin was a farmer and loyalist who apparently changed his political sympathy as he remained in the Lake Winnipesaukee region in 1785.

      The mainstream of the story is about John Evans, a scout, guide and frontiersman, and Jeremy Belknap, regarded as the chief human and natural historian of the White Mountains.  The Reverend Belknap, a preacher and man of science, organized the defining expedition to Mount Washington in 1784.  Gathering botanical and geological data, the men of this expedition built trails and defied a changing weather pattern to complete their expedition.  Lawson, the historian, presents much detail of this expedition including numerous quotes from Belknap’s History of New-Hampshire as well as other source documents.  Of particular interest were the attempts and difficulties encountered in trying to determine the height of the mountain.  At that time, there were many who felt that the White Mountain was not the highest mountain in New England and that some of the peaks in Maine were higher.

      Passaconaway’s Realm is illustrated with prints from the Dartmouth College Library and the New Hampshire Historical Society.  These include a number of scenic views as well as portraits of Jeremy Belknap, Joseph Whipple and Manasseh Cutler who were primary participants in the ascent of the mountain in 1784. Also included is a map sketch of the country near the White Mountains by Jeremy Balkans. Concluding pages deal with the process through which the Great Mountain or White Mountain became known as Mount Washington.  An appendix giving an eyewitness account of the ascent of 1784 is included along with an essay on source materials.

      This book is heartily recommended for anyone who loves mountain climbing and its history, for anyone interested in the early frontier history of New England, and for anyone who has spent time vacationing in this area.  Lawson presents a great deal of detail that needs to be absorbed but it is worth the trip. 

C.E. Kylander

Duxbury, Massachusetts

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