Human History

If you are interested in Appledore's human history, consider signing up for the Shoals History and Archaeology program for adults, hosted each summer in August. Spend four days, three nights at SML exploring the archaeological sites around Appledore, Smuttynose, and Star islands with faculty experts.

The Isles of Shoals Archipelago is composed of nine islands and numerous rocky ledges, six miles (10 km) off the New Hampshire/Maine border in the western portion of the Gulf of Maine. Appledore Island is located in Maine and is the largest (95 acres; 39 ha) and highest (65 ft.; 20 m) of the Isles. Formerly known as Hog Island, and prior to that as Farm Island; it is approximately 0.5 miles (0.8 km) from east-to-west and 0.6 miles (1.0 km) from north-to-south. The Isles of Shoals have played a larger role in American history than their size and numbers suggest.


The Isles were visited on a seasonal basis by Native Americans long before European contact. Pre-historic arrow and spear points have been discovered on several islands including Appledore and extensive excavations on Smuttynose Island have revealed stone tools, pottery shards, and flakes of stone; all of which imply hunting, food preparation, and food storage by the Native Americans during their extended seasonal visits. Smuttynose spear points have been dated to 6,000 years ago. Much of the details of Native American life on these islands is not yet clear, but archaeologists speculate that the islands were strategically located with a 360 degree view of the surrounding land and sea, as well providing abundant marine resources.

European Contact

John Smith chart

European fisherman, like Basque sailors, were undoubtly the first non-native visitors to the Isles of Shoals, but the first known written description was by Captain John Smith in 1614. The first recorded landfall of an Englishman was that of explorer Captain Christopher Levett, whose 300 fishermen in six ships discovered that the Isles of Shoals were largely abandoned in 1623. Levett described the Isles:

"The first place I set my foot upon in New England was the Isle of Shoals, being islands in the sea about two leagues from the main," Levett wrote later. "Upon these islands I neither could see one good timber-tree nor so much good ground as to make a garden. The place is found to be a good fishing-place for six ships, but more can not be well there, for want of convenient stage room, as this year's experience hath proved." - Drake 1875

At that time, the Isles were surrounded by dense concentrations of cod and this led to intensive seasonal fishing activities beginning in 1623. Early fishermen lived primarily on their vessels, but gradually began to construct dwellings on the islands. Year-round residents and livestock appeared from 1635-1640, with an estimated few hundred inhabitants on the islands by 1700. The first township, Appledore, included all of the Isles of Shoals, and was incorporated by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1661. At that time, the province of New Hampshire and the province of Maine were both a part of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Due to heavy taxes in Massachusetts, there was a general migration of the population in the later 1600's to Star Island in New Hampshire. This lead to the establishment of  the township of Gosport on NH's Star Island in 1715.

Photo of MidOcean House of Entertainment
MidOcean House of Entertainment

By the early 1800s, human habitation and overgrazing by livestock reduced the native vegetation to isolated patches of low pasturage among mostly bare rock. Ruins of formerly prosperous fishing villages dotted the islands and only two islands remained inhabited (Star and Smuttynose). Sam Haley was one of the few people remaining on Smuttynose. His small store and tavern rapidly evolved into a successful village complete with a fishing operation, dock and warehouse, ropewalk, granary, distillery, brewery, The MidOcean House (burned in 1911), bakery, and several other businesses. The MidOcean House of Entertainment, which means it was a tavern, the entertainment being alcohol. Gambling, drinking, and smoking were popular activities among the fishermen when not working.

Reverend John Tucke, an Harvard educated minister moved to the Isles in 1732, he found a hard drinking, hard working population isolated from mainland laws, manners, mores and religion. He worked to civilize the fishermen community until his death in 1773. The American Revolution lead to big changes to this community. The Revolutionaries ordered the Shoalers to the mainland. Many dismantled their homes and brought them to the mainland. The few who remained, never recovered to their pre-revolution population nor activity levels. They were very isolated and poor, but the Isles came alive once again in the 1800's.

The Hotel Era

Image of a postcard of the Appledore House Hotel
Appledore House Hotel postcard

Thomas Laighton had moved from Portsmouth to White Island in 1839, where he became the lighthouse keeper. Laighton, his wife Eliza, and three children (Oscar, Celia, Cedric). Light house keeping life was hard and isolated, the entire family moved to Smuttynose and took over running the Mid-Ocean House for Entertainment. Eliza became a renowned cook and the entire family enjoyed their new profession as Hoteliers. This gave Thomas a grand idea: The Appledore Hotel on Appledore Island. Opening in 1848, Laighton was ahead of his time when he envisioned Appledore as a successful island summer resort. Levi Thaxter, one of Thomas's business associates from a well connected Boston family, became a partner in the Appledore Hotel. Levi's Boston connections were vital and droves of Boston Brahmin came in droves to Appledore, the hotel was a huge success. After Thomas Laighton’s death in 1866, Oscar and Cedric ran the hotel and Celia served as hostess.  Appledore House with up to 500 guests and the Oceanic Hotel (300 guests) on adjacent Star Island enjoyed wide spread reputations and prospered during the late 1800s.

Antique photograph of Celia Thaxter's Salon.
Celia Thaxter's Salon

Many guests and the certainly the famous artists were drawn to the island due to the popularity of Celia (Laighton) Thaxter. Celia, married at 16 to Levi Thaxter (27 years old), was a wife, mother, hotel hostee, and gifted poet. After their marriage in 1851, Levi and Celia Thaxter moved to Massachusetts. As a result of her poem Land-locked published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860, she embarked on her literary career and became one of the country’s most popular poets. Celia’s unhappiness with life on the mainland and with Levi precipitated Celia’s solo return to Appledore in 1880. Her literary fame, combined with the ‘unsurpassed deliciousness’ of the Appledore oceanic air, the fine Hotel and her salon as a gathering place lead the to the development of one of America's first artist colonies. Among the many distinguished guests were: Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Morris Hunt, Childe Hassam, Ole Bull, and NH-born President Franklin Pierce.

One of Celia most famous literary works was her book, An Island Garden. The book, written in the last years of her life, drew from Celia’s life-long love of nature; this love was evident in the garden she established in front of her cottage. Celia drew inspiration from the garden for her poems, prose, and art; indeed, the garden inspired also the American Impressionist Childe Hassam, who immortalized the garden’s vibrant colors and wildness in several world-renowned paintings. Celia died in 1894 and her home and garden were destroyed when the Appledore Hotel burned in 1914. In 1977, the garden was faithfully restored by John Kingsbury, first Director of the Shoals Marine Laboratory, following the detailed instructions in An Island Garden. The garden now is an important link to the Hotel Era of Appledore Island and is a popular destination for summer visitors from around the world.

Post WWII and Founding of Shoals Marine Laboratory

In the early 1900s, the hotel fell on hard times and was purchased by a syndicate. In 1908, the island was subdivided into several hundred small plots and several were sold.  In 1910, the US Coast Guard established a life-saving station on Appledore and built the Coast Guard House (now Bartels Hall).  In 1914, the Appledore Hotel burned to the ground and by 1930, most of the island was purchased by the Star Island Corporation.

Antique photograph taken July 31, 1929 of "The Barnacles" on Appledore Island
"The Barnacles" (July 31, 1929)

In 1928, Dr. C. Floyd Jackson of the Department of Zoology at the University of New Hampshire established the Marine Zoological Laboratory on Appledore utilizing buildings remaining from the Hotel Era and offered summer courses through 1940. During the war years, the island was occupied by military observers.

Appledore Island was abandoned following WWII and existing buildings were heavily vandalized over the subsequent years. After visiting the Star Island conference center in the early 1960s, Drs. John M. Kingsbury and John M. Anderson of Cornell University saw the Isles of Shoals as a better alternative to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for undergraduate education. Consequently, they and a handful of other  faculty brought Cornell undergraduates to Star Island in 1966 for a summer course in marine biology. The program was a big success and by 1973 the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore had been established. From this single summer course and nine buildings, the Shoals Marine Lab currently offers 12-15 summer courses and consists of 16 buildings. 

Photograph of modern day Appledore Island with new solar panel arrays and wind turbine
Solar panels and wind turbine are part of SML's Sustainabilty Program

In the last 10 years, the lab has embarked on an energetic sustainability program for conservation of water and generation of power. The entire SML community has participated in these efforts and helped us achieve an innovative green power grid (utilizing solar and wind energy), water conservation programs, a composting center, and more!