The first white person to settle in the area was Ambrose Gibbons. He sailed up the Salmon Falls River on the Warwick on June 1, 1630. He and other men had formed a company called the Laconia Company, which had many goals, including mining ore and salt, establishing vineyards, and finding a waterway to the Great Lakes. These unrealistic goals were not reached and the Laconia Company folded. Then in 1634, Gibbons returned on the Pied Cow, which was rumored to be the first ship to bring cows to North America. This settlement was successful and they built the first sawmill in the colonies. When they arrived, the settlers found thick forests filled with trees standing 150 to 200 feet tall. In addition, there was abundant wildlife. These animals included moose, bear, elk, bison, and huge lobsters and clams. There were so many salmon, it was said that on could walk across the river without getting one's feet wet! Early settlers wrote of flocks of birds flying overhead and blocking out the sun! As well as the plentiful plant and animal life, settlers found old abandoned Native American fields. Hence the name of the present-day "Old Fields Road". The Newichawonnock tribe had been summering there long before whites arrived. People heard of the great opportunities in the New World and came to the settlement. The river became a highway. The center of town was Pipe Stave Landing (Leigh's Mills). The community was made up of fishermen, lumberjacks, merchants, laborers, and sailors. Many Scottish settlers inhabited Vaughan Woods. Some of the cellar holes of those homes can still be seen. Lumber was an especially prosperous business. The gigantic trees were chopped down and floated down the river and over to Portsmouth. They were called the king's pines because they were used as masts for the king's ships. With the throngs of people arriving in early South Berwick, the wildlife slowly disappeared. The late 1600's brought conflict to South Berwick. During King Phillip's War in 1675, Native Americans and colonists fought each other. King Phillip was a Native American. Most white homes were burned by 1690, including the Humphrey Chadbourne House, which has been an archeological dig site during the past few years. To protect themselves during an attack, the settlers built garrisons: 16 by 16 ft. square-shaped structures. What remained of the Hill Garrison still stands on Brattle Street. Today's Salmon Falls Nursery is the site of a massacre at the Tozier Garrison, which took place on September 24, 1675. During King William's War of 1690, the French got Native Americans to fight the colonists. At the Plaisted Garrison (near Leigh's Mills), fighting lasted for several days and the settlers lost. This could have been when the Humphrey Chadbourne House was burned. 54 prisoners were marched to Canada. One of these captives was Hetty Goodwin. Legend says that her husband, who had himself been held captive by Native Americans, gathered ransom money and was eventually able to bring Hetty back to the settlement. Hetty is now buried in the Old Fields Cemetery.
The 18th century was a time of industry. At the turn of the century, wild game was much reduced from the 1600's and one would have to travel 30 miles inland to find a king's pine. There were hundreds of sawmills and sawdust polluted the river. Throughout the 1700's there were trading posts, warehouses, docks, and shipbuilding sites all along the river. The remains of a dock can be seen at the Hamilton House at very low tides. The center of town shifted to Upper Landing (what is now the Counting House), since there was a dam nearby and it was the highest point that would be reached by salt water transportation from the sea, such as the gundalows. There were also many important historical sites built during the 1700's as well. Berwick Academy was established in 1791 and is thought to be the oldest private school in Maine. (The original schoolhouse is still used at Berwick Academy). What later became the home of South Berwick's famous writer, Sarah Orne-Jewett, was built from 1774 to 1776. One very important center for shipbuilding was the Hamilton House, built in 1785. Captain John Hamilton had spent $3,000 on the house, which was about 6 times the price of the average house back then. Here, 12 ships were built and then sent off the docks down the river. The 1700's was a prosperous time for people, but nature suffered great losses during that time of industry and trade.
The early-to-mid-1800's was a time when textile mills were extremely important to South Berwick. The center of town moved to its present location. A very important textile mill at that time was the Portsmouth Manufacturing Company. It was located in the same area as the Counting House, now a museum which was once one of the factory buildings. In the Portsmouth Manufacturing Company's mill, there were 216 looms which produced cotton cloth. It employed 260 to 300 workers, two-thirds of whom were women in their late teens and early twenties. Boarding houses lined Main Street. The largest was the "Hash House". Many South Berwick people worked at the Salmon Falls Mill just across the river in Rollinsford. A bustling community surrounded both mills. French Canadians lived in the Salmon Falls Mill area. The Happy Valley was a street lined with stores where mill workers went on Saturdays. Fogarty's is located in that area today. Many of the original shops, such as Roberge Bakery, still stand. As the Industrial Revolution came to an end, the mills died out and many residents became doctors, lawyers, or merchants. Instead of using the river for transportation in the late 1800's and early 1900's, people used trolleys. One could travel from York all the way to Biddeford without changing trolleys. When going through South Berwick, trolleys left the Salmon Falls Bridge on the hour and went to the South Berwick Trolley Junction near today's Dover-Eliot Bridge on Route 101. They continued on to Dover and Kittery. Along the trolley line in South Berwick between the South Berwick Junction and the South Berwick Car Barn was the Quamphegan Amusement Park, located on today's Waterside Lane. It was one of many resorts along trolley lines that attracted tourists. It had merry-go-rounds, rustic walks, summer houses, band stands, picnic areas, and concessions. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, Sarah Orne-Jewett was becoming famous with her writings. Her house, which still stands today, was used by her father for his medical practice. Earlier in her life, Jewett lived with her mother and sister next door in a building which is now the town library. Then the family moved back into the larger home. Jewett spent her life writing in that house. As you visit South Berwick you can see for yourself how the town is rich in history. You should also take a look at the new town projects as well. Go the the Salmon Falls River and just imagine all the changes it has seen in the past 400 years.