Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Portsmouth, New Hampshire Liberty Pole Eagle

The Beecher eagle
displayed at Portsmouth Public Library

In Prescott Park, on the waterfront at Marcy Street in Portsmouth stands the Liberty Pole.  Most liberty poles in the colonial United States were flag poles topped with a Phrygian cap, the symbol of liberty.  Liberty caps were common during the French Revolution, and often early personifications of Liberty as a female figure were wearing Phrygian or Liberty caps. These poles were erected before and during the American Revolution as a symbol of defiance.  Often the royal governors or British invading troops would order them destroyed, but the colonists would always reinstall a new Liberty Pole.  This act is reenacted every year in Bedford, Massachusetts.

In most towns and cities, as I mentioned above, these Liberty Poles were surmounted by liberty caps. In New York City there was one with a gilded weathervane reading “Liberty”.  In Portsmouth the Liberty Pole was capped with a gilded eagle.

The Liberty Pole at Prescott Park
Portsmouth, New Hampshire

This particular pole was 110 feet tall, and it was topped with a carved eagle in 1824.  This eagle remained above the pole more than 150 years before it was removed for safe keeping to the Portsmouth Public Library.  The eagle Is attributed to the Boston ship woodcarver Laban Beecher.  Beecher was only 19 years old when he created the eagle.  He had been hired by the Navy Yard to carve a figurehead for the sloop Concord.  The eagle is quite large, although it appears small on the very tall Liberty Pole.  It is 43” high with a wingspan of 31”.  There is a hole in the bottom of the eagle, and a dowel on the top of the pole, which indicate that the eagle originally spun as a weathervane.

Laban Smith Beecher, son of Captain Benjamin Beecher and Welthea Parmelee, was born in New Haven, Connecticut on 30 January 1805. He went to Boston in 1822 at age 17 to learn ship carving.  He must have had previous training because by 1824 he was commissioned by several ships for carving, including the eagle for the Portsmouth Liberty Pole. 

The eagle in the staircase of the library.
You are welcome to visit the eagle
whenever the library is open!

The original eagle was removed from the pole in the 1978 and put on display in the library on Middle Street.  It was removed to the new library on Parrott Avenue and re-installed in the staircase.  A second eagle was carved by George Pitts.  This eagle is displayed during summers at the Shaefe Warehouse Museum.  The duplicate eagle now on top of the Liberty Pole in Prescott Park was carved by Ron Raiselas, the cooper at the Strawbery Banke Museum across the street.  This is the eagle you can see today.

The Sheafe Warehouse Museum, behind the Liberty Pole

Beecher’s most famous figurehead was a likeness of President Andrew Jackson for the “Old Ironsides” or USS Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard.  The figurehead was over ten feet tall, and installed in April 1834.  Because Jackson was so unpopular in New England, especially Boston, the Navy Yard had the Constitution heavily guarded, but by July 2nd someone cut off Jackson’s head!  A new head was installed in New York in 1835.   The original head and figurehead are now in the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

There were few calls for ship carvers or figureheads after the Civil War period, and so Beecher left his trade and became the president of an insurance company in Boston.  Eventually he became interested in land deals out west and removed to Wisconsin with his family, where he died at Oshkosh on 22 October 1876.

Beecher married Frances Amelia Lyons on 26 February 1828 in New Haven and had six children.  After his death, he left his estate in bankruptcy.  His wife died in 1885 before the estate could be fully settled.  He was a distant cousin to the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, and to the abolitionist author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" Harriett Beecher Stowe.


      1.       William Chapman Beecher, born 21 March 1829 and died 25 December 1829
      2.       Louisa Augusta, born 27 December 1830, married William Gaston
      3.       Frances Amelia, born 5 June 1833, married Henry G. Crowell
      4.       Theodore Sedgwick, born 6 April 1835
      5.       Elizabeth Gourley, born 4 March 1839; married Henry William Fuller
      6.       Julia Martina, born 1 March 1844, married William Henry Merrill
For the truly curious:

American Eagle: The Bold Art and Brash Life of John Haley Bellamy, by James A. Craig, published by the Portsmouth Marine Society, 2014 (see pages 7 - 9 for a sketch of Laban Smith Beecher’s story).

The Museum of the City of New York website “The Beheading of President Andrew Jackson”, by Madeleine Hazelwood, Sunday, May 14, 2017 https://www.mcny.org/story/beheading-president-andrew-jackson  

Genealogy information was gleaned from American Ancestry, edited by Thomas Patrick Hughes and Frank Musell,  1890, Volume 5, page 105.

A previous blog post I published in 2014 for Flag Day about the Portsmouth Liberty Pole:

A history of the Portsmouth Liberty Pole by historian J. Dennis Robinson:

If you would like to see the annual "Liberty Pole Capping" reenactment in Bedford, Massachusetts, please visit the website for the Bedford Minuteman Company for more information:

Photographs of the original eagle are courtesy of Melissa D. Berry.  Thanks, Melissa!


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "The Portsmouth, New Hampshire Liberty Pole Eagle", Nutfield Genealogy, posted February 5, 2019, ( https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-portsmouth-new-hampshire-liberty.html: accessed [access date]).

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