Not so far from Old Nutfield in Auburn and Manchester is lovely Lake Massabesic. One of America's most famous late 19th century writers was Harriet Prescott Spofford, who incidentally grew up in Derry, called the lake "one of extreme beauty" and "a bower of beauty."
More than 5 miles in length and a mile in width, the sheet of water covers 2,560 acres with an average depth of 17 feet. Because it is the water supply for Manchester, no swimming or water skiing is allowed in or on its crystal pure waters.
It is known that it has been called Massabesic for nearly 300 years. The town records of Chester and Londonderry first referred to the lake by that name in 1724. In the Manchester, N.H., Sunday Globe in August 1876, a writer gives what he says was the origins of the name, as shared with him by "an ancient citizen of Chester, who was born, lived, and died near the pond."
According to the ancient one, the name goes back to about 1720. The settlers of Nutfield were led by the Rev. James McGregor, who had heard about a mysterious cave on the eastern side of a great pond 10 miles north from Nutfield. In the spring, McGregor, his black slave and a number of men set out on an expedition, with only a few days worth of food. They also carried guns and ammunition in case they were attacked by either Indians or wild animals.
After a few days of hiking through the roadless wilderness, they found a cave on the side of what is now called Mine Hill in Auburn. This cave is now called the Devil's Den, through which I have crawled many times as a boy -- but that's a story for another day. The men explored the cave for a while before climbing the hill. From its top they could clearly see the Atlantic Ocean. By now they had run out of food and decided to visit the unnamed pond hoping to catch fish. Along the way, Rev. McGregor munched on a few berries he found growing on bushes along the shore of the pond.
Arriving at a natural beach, the Nutfield group decided to try their luck at fishing as a way to fill their empty tummies. Using their hatchets and knives they built a raft from logs that they pegged together. Using poles, they voyaged out into the pond in pursuit of pickerel, salmon and perch.
Far from shore, they came upon a large island where they found a Native American settlement of a dozen wigwams. Approaching cautiously, they discovered that this village consisted of only the elderly and women, and their children. It seems that all the braves were away on a hunting expedition somewhere miles away in the hills of this piney wilderness that would in 1769 become Rockingham County. The remaining Indians were very friendly and generously shared with the Nutfield men of their stock of venison, fish, and corn.
After a short time on the island, Rev. McGregor became very sick. The blame was attributed to the berries that the cleric had earlier eaten and which they now suspected were poisonous. Fearing the worst they sent McGregor's slave to raft to shore and run the dozen or so miles back to get help at the Nutfield settlement.
After a few hours the exhausted black man arrived at what is now commonly called East Derry Hill. There, the slave blurted out "Massa be sick" -- "Massa be sick way yonder an' want help." He pointed north in the direction from where he had come. Immediately some of the Nutfield men, the slave and a doctor hurried to find their parson. Upon arriving at the island in the pond, the doctor quickly nursed Rev. McGregor back to health. From the pond the men then proceeded to catch as much fish as they could carry home to their friends and families back in Nutfield. And from that day to the present that body of water has been called Lake Massabesic.
Now comes the big question: Do I believe the "Massa be sick" story? It does gain credibility by being told more or less the same way in history books published in 1851, 1869, and 1926. The answer is no. I believe it is what historians call an apocryphal story -- a piece of folklore that sounds right but isn't. It is certainly much more likely that the Massabesic name comes from a word in the Abenaki Indian language that was something like "Massa-pes-cic," which likely means "place of much water."
Another story about the lake centers on Chief Passaconaway, the sachem for the land in this part of New Hampshire. According to the story, when he died around 1660, his body was put in a canoe that was set adrift across the lake. Suddenly, with a clap of lightning, a cloud enveloped the canoe and the craft began to fly into the sky pulled by 24 prancing wolves. It rose over the lake, the treetops and hills. It was last seen sailing above Mount Washington on its way to the Happy Hunting Grounds.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.