"To the Farthest Port of the Rich East"
For a few heady years when the nation was young, Salem's name was synonymous with the overseas luxury trade. The port's merchants took great risks and reaped greater rewards, sending their ships on voyages "to the farthest port of the rich East," in the words of the city's motto. They plied the eastern seas in search of the greatest profit, buying and selling the exotic goods that earned for Salem its reputation as the "Venice of the New World"probably the richest American city per capita in 1790. Between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the port flowered as a major maritime center.
Shipwrights were at work in Salem soon after its founding as a plantation in 1626. In the 1630s Salem became one of a number of New England fishing ports. But shipping soon proved more lucrative than fishing, and by 1643 Salem ships, mostly single-decked sloops and schooners, were running the coastal trade, carrying New England cod and lumber to the West Indies, then sailing with molasses and rum for home or Europe, where they were traded for manufactured goods. Salem prospered on this modest scale until duties, taxes, and restrictive trade regulations imposed by England cut deeply into the merchants' profits. Shipowners, especially in Massachusetts, became the prime financial backers of the Revolution.
When the colonies declared independence, the Continental Navy's 25 vessels were no threat to the Royal Navy, so the Continental Congress issued hundreds of "letters of marque" to shipowners, authorizing them to prey on enemy shipping for profit during their commercial voyages. Congress also licensed privateers, which sailed with the sole intent of taking prizes. Privateers, at first coastal and fishing vessels armed with six- and nine-pound cannon and later more heavily armed brigs and ships, were highly successful early in the war. They disrupted enemy communications, harassed British ports, and commandeered munitions and supplies. Salem was adept at this combination of profit and patriotism, supplying more sailors and ships (158) than any other port. Though it was one of the few significant ports to avoid capture by the British, many of its citizens were thrown out of work by the war. Privateering provided a living for Salem's unemployed sailors and fishermen, who preferred the rewards and shipboard conditions of privateering to the spartan naval service. After the war they competed for often lower-paying berths in the reduced shipping industry.
The transition was also difficult for shipowners, for with peace came economic stagnation in New England. The newly independent United States lost the ports, protections, and privileges they had enjoyed as British colonies. American ships had been captured or destroyed in the last years of the war, when the British clamped down on privateering. Many of the surviving ships were in need of repair. But if the war left New England shipping prostrate, it also provided the conditions by which Salem was transformed from a provincial port into a world-wide shipping center. The larger wartime privateers were unsuited to the coastal trade. In any case, the British had closed their West Indies ports to U.S. ships, and shipowners were forced to broaden their horizons. Merchants with boldness and imagination, like Elias Hasket Derby and the Crowninshields, opened up distant ports, helping New England pull out of the depression and ushering in Salem's glory years.
Derby's ship Grand Turk was the first Salem vessel to venture beyond the Cape of Good Hope. It reached Canton in 1786, where its load of ebony, ginseng, gold threads, cloth, and betel nuts (obtained at Ile-de-France in trade for native products was traded for tea, silk, spices, china, and cassia. This voyage opened the East to Salem, but the Indies became the port's favorite trading grounds. So extensive were Salem's contacts in India and the East Indies that some traders there believed "Salem" to be a sovereign nation. As new markets opened, American farms, forests, and fisheries produced more to meet world demand, while such former luxuries as tea, coffee, and pepper became common in American households. This trade was entrusted to the well-constructed East Indiamen that evolved from the ex-privateers. Everyone seemed to have a stake in these vessels, and shipping interests reigned. Most shipowners were Federaliststhe party of strong central government and commerce. Their help in getting the Constitution ratified and their support for the young government through customs duties were rewarded with tariffs that drove foreign vessels from their ports.
This period of growing fortunes was brought to an abrupt halt by Jefferson's 1807 embargo on shipping to and from England and France, imposed to counter those countries' attacks on U.S. neutral carriers during the Napoleonic Wars. The embargo was meant to save U.S. vessels, but most of the fleet was put out of commission by the closing of foreign trade. Smaller ports like Salem never recovered from the blow, and the War of 1812 again deprived them of markets with a combination of embargo and enemy warships. Privateering played a much smaller role than during the Revolution, but Salem still supplied over a sixth of U.S. privateers, despite the unpopularity among Federalists of "Mr. Madison's War."
Salem's maritime prominence was fading. After the war England was in no hurry to open its colonial ports to the United States, and new markets in California, Australia, and South America took a generation to develop. At home Salem couldn't compete with New York and Boston for the new western markets because it lacked an inland transportation network. Manufacturing was replacing shipping as the dominant industry in New England. By 1847, when Salem's first large textile mill was built, voyages by Salem ships to the Far East had virtually ceased, though regular voyages continued to Africa and South America. Salem-owned ships called at foreign ports until the early 1890s, when the last squarerigger cleared Derby Wharf.
Salem's Millionaire Shipowners
Elias Hasket Derby (1739-99) was Salem's most prominent merchant and probably America's first millionaire. When he took over complete control of the family business at 44, Derby knew every detail of overseas trading. Before the Revolution the Derbys were active in the European and West Indies trade and were among the first to outfit their vessels as privateers to fight the British. Probably more privateers sailed from Derby Wharf than from any other in the nation, and Derby was one of the few Salem merchants to emerge from the war in the black. After he took the lead in opening up new markets for Salem, "King" Derby's preeminence was undisputed. He was an imaginative and demanding shipowner who evoked great loyalty from his captains. He was also respected for his vast knowledge of shipbuilding and his "intuitive faculty in judging of models and proportions" of ships.
William Gray (1750-1825), who owned 181 vessels in his lifetime, was one of the greatest shipowners in the United States, worth $3 million at the time of the 1807 embargo on foreign trade. A Federalist, he broke with his party when he supported the constitutionality of the embargo. For this stand he was ostracized by Salem merchants and accused of profiteering during the embargo. He left the party and moved to Boston in 1809. A man of influence and a friend of John Quincy Adams, he was elected lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts on the Republican ticket in 1810. During the War of 1812 he outfitted the frigate Constitution at his own expense. In peacetime Gray's ships specialized in the Mediterranean-to-Calcutta trade. He was also one of America's principal traders with Russia, sending cargoes of tobacco, sugar, and cotton to the Baltic and bringing home sheetings, iron, and cordage.
Simon Forrester (1748-1817) came to Salem as an Irish seaman at 19 and left $11½ million at his death. By 28 he had his own command and had become one of Salem's most successful privateers, capturing four British ships in 1776. After independence he turned merchant and shipowner. He was characterized as headstrong but honorable and generous. An early trader in the profitable Baltic area, by 1791 he owned a house and wharf on Derby Street.
Salem's Trade Empire
The name Salem was known to traders all over the the world. The house flags of its merchants flew at ports in Russia, Europe, the Mediterranean, Canada, and South America, but its most extensive trade was around the Cape of Good Hope to the Far East and the "Indies"India and the East Indies. From trade outposts at Ile de France (now Mauritius) the ships fanned out across the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the China Sea, and beyond to China, Japan, and Australia. Salem's captains were at home in these distant, sometimes dangerous waters trading the exotic good; (Mocha coffee, Indian cotton, and Sumatran pepper) for which the city was famed.
Salem's ships opened many foreign ports to U.S. trade, including: Calcutta, Kronstadt (at St. Petersburg), Sumatra, Zanzibar, Bombay, Madras, Guam, Mombasa (Kenya), Ceylon, Ile de France, Mocha, Siam, Burma, and St. Helena Island.
A trusted captain was allowed much discretion by Salem shipowners. On a typical voyage he would sail with a full cargo of American and West Indian goods. After selling or trading part of the cargo at Capetown, he continued on to Ile de France, where, if the prices were right, he traded the rest for coffee, pepper, and tea or sold the whole ship and took the cash home. If prices were low he sailed for Bombay, where he picked up indigo and cotton, which he had heard would bring a good price in Batavia (now Jakarta). After the sale there, he might try to realize a little more profit by buying bird's nests and opium, which could be traded for tea in Canton on very good terms. Stopping at Capetown on the return voyage, he might fill any remaining cargo space with wines and possibly hides. The shipowner might expect at least a 100-percent profit.
The merchants of Salem were in business to make the highest profit on the smallest bulk. They were market speculators, not suppliers of necessities. Their ships carried native products such as dried fish, lumber, cotton, butter, beef, and tobacco, along with rum and molasses from the West Indies, to ports all over the world. They were traded for goods then considered luxuries, such as tea, coffee, sugar, pepper, and Indian cotton textiles. These were the mainstays of the trade, the goods that consistently brought a good profit at home or, as re-exported cargoes, in world markets where they were in demand. Cocoa, ginger, ivory, and gold dust were other goods often found in Salem's warehouses.
The Ships and Their Crews
Vessels of various sizes and rigs sailed from Salem Harbor, but most of those bound for distant Eastern waters were the East Indiamendurable, full-bottomed, three-masted ships developed to meet the needs of post-independence commerce. Compared to European (and later American) merchantmen, they were small. A typical Salem East Indiaman was 100 feet long, 28 feet wide amidships, with a capacity of about 300 tons. (A typical cargo ship of today carries more than 10,000 tons.) They were slow, and even those considered good sailors had an average speed of not much more than five knots. A trip to China took more than 100 days in good weather. But speed was less important to Salem's merchants than seaworthy, maneuverable ships thai could carry valuable cargoes on one- or two-year voyages. Their smaller size was an advantage because they were generally easier to handle and drew less waterimportant when navigating unknown seas. It was also safer to distribute goods among several small ships so that everything was not riding on the safety of one vessel.
The crews that manned these ships were surprisingly small, usually less than 20 men. They were also very young. It was not uncommon for a boy barely in his 20s to be master of a ship. Capt. Nathaniel Silsbee was 19 when he took command of the Derby ship Benjamin in 1792. His first mate was 20, his clerk 18. The crews could share in the profits of lucrative voyages, as most shipowners allotted varying amounts of cargo space for private tradingup to five tons for the captain in addition to his wages, percentage of outbound or inbound cargo profits, and occasional private freight payments. Most captains started their careers as common seamen, and "came up through the hawsehole," although some had been supercargoesseagoing commercial agentswho "came in through the cabin window." Wise investments and good fortune allowed some captains to retire from the sea by age 30 to become merchants and shipowners. But the risks were great. Death by storm, accident, pirates, or contagious disease awaited the careless or unlucky.
Wharves Alive With Commerce
Salem's wharves were a rich and vital scene, especially when an East Indiaman like the ship John arrived from around the Cape. Towering masts, criss-crossing yards and booms, stacked goods, rolling barrels and wagon wheels, and exotic fabrics were a kaleidoscope of color and movement. There was the incessant noise: shouted orders, creaking windlasses, tradesmen working in their shops on the wharves, fancy women beckoning from windows, and the sawing and pounding from nearby shipyards. The smells of cinnamon, pepper, cloves, coffee, and tea drifted on the air. The wharves were the focus of Salem's energy, the arteries through which its commercial lifeblood flowed.
Touring the Site
The wharves at Salem Maritime National Historic Site stretch out into the salt waters of Salem Harbor, testifying to the city's former dependence on the sea. The once-busy wharves and the buildings facing the harbor are remnants of the shipping industry that prospered in Massachusetts Bay's oldest seaport well into the 19th century. The old waterfront area was designated a National Historic Site in 1938 because of the importance of commercial shipping to the early U.S. economy, the significance of the port of Salem (once the nation's sixth largest city), and the quality of the surviving seaport features.
Derby Wharf (1762), Hatch's Wharf (1819), and Central Wharf (1791) are typical of the many wharves that once lined Salem Harbor. They were covered with dozens of warehouses14 on Derby Wharf alone. Some wharves were built by floating timber rafts into position, then sinking them with stones. Others were constructed of stone exterior walls filled with earth. Moored at Derby Wharf is a full-size reconstruction of the three-masted, square-rigged East Indiaman Friendship. Detailed documentation of the original merchant vessel, built in Salem in 1796-97, made possible a historically accurate reconstruction.
Warehouses were an important asset to shipowners. The security provided by the locked and shuttered brick or wooden structures indicates the value of most imports, such as spices, coffee, tea, silks, India cotton, ivory, and gold dust. Though solid, the warehouses were relatively small, as enormous profits could be made from small amounts of high-value, low-bulk luxuries. Warehouses still remaining in Salem are the Public Stores (1819), the Central Wharf Warehouse (c. 1805), the Forrester Warehouse Foundation (pre-1832), and the Hawkes House (a warehouse from 1780 to 1799).
The Custom House (1819) represented the U.S. Government in the port. Permits to land cargo, seamen's protection certificates, and ships' measurement certificates were issued here. Here also merchants paid customs taxesthen a large part of U.S. revenue. In return the government built lighthouses and beacons, protected shipping, and provided medical care to needy sailors.
The Scale House (1829) sheltered the large scales used by the Customs Service for weighing and taxing the innumerable shiploads of goods landed at Salem for distribution or re-export. Ships sometimes carried their own scales for use in ports of call.
At the West India Goods Store (c. 1800) and other shops, imported cargoes were sold at retailan important but relatively small part of the distribution of goods. Besides the expected sugar, molasses, and tropical fruits from the Caribbean Islands, locally produced dried cod, nails, and fishhooks were sold here.
Derby House (1762), built for shipowner Elias Hasket Derby, stood within sight of the owner's ships and wharves. The oldest surviving brick house in Salem, it was built about the same time as Derby Wharf.
Hawkes House (1780) was used as a privateer prize warehouse by Derby during the Revolution. Designed by Salem's great architect Samuel McIntire, it was purchased in 1801 and completed in its present form by Benjamin Hawkes, owner of a shipyard next to Derby Wharf.
Narbonne House (1675) was home and shop for such craftsmen and tradesmen as a slaughterer and tanner, ropemaker, and centshop proprietor.
St. Joseph Hall (1909) served as a religious, cultural, and social center from 1909 to the 1980s. It also provided housing for Polish immigrants and new Polish residents in Salem until the 1960s.
The Lighthouse on Derby Wharf, with others at Pickering Point on Winter Island and Hospital Point in Beverly, was built in 1871 to "complete the system for the Harbor of Salem."
About Your Visit
Salem Maritime National Historic Site is on Derby Street, Salem, Massachusetts, 20 miles northeast of Boston. Groups may receive special service if advance arrangements are made at the site.
For Your Safety
Source: NPS Brochure (2004)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Administrative History of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site (Pauline Chase-Harrell, Carol Ely and Stanley Moss, February 9, 1993)
Archeological Collections Management at Salem Maritime National Historic Site ACMP (Archeological Collections Management Project) Series No. 1 (Alan T. Synenki and Sheila Charles, 1983)
Archeological Investigations at the Narbonne House Cultural Resources Management Study No. 6 (Geoffrey P. Moran, 1982)
Biographical Paper on General James Miller, Collector of the Port of Salem, Massachusetts, 1825-1849 (Robert J. Holden, May 1967)
Derby Wharf, Salem, Mass. (Edwin Small, 1936)
Historic Furnishings Study: Derby Wharf Warehouses, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts (Charles W. Snell, November 1974)
Historic Furnishings Study: Elias Hasket Derby's Brick House, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts (Charles W. Snell, November 1974)
Historic Sites Survey Report: (Some Derby Street Houses and Inhabitants) Data on the Physical History of House Lots 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, and 11; Waterfront Lot J, and the East Side of Union Wharf, 1660-1869, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts (Charles W. Snell, 1979)
Historic Structure Report/Historical Data: Derby/Prince/Ropes House, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts (Charles W. Snell, March 1976)
Historic Structure Report/Administrative Data Section/Historical Data Section: Derby Wharf, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts (Part I) (H. John Dobrovolny and John Luzader, September 1973)
Historic Structure Report: The Custom House (April 1959)
Historic Structure Report: The Derby House (April 1959)
Historic Structure Report: The Hawkes House (March 1959)
Historic Structure Report: The Rum Shop (May 1957)
Historic Structures Report/Architectural Data Section: Narbonne House, Salem, Massachusetts (The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, December 1972)
Historic Structures Report/Architectural Data Section: The Rum Shop, Salem Maritime National Historic Site (Part II) (Norman M. Souder, October 1964)
Historic Structures Report/Architectural Data Section: The Scale House, Salem Maritime National Historic Site (Part II) (Walton Stowell, September 1964)
Historic Structures Report: Narbonne House, Essex County, Salem, Massachusetts (Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, January 1977)
Historical and Architectural Survey of the Narbonne House, 71 Essex Street, Salem, Mass. (Abbott Lowell Cummings, 1962)
Historical Conservation and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site (Edwin W. Small, March 9, 1939)
Historical Report on Derby Wharf: Compilation of Documents (Thomas G. Manning and Edwin W. Small, 1937)
Historical Report on Derby Wharf with Recommendations, Notes and Bibliography (Thomas G. Manning, September 30, 1937)
Historical Report on the Brig Leander: A Case History of Salem Shipping (Edwin W. Small and Thomas G. Manning, August 1941)
In the Heart of Polish Salem: An Ethnohistorical Study of St. Joseph Hall and Its Neighborhood (Cathy Stanton and Jane Becker, December 2009)
Junior Ranger, Salem Maritime National Historic Site (Date Unknown)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Forms
Derby Wharf Light Station (Leslie Fox and N.L. Salzman, August 1981)
Salem Maritime National Historic Site (H. John Dobrovolny, July 25, 1972, updated February 3, 1975)
Newsletter (Pickled Fish and Salted Provisions Historical Musings from Salem Maritime NHS)
"Find them if you can...Take them if you can! A Short Biographical Sketch of Richard Derby (John Frayler, Vol. 1 No. 1, January 1999)
Show Me the Money (John Frayler, Vol. 1 No. 2, February 1999)
Animal House (John Frayler, Vol. 1 No. 3, March 1999)
History By the Yard (John Frayler, Vol. 1 No. 4, March 1999)
A Pachyderm's Tale, Or, Where Did the Elephant Go? (John Frayler, Vol. 1 No. 5, March 1999)
Furiously in Pursuit of Profit (John Frayler, Vol. 1 No. 6, September 1999)
Partners for Eternity (John Frayler, Vol. 1 No. 7, September 1999)
Old "Step Over to Lynn" (John Frayler, Vol. 1 No. 8, October 1999)
The Man Twice Forgotten: Captain John Derby and the Quero (John Frayler, Vol. 2 No. 1, February 2000)
Offices of the Revenue (John Frayler, Vol 2 No. 2, March 2000)
A Custom House Sketch (John Frayler, Vol. 2 No. 2a, March 2000)
Figureheads (John Frayler, Vol. 2 No. 3, March 2000)
The Great Ipswich Coffee Bust (John Frayler, Vol. 2 No. 4, May 2000)
Tall Ships, Small Ships (John Frayler, Vol. 2 No. 5, July 2000)
Salem, Sugar and Slaves (John Frayler, Vol. 2 No. 6, July 2000)
Sweet Geometry: The Taste of Trade (Terrence O'Rourke, Vol. 2 No. 8, August 2000)
The Tale of Two Imaris (John Frayler, Vol. 2 No. 9, September 2000)
The Narbonne House (Robin Maloney, Vol. 2 No. 10, October 2000)
Everybody Wants To Get In On the Act (John Frayler, Vol. 3 No. 1, February 2002)
Seaman's Clothing in Friendship's Era (John Frayler, Vol. 3 No. 2, March 2002)
Shoes, Ships, and Survival (John Frayler, Vol. 3 No. 3, May 2002)
Fire and Lights (John Frayler, Vol. 3 No. 6, October 2002)
A Large-Scale Enterprise (John Frayler, Vol. 4 No. 1, May 2003)
Walk Away With the Cat, Walk Away With the Fish (John Frayler, Vol. 4 No. 4, July 2003)
An Englishman in the Derby House (Marieke Van Damme, Vol. 4 No. 5, August 2003)
Retired on the Fourth of July (John Frayler, Vol. 4 No. 6, September 2003)
Windows to the Past: A Historic Storefront in the Salem Maritime NHS Collection (Marieke Van Damme, Vol. 5 No. 3, October 2003)
Pickled Fish and Salted Provisions (John Frayler, Vol. 6 No. 1, February 2004)
Polish-Americans In Salem: A Transition in Photographs (Thalia Gray, Vol. 6 No. 4, March 2004)
The Medicine Chest (John Frayler, Vol. 6 No. 3, April 2004)
Salem Maritime Joins the Navy (John Frayler, Vol. 6 No. 4, May 2004)
A Tangled Web (John Frayler, Vol. 6 No. 5, August 2004)
'Mericani (John Frayler, Vol. 6 No. 6, October 2004)
The Arms Chest (John Frayler, Vol. 7 No. 1, March 2005)
Pepper and Providence (John Frayler, Vol. 7 No. 2, July 2005)
The First Three Years (John Frayler, Vol. 7 No. 3, August 2005)
The Great Age of Duck (John Frayler, Vol. 7 No. 4, September 2005)
Brookhouse (John Frayler, Vol. 7 No. 5, October 2005)
Java Head is Missing (John Frayler and Emily Murphy, Vol. 8 No. 1, October 2006)
"And Other Duties as Assigned" (John Frayler, Vol. 8 No. 2, October 2006)
What's In a Name? (John Frayler, Vol. 8 No. 3, November 2006)
Are We There Yet? (John Frayler, Vol. 8 No. 4, January 2007)
A Salem Clipper (John Frayler, Vol. 8 No. 5, January 2007)
What Ship is That? (John Frayler, Vol. 8 No. 6. February 2007)
Derby Wharf Light Station (John Frayler, Vol. 8 No. 7, February 2007)
The Cut of One's Jib (Matthew Witzig, Vol. 9 No. 1, August 2007)
I Can See For Miles (Matthew Witzig, Vol. 9 No. 2, September 2007)
Trade With Japan: A Salem Vessel Visits Nagasaki (Leanne Connory, Vol. 10 No. 1, undated)
A Peek Inside Mrs. Derby's Clothes Press: Women's Clothing in the 18th Century (Vol. 11 No. 1, Winter 2010)
Oil and Bone: Salem's Whaling Industry (Lauren Fleck-Steff, Vol. 11 No. 2, Summer 2010)
Notes on the Derby-Prince-Ropes House: Part of Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Derby Street, Salem, Massachusetts (Edwin W. Small, revised August 23, 1954)
Preliminary Historic Structure Report/Architectural Data Section: Central Wharf, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts (Merrill Wilson Koppe, April 1974)
Report on the Elias Hasket Derby House: A Salem Maritime National Historic Site (Marjorie Drake Ross, 1968)
Special History Study: Shipping in the Revolution, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts (John D.R. Platt, August 1973)
Special Report: Salem Maritime National Historic Site, July 13 and 14, 1940 (Oscar S. Bray and Ross F. Sweeny, 1940)
State of the Park Report, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts State of the Park Series No. 7 (April 2013)
The Derby-Prince-Ropes House (Edwin W. Small and Thomas G. Manning, October 1937)
The Derbys: Their Ships and Shipping (Arthur K. Dacy and Edwin W. Small, October 1938)
The Role of the Salem Custom House in Early Nineteenth Century Commerce (Shant A. Babsian, Joseph D. Kintz and Alexander R. Pastick, March 15, 1979)
The Salem Project: Study of Alternatives (July 31, 1991)
Visitor Study: Summer 2013, Salem Maritime National Historic Site NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR-2014/772 (Marc F. MAnni and Yen Le, February 2014)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 20-Apr-2022