Crowninshield's Wharf
Crowninshield's Wharf
Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum
"Salem with a little under eight thousand inhabitants, was the sixth city in the United States in 1790. Her appearance was more antique than even that of Boston, and her reek of the salt water, that almost surrounded her, yet more pronounced. For half a mile along the harbor front, subtended by the long finger of Derby Wharf, ran Derby Street, the residential and business center of the town. On one side were the houses of the gentry, Derbys and Princes, and Crownshields, goodly gambrel or hip-roofed brick and wooden mansions dating from the middle of the century, standing well back with tidy gardens in front. Opposite were the wharves, separated from the street by counting rooms, warehouses, ship-chandlers' stores, pump-makers' shops, sailmakers' lofts; all against a background of spars, rigging, and furled or brailed-up sails. Crowded within three hundred yards of Derby street, peeping between the merchants' mansions and over their garden walls like small boys behind a police cordon, were some eighteen or nineteen hundred buildings, including dwellings of pre-witch-craft days, with overhanging upper stories, peaked gables, small-paned windows, and hand-rifted clapboards black with age."

The Maritime History of Massachusetts, Samuel Eliot Morison
Houghton Mifflin, 1921, 1941.

Topsail Schooner
The Baltick of Salem
Typical of coastal topsail schooners used before American Revolution.
Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

The port of Salem was at its prime between the end of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. By the time the crisis with Britain was reached in 1775, aggressive sea captains such as Richard Derby and George Crowninshield had accumulated great wealth, primarily due to the cod fish export and molasses import trades. Trading cod brought valuable cargoes of Valencia oranges, Malaga grapes, Bilbao iron, Cadiz salt and Madeira wines back to Salem, while molasses from the West Indies fueled the very profitable rum industry.

Maritime Heritage: 1776 to 1812

When revolution broke out, the Continental Congress decided to augment its tiny navy by licensing commercial ships to harass and capture British vessels. Since it was an easy matter to convert a merchantman into a privateer, Salem became a center for this combination of profit and patriotism which was also practiced during the War of 1812.

Privateering was by far the most popular form of patriotic service since it paid better wages, was safer, and more fun than the army or navy. It was more patriotic than profitable, however, and the Derbys, already merchantmen, were the only firm to maintain their fortune during this period.

Privateering helped the port of Salem survive the Revolutionary War, but the lack of steady, lucrative trade severely weakened Salem's economy. By the time the war ended, the port of Salem was nearly idle and the monopoly on the West Indies trade had been lost along with most of the cod fishing vessels. It would have been no easy matter, at this point, to rebuild a fishing fleet. This forced the expansion of Salem's trade routes to Africa, the Indies, and the Far East.

The Friendship
Ship built in Salem 1792, with a sparred length of 171 feet, carrying 342 tons.
Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

Following the lead by Elias Hasket Derby's Astrea around Africa in 1789, Salem ships such as the Friendship traded West-India sugar, New-England rum and French brandy for tea, silk, ginger, Indian cottons, wine, and whatever produce of Asia, Africa and the Indies was selected at the shipmaster's discretion.

The Frigate Essex
Built in Salem in 1799, copper clad, keel 118 feet, breadth 37 feet.
Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

One of Salem's most famous ships was the U.S. Frigate Essex, the only warship Salem's shipyards ever produced. The 850-ton frigate was the largest ever built in Salem and was constructed entirely from Essex county materials by master shipbuilder, Enos Briggs. The 32-gun Essex was built from a $75,000 subscription raised by Salem merchants and citizens as a donation to the fledgling American navy. The copper fittings were provided by Paul Revere of Boston, while the figurehead and fancy wookword were provided by Salem's Samuel McIntire.

Although launched in 1799, the Essex saw no combat until the war of 1812. In 1814, at the neutral harbor of Valparaiso, Chile, in a final battle, two Britsh warships continued to fire upon the Essex even after she had struck her colors. The captured Essex was reduced to a shattered hulk and almost one quarter of the crew killed.

Maritime Heritage: After 1812

Salem was also home to the first American ocean-going yacht. Built purely for pleasure by shipsmaster George Crowninshield Jr. in 1816, Cleopatra's Barge had fittings and decorations suggestive of a small palace. The gaily painted and meant-to-be-noticed vessel was enjoyed for only one transatlantic voyage before the owner's death on board.

Cleopatra's Barge
Cleopatra's Barge
Built in Salem 1817, by Retire Becket for George Crowninshield.
Hermaphrodite brig, 191 tons, 83 feet long, 22-foot beam, square stern, two decks.

Her furnishings were removed and distributed to the family, and Cleopatra's Barge was sold for a song. After one trading voyage to Brazil, she was resold to the Hawaiian royal family in 1820, and wrecked in April, 1824 on the Island of Kauai by a drunken crew.

Reconstructed Interior
Reconstruction of the Interior of
Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum