Salem Maritime National Historic Site

Location: Salem, Massachusetts

Webpage: National Park

General Description: While Salem is known today for the Salem witch trials of 1692 where the Puritans executed 20 people, mostly women, accused of being witches.  However, from the Revolutionary War until the mid-1800s, Salem was known all over the world as a shipping empire.   It is this history that is told at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.  Beginning as an important harbor in colonial times from 1626 through 1775 trading fish and timber for molasses and rum with the West Indies and England, it was transformed during the American Revolution.  At the beginning of the American Revolution, the American colonies had no navy, so many of the private ships were “converted” by adding cannons.  Captains were issued Letters of Marque from the Continental Congress to harass and capture unarmed British merchant ships.  After paying a bounty to the Continental Congress, proceeds from the sale of the cargo and ship were shared with the ship owners, captain and crew.  While privateers operated from many harbors along the east coast, the most successful operation was at Salem.  Ship owners became very wealthy from this practice during the War.  However, after the war England cut off trade to the West Indies and other ports of call, so the ship owners in Salem had to find other markets.  In addition, Salem was not located at the mouth of any major river so trade in local commodities was limited.  Thus born of necessity, the ship owners in Salem began a very lucrative trade in “luxury” goods with China, India, Africa, and South America, such as cloves, tea, sugar, pepper, ivory, and coffee.  The most prominent merchant was Elias Derby who was likely America’s first millionaire.  Derby took the lead in opening new markets for Salem.  Other millionaire shipowners were William Gray and Simon Forrester.  From the beginning, the US Government made most of its revenue from custom duties on shipping and tariffs on foreign ships using American ports.  At one time it constituted over 80% of the revenue needed to fund the government.  However, the shipping industry in Salem, while huge at the time, was short lived.  The 1807 Trade Embargo Act passed by Thomas Jefferson closed all ports in response to pressures from both England and France to support them during the Napoleonic Wars.  Along with the subsequent War of 1812 with embargoes and enemy warships restricting international trade, Salem never recovered. In addition, the relative shallow harbor at Salem could not handle the larger steam powered ships in the late 1800s.



1) The Visitor Center is located on Liberty Street in the tourist section of Salem near the harbor.  There is a good film shown at the Visitor Center about the shipping industry in Salem.


2) If at all possible you must attend the tour of the Friendship II and US Custom House.  You need to get your name on the list at the Visitor Center as the tour is restricted to 20 people.  As we did not immediately go to the Visitor Center, we were lucky that the morning tour during the week in June was lightly attended and were allowed to join the group.  Also be aware that Friendship II is a working vessel and is not always docked at Salem.  However, if it is the tour of the ship is very worthwhile.   You get a good feeling of the the cramped conditions aboard ship, especially once it is filled with cargo.  We also saw a replica of their fake cannon.  The cannon is made of wood because weight is very important.  If threatened they would roll their fake cannons up to the gunports built into the side of the ship hoping to scare off any attackers.  Their best option was to try and run away from any pirates and every minute delay in pursuit could be critical.

Rigging BelowDeck

3) The US Custom House holds a prominent position on the docks and played a major role in shipping.  All ships entering the harbor would fire a blank charge from their cannon to alert the custom officials.  These officials would weigh and measure every single item being shipped, determine the custom duty owed and even provide storage for a fee to merchants waiting for them to sell the items in order to pay the duty.  In the Custom House you can see the office that Nathaniel Hawthorne worked at, the offices and vault, and the original gilded eagle that use to be displayed on the front of the building.  Today a replica is used on the outside in order to preserve the original.

CustomHouse CustomHouseMasthead CustomHouseOffice

4) The most impressive feature of the Historic Site is Derby Wharf, which is the longest wharf (nearly 1/2 mile) that was lined with warehouses at one time and has a lighthouse at the end of the wharf.  Nearly all of the other wharves in Salem have now been removed in favor of moorings for recreational boats.

Lighthouse WharfWarehouse

5) There are a number of other homes and shops in the area that you can visit: Derby House built in 1762 by Captain Robert Derby as a wedding gift for his son, Hawkes House built in 1780, Narbonne House which was owned from 1750-1780 by Captain Joseph Hodges, Pedrick Store House built around 1770 and moved to Salem in 2007 as an example of the warehouses that would have lined the wharf, St Joseph Hall built in 1909 as the original home of the St Joseph Society (a Polish fraternal society), and West Indies Good Store built in 1804 by Captain Henry Prince as a warehouse and eventually a store in 1836.

6) While not part of the National Historic Site, there are a lot of homes built in the 1700 and early 1800, many in the Federal style of architecture.  We took a stroll along a number of blocks of these old homes, all with plaques giving the date and possibly the original owner of the home.


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