Maritime Commerce

New Bedford, New England's whaling capital
Photo by and courtesy of Galen R Frysinger,
The early colonial economy of Massachusetts was primarily based on agriculture. The constant flow of English immigrants enabled the first Massachusetts farmers to profit for approximately one decade by growing corn and raising cattle. However, the rocky and nutrient-depleted nature of Massachusetts soil could not permanently support the growing number of colonists, and the shift towards a maritime-based economy began. By 1641, the characteristic activities of Massachusetts—fishing, shipping and trading—were well underway. Deep, sheltered harbors and a long coastline, together with abundant fish and timber, fostered the emerging maritime economy.

Fishing by itself would have brought little wealth to Massachusetts had its inhabitants depended on outside interests to supply vessels. In 1631, skilled craftsmen started building their own vessels for fishing and conducting commercial trade. By 1660, shipbuilding had become a leading industry in the towns of Newburyport, Ipswich, Gloucester, Salem and Boston. A wealthy class of merchants developed about the same time, supported by the steady growth of Massachusetts shipping. Colonial merchants were more than shopkeepers or commission dealers. They bought and sold, at home and abroad, on their own account and often handled 'private adventures' on the side. They owned or chartered vessels that carried desired goods. At busy ports, these entrepreneurs and businessmen built wharves, which provided a safe place for their crew to unload goods destined for local markets or to load cargo onto ships bound for distant ports. In addition, they constructed stores, warehouses and fashionable homes, leaving their mark on the present-day landscape.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site
Photo from NPS Digital Image Archive

Among those who made their fortune in maritime trade was Richard Derby, who began his career as the captain of a fishing vessel and exported codfish from Salem in the first half of the 18th century. After much success at sea, he bought his own fleet and led a new class of merchants to the top of society. The Derby House and the Derby Wharf stand today as part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Samuel Bates, a prominent merchant in Cohasset and the first owner of Bates Wharf, its buildings and a fleet of schooners, used his earnings to construct the Bates Ship Chandlery in the mid-18th century. Restored and moved next to the Captain John Wilson House in 1957, both buildings currently serve as museums dedicated to Cohasset's long history as a maritime community.

Middle-class houses in East Gloucester Square Historic District
Photo courtesy of Essex National Heritage Area
While wealthy merchants were important to the economic development of Massachusetts and the entire United States, it was the middle class—captains and mates of vessels, shipbuilders, ropemakers, sailmakers and mechanics of many different trades—who were the backbone of maritime Massachusetts. Several historic districts along the Massachusetts coastline, such as the Fish Flake Hill Historic District, the East Gloucester Square Historic District and the Old Shipbuilder's Historic District, provide insight into the lives of middle-class individuals engaged in maritime-related occupations. Many of the existing residential buildings in these historic districts are modest, wood-framed dwellings set closely together near the waterfront.

Houses of successful merchants and captains in Edgartown Village Historic District
Photo courtesy of

In addition to fishing, shipbuilding and merchant endeavors, the whaling industry flourished throughout Massachusetts from the late 17th century to the mid-19th century. Glimpses of this major maritime enterprise can be seen in the historic districts of Nantucket, New Bedford, Edgartown Village and Wellfleet Center. The success of the whaling captains, candlemakers and others involved in the whaling industry is visible in the residences, commercial buildings and churches built during the heyday of whaling. Edward Penniman, one of the most successful whaling captains in New England, built his Second Empire style house on Cape Cod in 1868. Its grandeur expresses his affluence and maritime success. In the case of the Nantucket Historic District, the Edgartown Village Historic District and the Wellfleet Center Historic District, the demise of the whaling industry is also evidenced. With the depletion of the whale population and the introduction of petroleum as an illuminant superior to whale oil, the focus of these areas shifted from whaling to the summer tourism industry still thriving today. Summer cottages and resort communities sprang up in the mid-19th century, which helped to restore the weakened economy.

With the development of maritime commerce came the opportunity to regulate and tax, first by England and later by the Federal government under the Constitution. Prior to the American Revolution, Britain established a resident American Board of Customs in Boston based on the English Board of Trade and enacted harsh, new regulations on imports and exports in the colonies. This was not the first time that such taxes were inflicted on the colonists, who soon showed their discontent by burning local customhouses and houses of customs officers, and tarring and feathering customs officers. After gaining independence from Britain following the Revolutionary War and ratifying the Constitution, American politicians sought to raise national revenue by means of import duties. However, the question remained as to how such a collection would take place. In July 1789, Congress established the U.S. Customs Service, which designated geographic boundaries or customs districts within each of the first 11 states. Massachusetts had the most with 20 districts, and by 1799 two more were added. The law also authorized the appointment of Federal customs officers and defined their duties, and specified how goods were to be appraised and duties assessed on the appraisal values. For more than 100 years, the duties collected by the U.S. Customs Service were the Nation's primary source of income and were responsible for the country's early growth and infrastructure.

U.S. Customhouse (Newburyport)
Photo by Jeremy D'Entremont,
The preeminent building type associated with the U.S. Customs Service is the customhouse. Responsibility for the design and construction of customhouses fell to the Treasury Department. Five prominent examples of customhouses are included in this travel itinerary. Constructed in 1819, the customhouse in Salem was the focus of the busy waterfront area and remained in use until it was incorporated into the Salem Maritime National Historic Site in 1938. The Salem Customhouse employed American writer Nathanial Hawthorne as a surveyor from 1846 to 1849. Hawthorne immortalized the customhouse in the forward to his novel The Scarlet Letter. Famous American architect Robert Mills designed the U.S. Customhouse in Newburyport in 1835, which is located within the Market Square Historic District, as well as the U.S. Custom House in New Bedford in 1836. Ammi Burnham Young designed the prominent customhouse in downtown Boston between 1834 and 1847, which is now included in the Custom House District. He also designed the U.S. Customshouse in Barnstable which was completed in 1855, as well as a number of other customhouses during his tenure as Supervising Architect of the Treasury.

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