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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Explorers and Settlers
Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings


Location: Essex County, Derby Street, Salem; address, Custom House, 174 Derby Street, Salem, MA 01970.

Although Salem's maritime supremacy was of greater significance in later periods of history, particularly during the War for Independence, Salem has some important associations with the phases of history treated in this volume. Until the West was opened and began to yield to the pioneers after the War for Independence, most Americans lived within reach of the sea and naturally turned to it for adventure, a livelihood, and even riches. Indeed, the sea was the first frontier as well as the first highway. From the beginning, the colonists depended upon it for communication with the homeland and with other colonies.

Salem and other New England ports figured prominently in the colonial and early republican economy. Beginning soon in the 17th century, sailing vessels based at Salem plied the sealanes of the world, as they built the commerce upon which Yankee strength came to rest. Founded in 1626 by Roger Conant as the plantation of Naumkeag and established 2 years later as the first town in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, Salem owed its prosperity to a seaboard location. From the very beginning, her colonists engaged in maritime pursuits; fishing and shipping were soon the leading industries. As early as 1643, fish, lumber, and provisions were being sent to the West Indies in exchange for sugar and molasses, staples that were brought home and made into rum. Gradually the orbit of trade was extended to Europe, for the most part to Portugal and Spain, which offered a ready market for dried fish and supplied salt, wine, fruit, iron, and Spanish dollars in return.

Salem Martime NHS
Salem Martime National Historic Site.

This trade and that with the West Indies—which after 1700 developed into the "triangular trade" between New England, the West Indies, and Africa—thrived until 1763, when the long struggle between France and England for the mastery of the American Continent finally came to an end and the English Government began to enact and enforce measures that stringently limited the commerce of the American colonies. Under these conditions, the economic life of Salem, like that of all ports along the Atlantic seaboard, came to a standstill and a discontent engendered that grew into resistance and eventually resulted in rebellion.

Designated a National Historic Site in 1938, Salem Maritime occupies an area of about 9 acres bordering on Salem Harbor. It preserves a group of structures and wharves that have survived from the period of the town's maritime greatness.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005