- Historic Sites
“To The Farthest Port Of The Rich East”
Salem found its fortune in the East Indies trade
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
“King” Derby had a fine talent for picking men. Joseph Peabody, Nathaniel Silsbee, Stephen Phillips, Jacob Crowninshield, George Crowninshield, Benjamin Hodges and Ichabod Nichols, all of whom were well-known Salem merchants, started their careers on Mr. Derby’s vessels.
The firm of George Crowninshield and Sons was made up of George Sr., George Jr., Benjamin W., Jacob, John, and Richard. The sons learned their business on their father’s vessels on the West Indies run and then were transferred to the Oriental trade. Before 1805 the five sons had made nearly twenty voyages to the Indies. The firm broke up during the early Nineteenth Century when Jacob became a member of Congress, Benjamin, Secretary of Navy under Madison, and John and Richard turned to manufacturing. George, Jr., kept his interest in the sea and during the War of 1812 he outfitted the ship America as a privateer. With the coming of peace he built the brig Cleopatra’s Barge , the first American ocean-going yacht, and made a cruise of the Mediterranean, entertaining princes and potentates and stirring up rumors that he was going to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena. A replica of the cabin saloon, complete with original furnishings, can be seen at the Peabody Museum.
The flood tide of East India commerce brought Salem not only wealth but a cosmopolitan air and a taste for beautiful things which set her apart from most American cities. “The fruits of the Mediterranean are on every table,” wrote Harriet Martineau, an English visitor. “They have a large acquaintance in Cairo… wild tales to tell of Mozambique and Madagascar.” A merchant, in his progress down Essex Street, might be followed by a Chinese boy in bright silks. A turbaned lascar might serve his dinner. Or he might, like Jacob Crowninshield, bring back from Africa the first elephant seen in the United States. Almost certainly, before he died, he would build one of the square Federal mansions which have made Chestnut Street the finest street, architecturally, in America.
This was the zenith. In the seven years between 1807 and 1814 Federalist Salem endured first Jefferson’s hated Embargo and then Madison’s unpopular war. Once more Salem privateers made a brilliant record at sea, but the cost was heavy. Of more than 200 sail at the start of the war, only 57 remained under Salem registry at the close. The fleet was soon rebuilt and Salem entered a long Indian summer of trade in which Joseph Peabody, last of the great merchant princes, enjoyed as great a primacy as E. H. Derby had a generation before. But the tide was running against the port. Salem’s harbor, inferior to a dozen others on the Atlantic coast, was too shallow for the larger ships of the 1820’s and 30’s. Salem had no great river or hinterland to feed it commerce. Slowly the business shifted to Boston and with it, many of the merchant houses.
It was not until 1893 that the last Salem ship, owned by the great old house of Silsbee, Stone and Allen, left Derby Wharf to become a coal barge. But by 1846, when Nathaniel Hawthorne wanted a sinecure post in which to write his novels of Salem decadence, he wangled an appointment as Surveyor of the Port of Salem. In the big drafty Customs House, built at the close of Salem’s great mercantile era, only a few old shipmasters remained to doze in the sun, record the arrival of a coastwise lumber schooner and swap tales of great days in distant seas.
In 1836, when Salem became a city, it adopted a seal showing an East Indian with a parasol standing under a palm tree with a ship in the distance. Engraved on this unique American city seal is the motto: Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum Sinum , which is rendered: “To the farthest port of the rich East.”