A Brief History of Marblehead

Text by Judy Anderson
All photos © Marblehead Museum & Historical Society, used with permission.

Marblehead Harbor, c. 1763, Ashley Bowen
Set on the rocky shores of northeast Massachusetts, Marblehead is alive with over 375 years of history, including tales of rugged fisherman and intrepid mariners, enterprising merchants and skilled craftsmen, self-reliant women and courageous seamen.

The town was founded in 1629 as a commercial fishing operation. In 1660, in an official report to the English king, Marblehead was acclaimed as "the greatest Towne for fishing in New England."

For most of the first decades, its earliest settlers were primarily from Englandís West Country. They were a unique mixture of non-conformists whose hardiness and seafaring adventures brought prosperity to the town by the mid-1700s. A vigorous shore-based industry of rope-makers, sail-makers, shipís block-makers, carpenters, and others supported the fishing and shipping fleets from the mid-1600s through the mid-1800s.

Marblehead mariners were crucial participants in Americaís War for Independence, serving General George Washington and his army in several pivotal and famous operations on both land and sea. General John Gloverís Marblehead Regiment transported the Continental army across the Delaware River for the surprise attack on Trenton and rescued 9,000 men with horses and equipment from the British on Long Island.

Colonial Marblehead was part of a complex and flourishing mercantile economy. Coast-wise schooners sailed to the West Indies, laden with lucrative cargoes, while larger merchant ships and brigs carried lumber, fish and other goods across the Atlantic to England and Spanish ports.

During the 1700s, the number of colonial vessels plying the waves between Marblehead and the West Indies, Europe, and other English colonies was remarkable. The area's rich natural resources - primarily timber and fish, staples of Massachusetts' economy - were exported to coastal America, European, and West Indies markets. Salt, hemp for cordage, rum, sugar and molasses (which was distilled into rum in Boston and North Shore), fruits or other delicacies from southern latitudes were returned in exchange. Manufactured goods imported from England provided a measure of comfort and beauty in otherwise spartan colonial lives.

Marblehead Harbor, c. 1890
In the 1760s - heady and prosperous years just prior to the American Revolution - Marblehead was among the ten largest towns in the colonies, with a population of nearly 5,000 (Boston had 16,000 residents). It was a cosmopolitan commercial center. Wealthy merchants built stately homes and furnished them with luxury goods imported from England or commissioned from local craftsmen. During this period (specifically 1768), Colonel Jeremiah Lee, at the pinnacle of both his and the town's prosperity, built his magnificent mansion on what was then the main street, today's Washington Street.

The Revolutionary War brought economic devastation from heavy losses in men, ships and property. Though fishing and Atlantic trade resumed afterward, Marblehead recovered slowly (unlike neighboring Salem). During and after the 1790s comparatively few Marblehead vessels participated in the new Pacific trade. Hardship struck New England again during President Jefferson's coastal embargo of 1807-9. Soon after that, the War of 1812 brought loss of life and livelihood to many as mariners fought, were wounded or imprisoned, and died for "free trade and seamenís rights."

After 1815, active trade resumed with European ports across the Atlantic - especially Spain and France - and some Marblehead captains and crews profited in the risky, but potentially lucrative Asian trade arena. As a result, in the 1820s and 1830s Marblehead again enjoyed a measure of prosperity.

Marblehead Fishermen, c. 1890
Fishing continued through the 1800s, but not as profitably as before the Revolution. The shoemaking business - one of several winter vocations in extra rooms or "ten-footer" cottages for a century before - expanded as America grew more industrialized in the mid-1800s. When an 1846 September gale off the Grand Banks destroyed half the townís fishing fleet, shoemaking grew in earnest, in small factories specializing in soft-leather shoes, mostly employing sub-contracted work.

Civil War commissions and mechanization enabled the town to prosper in new and varied directions. Businesses were established, fine homes were built, and extended areas of town were developed. The shoe industry was a productive one, until two fires ≠ in 1877 and 1888 ≠ destroyed much of the business district.
Racing off Marblehead Neck, c. 1900

Marbleheadís appeal as a seaside resort attracted summer visitors and yachting enthusiasts in the later 1800s.   Spacious summer homes proliferated around the outlying areas of town, such as Peachís Point and the Neck. Several prestigious yacht clubs were founded in the early 1880s, and restaurants and resort hotels were built along the harbor to serve wealthy summer residents and vacationers. Marblehead and its harbor became one of the countryís leading sailing centers and is often referred to as the "Yachting capital of America," still retaining that distinction into the 21st century.