Maritime Log #49: A Fine History of Newburyport Was Written in 1854

By Dyke Hendrickson, Outreach Historian for Custom House Maritime Museum

One of the great Newburyport historians was E. (as in Euphemia) Vale Smith. She wrote the “History of Newburyport: From the Earliest Settlement of the Country to the Present Time,” in 1854. Those reading it today can learn much, and there are several copies at the Newburyport Public Library. In her chapter “Commercial Prosperity, 1783-1806,” she focused on one of the community’s greatest epochs.

The Revolutionary War was over; international trade and the search for personal fortune had begun again. Indeed, many of the huge mansions on High Street were built in the 1790-1810 era. (The Great Fire of 1811 leveled much of the downtown, and then came the War of 1812. So good times came to an end).

Here is how Mrs. Smith characterized those golden days after the war:

“With the return of peace, business revived and in place of the privateers which for the last seven years had been the most profitable shipping afloat, the merchantman (vessel) was again built and rigged, and water craft of all sizes and capacity speedily left the Merrimac for the East and West Indies and for Europe.

“Two years before the war, tonnage of Newburyport was but 7,176. Seven years after, it had grown to 11,870 tons, an increase of some 60 percent and was daily increasing. With the revival of foreign trade, business of all kinds awakened to a new life.

“The artisans and mechanics resumed their tools, and putting aside the old muskets and rifles with which they had marched from Bunker Hill to the Jerseys, and from the Jerseys to Savannah, now wrought with a hearty good will with the plane, and the anvil, and the bench.

“As our first fleet of merchantmen returned and money became plenty, the retail trades launched out into unwonted investments, and Cornhill and King street again displayed English goods, and retail traders without fear invited their customers even to the purchase of tea.”

In one section, she wrote about a day ships left Newburyport Harbor after two weeks in which they were unable to depart because of unfavorable winds.
She said that watching the ships raise their white billowing sails and proceed in a line out of the harbor was one of the most gorgeous sites she had ever seen.