Salem Merchantmen

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In 1797 Salem was the wealthiest city in the new United States and the sixth largest city. The customs duties were basically supporting the new Federal government.Salem had always been a whaling city, along with New Bedford and Nantucket. And whaling continued. But, once the restrictions on shipping with the Orient were removed (as long as we were a colony of Great Britain, they called the shots) the merchants of Salem headed out to open new markets. And, in 1783, the Grand Turk brought back a cargo of pepper from Sumatra and earned a profit of 700%.

That is not a typo. It was 700%.

So even the cabin boys who signed on to the ships carried something they could trade. If they survived, for this was a dangerous profession, they could earn enough to begin investing in other ships. As a consequence, vast fortunes were made.

Some of the captains were barely in their twenties.

The wharves, of which only a few remain, were bustling with warehouses and imports of exotic fruit, opium, tea, textiles – you name it. (The Derby wharf, shorter than it was during the 1790s is home to the Friendship – the reproduction of a merchantship, and the Union wharf, now called the Pickering)  Salem became one of the first truly cosmopolitan cities, a fact often forgotten in the fascination with the witchcraft trials, and home to one of the first East Indian immigrant populations.

Derby wharf and Friendship with a sample of a warehouse

Derby wharf and Friendship with a sample of a warehouse

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