Salem Merchantmen


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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