Recovering our Maritime Heritage at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site

The National Park Service (NPS) celebrates its centennial anniversary in the month of August! NPS has served as a valuable resource for many of our authors, both professionally and recreationally. To commemorate the occasion, our authors have taken to the blog to pay homage to “America’s best idea”! Check back with us throughout the month of August for more #JHUPressOnNPS! (Series photo credit: Wikimedia)



            One can walk the cobbled alleys and brick byways of Salem, Massachusetts and experience virtually the entirety of this country’s history.  A stop at Pioneer Village, 1630, overlooking Salem Harbor, reveals the landscape as it likely looked before first contact, when Native Americans summered at Naumkeag, the “fishing place.”  A meander along the town’s official heritage trail will take us past a statue dedicated to Roger Conant, a religious reformer who led a group of forty English families to Naumkeag in 1626 and who merged his group with a Puritan party two years later to christen the site Salem.  Most visitors presume that the cloaked state of Conant that stands before Salem Common represents a witch, a reminder of the town’s most infamous episode, the 1692 Witchcraft Hysteria.  A lovely, somber burying ground and memorial now pay homage to the victims of that shameful episode.  But, once we get past the pirate and witch museums, shops, carts, and stalls that mark the trail, we travel past the Nathaniel Hawthorne statue on Essex Street and ascend the modest rise that constitutes Orange Street, a remarkable site, nestled between the yellow shingled 1819 customs house and the red brick home, what looms into view is my own favorite site.  It is the prow of the Friendship, a replica 1797 Indiaman. The Friendship reminds us of a later time when Americans stepped onto the world stage, when the local met the global, and when men and women sailed from Salem’s wharves to, for them, strange new lands--Batavia, India, China, the Pelew Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, Guam, Madagascar, and Ceylon.  Friendship was one of hundreds of Salem ships that traversed the world’s oceans at a moment when Americans’ future seemed to lay on their eastern frontier, and Salem men—and women—greeted the peoples of faraway lands.

            Much of this history is forgotten now, as modern Americans travel to the Grand Canyon and the Alamo for their understanding of our history and our children read history books that fill their pages extolling the Louisiana Purchase and California Gold Rush.  Yet, the National Park Service faithfully preserves this significant arc of the American experience at sites such as the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.  Here, from the windows of the 1819 custom house, we can peer upon the wharves that filled Yankee ships with wheat and butter and offloaded pepper and porcelain. We can sit vicariously with Nathaniel Hawthorne as he penned The Scarlet Letter, then walk next door to the 1762 home that Roger Derby built for his son, Elias Hasket Derby.  From here sailed many of the privateers that fought in the Revolution and the War of 1812.  From this site, merchants like Elias Hasket Derby and Benjamin Crowninshield sent the first Yankee ships, bearing names such as Sumatra, Hindoo, and Grand Turk, voyaged into the world, to anchor at Guam, off Calcutta, and in the harbors of Owyhee (Hawai’i).  They returned with pepper from the Malabar Coast, Sumatra, and the Spice Islands; calico from Calcutta and Madras; tea, silks, and nankeen from Canton; porcelain from Japan, and sandalwood from the South Seas; reviving the nation’s post-Revolution economy and changing American tastes.

            I love the many natural domains protected and preserved by the dedicated men and women of the National Park Service, but this is my favorite NPS site.  It is a special place, the nexus where early Americans’ built environment met the natural environment.  This is where I do my research on the first Americans to venture into the East. Thanks to the NPS, I am fortunate to work with exceptional men and women who know the ins-and-outs of ship building, sailing, and repair.  And, I have the great fortune to analyze ships’ logs and merchants’ correspondence  with another scholar, the site’s Historic Resources Manager, historian, Dr. Emily Murphy, an expert on the merchant families, sailors, and slaves of early American seaports.  And, this is where I teach week-long summer institutes, nudging my students onto the wharves and into the brick warehouses where cartwheels laden with exotic Asian wares once creaked on cobblestoned paths and merchants tallied their profits and losses.  We often arrive from the Maritime Hall of Salem’s magnificent Peabody Essex Museum, having gazed upon George Ropes’s 1806 painting of Crowninshield Wharf, its warehouses holding goods from the countryside of Essex County and from the proud ships moored along the dock.  Now astride Derby Wharf and aboard the Friendship, my students can hear the whistling of the Atlantic breezes in the rigging, feel the swell of tides beneath the hull, and imagine the exertions of a crew readying their vessel for “the farthest ports of the rich East,” in the words of the city’s 1838 seal. 

            This place has a history of its own, one that reminds us of what smart, committed citizens can accomplish under difficult conditions. The challenge was large.  In the midst of the Great Depression, Salem’s waterfront was “a clutter of derelict and underused wooden sheds set on tide-washed heaps of stone that had once been solid masonry wharves.”  Seeking to preserve “a distant memory of glory,” local activists such as Louise du Pont Crowninshield and Harlan P. Kelsey coordinated the efforts of preservationists and private organizations to prevail upon city and state officials to implement a farsighted piece of legislation—the Historic Sites Act of 1935—into action.  Guiding the effort was Civilian Conservation Corps official Edwin W. Small, who described the federal government’s mission as one “to supplement and to expand . . .  the work that is being done by state and local organizations.” And so, on 17 March 1938, Salem Maritime National Historic Site became the first of the National Park Service’s places, complementing its nature-oriented sites in the Western states.[1]  As a result of their expansive vision, the NPS contributes to historians’ ongoing efforts to recover this often-neglected part of the American experience.


Dane A. Morrison is a professor of early American history at Salem State University. He is the author of A Praying People: Massachusett Acculturation and the Failure of the Puritan Mission, 1600–1690, and the coeditor of Salem: Place, Myth and Memory and the World History Encyclopedia, volumes 11–13: The Age of Global Contact. His latest book is True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity.




[1] Pauline Chase-Harrell, Carol Ely, and Stanley Moss, Administrative History of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, (Boston, MA: Boston Affiliates, 1993), 3-7.