“Call it unique, picturesque, cussed, distinctive, pixilated, fascinating — that’s Marblehead, a town in love with liberty and rugged individualism. Its people and history, its crooked lanes and irregular houses, its customs and humor defy conformity and dullness. The irreligious settlers, the adventurous fishermen, the zealous patriots of 1776, the daring privateers of 1812, the clipper ship captains and yesteryear’s fish peddlers imbued their town with a spirit as hardy as the rocky peninsula itself.”
This opening paragraph from the book jacket of Marblehead – The Spirit of ’76 Lives Here by Priscilla Sawyer Lord and Virginia Clegg Gamage (1972), best describes Marblehead and its inhabitants, both past and present.
Long before the first European settlers arrived in what was to become known as Marblehead, the area was inhabited by the Naumkeag Tribe, a group of Native Americans belonging to the Algonquin Nation. Led by the “Great Sachem” Nanepashemet, they named their settlement Massebequash. (Before acquiring the current name of Marblehead, the town was also known as Foy, Marble Harbor and Marvill Head.)
The first non-Native American settlers were British subjects who migrated from near-by Salem in the early 1600’s to escape the strict discipline of the intensely religious Puritans. They and the Naumkeags existed peacefully together in Massebequash.
An epidemic in 1615-1619, thought to be smallpox, devastated the Naumkeags. It is believed that eighty to ninety percent of the tribe succumbed to the disease. The epidemic did not spread to the few European settlers, who had developed immunity. Another smallpox epidemic in 1633 resulted in a further decline of the Native American population.
On December 12, 1648, a Salem Town Meeting voted, subject to the approval of the Massachusetts General Court, to grant Marblehead its complete independence from Salem. The area, which had previously been controlled by the Naumkeags, now had its own local governing body — a Board of Selectmen. On September 16, 1684 a deed of sale conveying the three thousand seven hundred acres now known as Marblehead from the Naumkeags to the town was signed by the rightful heirs of Nanepashmet. The price? Sixteen pounds, the then-current currency in New England.
The original deed can be found hanging in the Selectmen’s room at Abbot Hall.
“…the Greatest Towne for Fishing in New England.”
Marblehead prospered as an important fishing port with an abundance of fish just off its coast. Hearing about the availability of this rich commodity, vessels carrying fishermen and others from Cornwall in Great Britain and the Channel Islands arrived and their passengers settled in Marblehead. So abundant were the fish that the King’s Royal Agent, after visiting Marblehead in 1660, returned to England and declared that Marblehead was “…the Greatest Towne for Fishing in New England.”
Marblehead’s fisheries continued to grow. By 1837, the local fleet consisted of ninety-eight vessels, ninety-five of which were over fifty tons. Then the beginning of the end for the fishing industry blew across Marblehead. On September 19, 1846, while the Marblehead fleet prepared to haul its catch of cod from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, a massive storm with hurricane-force gales caught the fleet by surprise. The crippled ships limped back to Marblehead, missing at least eleven vessels. Sixty-five men and boys had been lost and the decline of the fishing industry in Marblehead had begun.
Today, there are still many residents who make their living as fishermen and lobstermen, but the town will never again see the prosperous fishing industry that at one time had made Marblehead famous world-wide. However, Marblehead’s deep-rooted affection for the ocean would not end; it would simply turn the attention away from fishing and towards sailing craft for pleasure and competition.
Marblehead Harbor boasts one of the finest displays of sailing craft anywhere. Over the years, the harbor has been both the starting and finishing port for numerous international races, including races between Marblehead and Kiel, Germany; San Sebastian, Spain; and Bermuda, as well as other national and international competitions. An annual race between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Marblehead, which began in 1905, continues to this day. And the yearly mid-summer Marblehead Race Week competition, which dates back to 1889, still attracts yachtsmen from around the world.
Marblehead, appropriately, has earned the title as the “Yachting Capital of the World.”
Marblehead’s seafaring history also played an important role in the formation of our great nation. Becoming disenchanted with the control and increasing taxation that the British were imposing over the colonies, locals were readying themselves for a revolt.
Marblehead resident Col. John Glover organized a Marblehead Militia and was officially commissioned as head of the 21st Regiment on June 16, 1775, the day before the infamous battle for Bunker Hill. After Glover and his Regiment fought several skirmishes on land, General George Washington and Congress commissioned Colonel Glover to lease and arm merchant vessels.
Another Marbleheader, Nicholas Broughton, was put in command of Glovers’ ship Hannah and manned the vessel, America’s first Naval ship, with Marblehead seamen. The Hannah was outfitted at nearby Beverly and set sail on September 5, 1775 to engage the British Navy.
Colonel Glover commissioned four additional vessels into what he called “ye navy.” Three of these now-naval vessels were captained by Marbleheaders and were crewed by Marblehead mariners. America’s, and Marblehead’s, new naval fleet was now ready to take on the powerful British Navy.
Thus, Marblehead claims the disputed title of the Birthplace of the American Navy.
(The brave men of the now-General Glover’s Marblehead Regiment put their boating skills to the test again in 1776. On the evening of December 25, Glover’s Regiment rowed General George Washington across the stormy and treacherous waters of the Delaware River to surprise the English and Hessian troops in the Battle of Trenton. This scene is immortalized in the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1851 and also by the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware December 25th, 1776 by Marblehead native, William Thompson Bartoll. Both paintings are on display in the Selectmen’s Room in Abbot Hall.)
(Marblehead is also known as the Birthplace of Marine Aviation. W. Starling Burgess designed and built the first biplane — The Flying Fish — at his Marblehead boatyard. His obsession with air flight led him to build a “flying boat” with the first model taking a test flight over Marblehead Harbor in 1911. Having impressed officials in Washington, the U.S. Navy, as well as the Canadian Aviation Corps, placed orders for this new flying boat. By 1917, Burgess was summoned by the Navy Department to Washington to supervise and design the construction of the aeroplane. A plaque stands in Hammond Park at the end of Commercial Street, where the first flight took place.)
In 1814, Marblehead mariners and its famed harbor once again came to the rescue as the vessel USS Constitution was being pursued by two British frigates. Many of the crewmen were from Marblehead and, being familiar with the rocky waters, piloted the Constitution into the protection of Marblehead Harbor. The British, with no charts of the rocks and channels and seeing cannons being readied at Fort Sewall at the mouth of the Harbor, retreated.
The Constitution, which was nicknamed “Old Ironsides” for its ability to withstand cannon shots, is today the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy. It is berthed at the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston and is open for tours.
In 1997 the USS Constitution, in celebration of its 200th birthday, set sail again under its own power for the first time in 116 years. Its destination: the same Marblehead Harbor that protected her in 1814. For two glorious days and with much pageantry, the eyes of the world were cast upon Marblehead and Old Ironsides as over one hundred thousand people relived one of the greatest events in the history of the United States Navy.
It doesn’t take a great event such as the return of the USS Constitution to Marblehead Harbor to relive the Town’s history. Residents and visitors alike bask in Marblehead’s historic past with every stroll along the town’s narrow crooked streets lined with grand houses built centuries ago; with every visit to Marblehead’s many historic sights – Old Burial Hill, Fort Sewall, Old Powder House, Jeremiah Lee Mansion and others; with every reenactment by the present-day Glover's Marblehead Regiment; with every day of worship in the town’s many historic churches; with every fishing and lobster boat that unloads its catch at the town wharf; with every viewing of the original deed to the town, of Archibald Willard’s famous painting the Spirit of ’76 and of other historic paintings and artifacts to be found in Abbot Hall; with every sail on Marblehead’s world-renowned harbor and with every exciting minute of a sailing race; with every bite of a Joe Frogger, Marblehead’s-own famous molasses cookie originally baked for fishermen of yesteryear to take on their long voyages at sea; and with every verse of Marblehead’s official Town Anthem, Marblehead Forever.
- Priscilla Sawyer Lord and Virginia Clegg Gamage, Marblehead – The Spirit of ’76 Lives Here, Chilton Book Company, 1972.
- Donald A. Doliber, The First Inhabitants of Marblehead from Marblehead Celebrates 350 Years of Democracy 1649-1999, Marblehead 350th Anniversary of Incorporation Committee, 1999.
- Bob Baker, Two Days for Ever from Marblehead Celebrates 350 Years of Democracy 1649-1999, Marblehead 350th Anniversary of Incorporation Committee, 1999.