The wharf was originally built in 1760, experts believe, by Philip Coombs, a shipbuilder who purchased his waterfront land at the foot of Lime Street in the 1730s. According to an Archaeological Report issued to the city to accompany the wood wharf remnant, Philip and his son, William, traveled to Canada to build ships on behalf of England and America during the French and Indian War. They were captured and held in a French prison, where the elder Coombs passed away. His son William, however, returned home to Newburyport and took up work on the land left to him by his father, expanding the wharf to accommodate a growing business.
“Like every wharf in Newburyport, they were really economic engines of the town,” said MacDonald. “They were used to export and import. The wharves would have a lot of buildings on it — storage and warehouses — where these ships and merchants would come and unload all sorts of goods from all around the world.”
But what made William Coombs’ wharf particularly interesting, said MacDonald, is that Coombs was one of a handful of privateers in the city of Newburyport vested with authority (letters of marque) during the Revolutionary War to seize foreign ships and their cargo.
“Initially, letters of marque were designed to allow people to redress personal wrongs, and Coombs and other Newburyport merchants who had their vessels seized by the British and suffered heavy losses and/or felt constricted by British rule certainly wanted to make up for their losses,” explains the archaeological report, available in its entirety on the city of Newburyport’s website.
“Beyond national waters, the approving authority also encouraged these operations as political tools that allowed engagement with an enemy, even preceding or without an open declaration of war. The Merrimack River gained special importance as a base of operations for Newburyport privateers who captured hundreds of British vessels during the Revolution and the War of 1812.”