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February 3, 2014

Newburyport 250th series: The city's 'waterside' roots

Editor’s note: This year the city is observing its 250th anniversary, and The Daily News has launched a series focusing on aspects of the city’s long and colorful history. The coverage, which is expected to include more than a dozen installments, will run on an intermittent basis through 2014.

Today we focus on the commercial roots of the riverfront, which was a key reason why Newburyport split from Newbury in 1764.

When historians focus on the reason that Newburyport broke away from Newbury 250 years ago, they might utilize a phrase heard in real estate circles today: location, location, location.

Newburyport was originally a section of the town of Newbury. As was the case with many 17th- and 18th-century colonial towns, Newbury’s original territory was huge by today’s standards — it encompassed what today is Newbury, West Newbury and Newburyport.

Nearly every colonial-era town has seen its borders change as sections of town developed differently and split off to form new, smaller towns. In 1764, a section of Newbury called Waterside — today’s Newburyport — was emerging as a community of traders and mariners, while Newbury was primarily agricultural. There was much political friction between the two areas of town.

Commonwealth leaders at the time said that “the inhabitants of that part of town (Newburyport) who dwell in the water-side there, are mostly merchants, traders and artificers ... and the inhabitants of other parts of the town (Newbury) are husbandmen (farmers) ... many difficulties and disputes have arisen in managing their public affairs ... so Newburyport is constituted and made a separate and distinct town.”

The act of separation was finalized and approved by Gov. Francis Bernard on Feb. 4, 1764.

The town was the smallest in Massachusetts and had a population of 2,800 living in 357 homes. It was physically much smaller than today, encompassing what is now the downtown and some of the surrounding land.

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