, Newburyport, MA

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.

Historian Joshua Coffin wrote, “Their grievances were numerous ... for there had grown a deep-rooted jealousy between these different sections of the town, and mutual suspicions of each other annually widened the breadth between them, insomuch that if the ‘waterside people’ proposed any measure in town meeting, it was pretty sure of rejection by the farming population ... the impossibility of their continuing to act harmoniously together was obvious.”

Newbury Port as it was initially known (some in town petitioned to name it Portland, but their effort failed) was a prosperous community, and after the separation it began to flourish.

In 1764, there were numerous shipyards. There was no bridge but several ferries were active, including one at the base of the now State Street. This ferry carried the Portsmouth Flying Stage Coach between Portsmouth and Boston.

One of the most prosperous industries here in the mid-18th century was shipbuilding. Not only were wooden vessels constructed for merchant companies but the industry employed many carpenters, blacksmiths, caulkers, riggers and rope-makers.

Historian Mrs. E. Vale Smith wrote, “Two years after the incorporation of the town, an individual counted 72 vessels under construction.”

Shipbuilders supplied merchants in London with vessels, and also filled orders of lumber from thick forests upriver.

“Principal customers for Merrimack-built ships were the British, who paid for them with British manufactured goods and the produce of the British West Indies,” wrote Mrs. Smith in 1864.

“This, in turn, gave employment to retail traders here.”

In immediate years following its “independence,” local merchants created strong trading ties with merchants in both the British West Indies and the French West Indies.

In fact, the thriving commerce with the West Indies was a key reason for tension and eventually a revolutionary war: the British wanted to tax the lucrative trade revenues that emanated from ports like that of Newburyport.

Considering both local politics and international events, the decade from its separation in 1764 to the prospect of war in 1774 must have been a tumultuous period for this community.

Newburyporters involved in maritime commerce were resolved to oppose the British taxes, and many meetings were held to outline a defense strategy if war came to the Merrimack.

Protection districts were set up within Newburyport in 1775 should the British attack the community.

On the river itself, a plan was put forth to block the British should they come up the river: Municipal leaders launched a strategy to sink vertical piers into the channel.

The piers blocked only part of the river. But town officials made sure local mariners were stationed at the river’s mouth when friendly craft arrived so the “good” newcomers could be advised to avoid the obstructions.

War was in the air — and on the water.

Newburyport provided privateers during the war years but historians say that they were ill-matched when they met the larger vessels of the British Navy.

Records show that the first privateer fitted out in the U.S. sailed from Newburyport, and was owned by Nathaniel Tracy, a wealthy merchant whose family home later became the public library on State Street.

From 1775 to 1783 “Mr. Tracy was the principal owner of 110 merchant vessels ... of this total, only 13 were left at the end of the war, all the rest were taken by the enemy or lost,” according to historians.

Newburyport sent many soldiers to fight with the revolutionaries, and raised thousands of pounds to help the cause.

Because of its port and its very active cadre of captains, crew, merchants and craftsmen, the “independent” Newburyport emerged as one of the most prominent coastal communities during the revolution.

From this era, the city also claims the birth of the U.S. Coast Guard.

The roots of the Coast Guard lie in the circumstance that the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service was established by Alexander Hamilton under the Department of the Treasury in 1790. The nation’s first revenue cutter, the Massachusetts, was built in Newburyport in 1791.

Many decades later, the Coast Guard would form from the merging of the revenue service, the nation’s lighthouse service and the lifesaving service. Because the revenue service is the oldest of the three, Newburyport has the distinction of being the nation’s birthplace of the Coast Guard.