NEWBURYPORT — With the help of a local bank, the Custom House Maritime Museum has acquired a document that marks a significant milestone in Newburyport's seagoing history.
In November 1772, almost four years before the Declaration of Independence, a group of ship captains formed a mutual aid association called the Marine Society of Newburyport.
They drafted a set of bylaws on Nov. 13, 1772 and sent them off to a printer, probably in Salem.
Maritime museum officials yesterday proudly unveiled an original copy of those bylaws, a single sheet listing 17 articles, purchased from a private collector with the financial help of the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank.
The 12 1/2-by-15-inch document will be put on display, possibly this fall, in the Maritime Museum at 25 Water St.
South End resident Scott Nason said he bought the Marine Society bylaws as part of a Topsfield estate about 10 years ago.
He recently consigned it for sale and Newburyport rare books dealer Matthew Needle, a maritime museum member, bought it with an eye toward making it part of the Custom House collection.
Needle said the document is an excellent example of an 18th century American "broadside" or single printed sheet, but its significance to Newburyport extends far beyond its value as an example of a 238-year-old printed page.
The Marine Society, he said, "was the very basis of Newburyport as a maritime force."
The price was $4,500, a sum which Newburyport Bank President Richard Eaton said his board agreed to pay. Eaton is a former president of the Newburyport Maritime Society, which operates the Custom House.
"For Newburyport it's a priceless document," maritime museum President Mark Guay said.
Needle said he is aware of only three other copies of the document, in the New York Public Library, a Connecticut conservatory and a private collection.
Newburyport's Marine Society was the third one formed in the colonies, preceded by associations in Boston and Salem.
The high seas were a difficult, dangerous place to make a living in the 18th century and a group of local captains decided they wanted to improve their odds.
According to a 1906 history of the Marine Society, the ship masters met at the High Street home of Capt. Benjamin Rogers to form an association "whereby they might gain knowledge of the various ports and unknown seas, winds, currents, courses and distances upon which their duties called them."
They also wanted "to provide a fund for the widows and children of those members who might, in the opinion of the society, be found needy, also to assist their own members, who might by adverse circumstances be brought to distress and suffering."
Nineteen captains signed on to the bylaws, a number that would grow to more than 100 a century later.
The entry fee was 28 shillings each and dues were eight pence a month. Members who were absent on voyages were to make up their dues when they returned to port.
In addition to the relief of widows and orphans, the society could also compensate members "taken by the enemy, cast away or by other misfortune impoverished and reduced."
The society, under some circumstances, could provide members with disability or old age pensions and pay their funeral expenses.
The Marine Society also regulated the conduct of its members. The bylaws banned "the playing of cards, dice or any other gaming" at the monthly meetings.
Members "shall and will avoid all quarrel, needless contentions and debates that may tend to create animosity or disturb the good order, peace, friendship and love that member should or ought to bear to the other." Fines for violating that bylaw ran from two to 20 shillings, the amount to be decided by a vote of the membership.
The bylaws also called for the expulsion of members who "commit any notorious crime or be a common drunkard." "Profane swearing or cursing" carried a two shilling fine.
New members could be admitted only by unanimous vote and the entry fee for them would be 31 shillings.
While the document won't be on display to the public until later in the fall, Newburyport Maritime Society members and their guests will be able to get a look at it during two upcoming events: the Patrons Party on Aug. 31, 7-10 p.m. on the waterfront lawn at the Custom House, and at the First Friday Social on Sept. 3, 6-8 p.m. in the museum.