The first inkling to me that Newburyport was more than just a pretty face was when Roger Gagnon (a local beloved teacher who recently passed away) told me to meet him on Prospect near Titcomb Street. He wanted to show me something. So later, there I stood with him – looking over the wide blacktop behind the parochial School. “Over there,” he pointed toward the school, “Was where the home of Theophilus Parsons, the creator of the Bill of Rights, lived. In front of us,” he continued, “Was the first woman’s high school in America” as we gazed at the parking lot.” Now, anyone who reads the typical history book would have you point to James Madison as the originator and no footnote I’ve ever seen in women’s rights literature ever mentioned this latter accomplishment.
Roger wetted my appetite. If the typical history book was wrong about these things – what else might be revealed about the Port City which as a community deceptively appears as an example of a little backwater of a New England coastal city, small and lacking national importance?
I started to dig, with much help from Jessica Gils in the archive room, who wisely pointed me in several direction. And yes, even as late as the 90’s; most of this information has been hidden – reported incorrectly in history books or absolutely overlooked. Much has only been just brought out into the daylight in the 21st century!
This is what I have found: (In chronological order)
The Witch Trials of Salem and Essex County had their beginning with the accused witch, Elizabeth Morse, right here at Market Square. Participants in that trial were frustrated because they could not achieve coinciding testimony or more than one witness with ‘spirit testimony’. Some of the chief witnesses moved to Salem where they ‘fixed’ their shortcomings and the rest is history.
The Great Awakening started here, flourished when Reverend George Whitefield stepped off a ship in our harbor and began his official outreach to the colonies. His preaching was revolutionary, and gave birth to freedom-loving Americans and laid the foundation for the American Revolution and the ideals that our country is founded upon. That is why he is called the Forgotten Founding Father. He ended his ministry as spectacularly as he started; dramatically passing away on School Street and is buried (per his request) under the pulpit at the Old South.
The First Tea Party was started here weeks before the one in Boston. If one gazes at the side of a building at the lower end of Inn Street, a rather-confused rambling plaque marks the occasion though at the time of erecting it, the city had no definitive information as to the details! Thanks to our museums and the archive room; we now know that Eleazor Johnson, Sr, a massive man with jet black hair and black eyes, who worked the difficult shipyards as a carpenter, had enough. The nervous British, sensing trouble, moved all the tea that had come into Newburyport into the powder house and bolted and locked the door. He took his adze (now in the collection of the Cushing House) and led a fiery group up to Bartlett Mall where the powder house was located, smashed the door down, dragged out all the tea and burned it at Market Square. Called a Son of the Revolution, he ended up becoming a powerful and influential merchant.
The Triangle Trade was largely located at Newburyport and was at one time larger than Boston’s. Not necessarily a proud moment from our present perspective but the issue of slavery, the abolitionist movement and the coming conflict of the Civil War are all hinged on this dark commerce. Rum made in our 60 plus distilleries would be shipped to Africa, where slaves were obtained in exchange; and these slaves would be brought to America and the Caribbean in exchange for sugar cane (in the form of molasses); brought back to Newburyport to be refined into rum. The 1776 Broadway Play had a particular scene to demonstrate powerfully the situation.
Newburyport’s importance at the Battle of Lexington. We take for granted as we pass the armory on Low Street as the sign outside announces the 182nd Engineer Co. “Sapper” of the 101st Engineer Battalion. This unit was one of the first regiments of our military IN THE COUNTRY and proved themselves immediately at the Battle of Concord and Lexington and has continued to exemplify themselves in our many wars all the way to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ever afterward, though their official name has changed as their duties have; is often called the First Regiment. They are one of the few units in the U.S. Army who can display the Lexington-Concord battle streamer since these units are descended from fought battles in Lexington, Concord and Arlington on April 19, 1775 at the opening of the Revolutionary War.
The ‘Gift’ of William Coombs, Patriot and Privateer. Not understood until recently, our city was the source of gunpowder and weapons that George Washington desperately needed as he surrounded the British in Boston. William Coombs, not once but twice went down to the Caribbean and secured a vessel full of this cargo and then offered it freely to the beleaguered General. General Knox had famously brought the cannons to Dorchester Heights but they had no shot to fire them! With the weapons in hand, the British knew the gig was up and evacuated the city.
The Privateer/Pirate fleet and its contribution to the Battle over Boston. Hundreds of ships were sent out from Newburyport which effectively cut off the supply lines of the British. A recent letter was found at City Hall written by George Washington crediting this achievement as the principle means why the British ended up evacuating Boston. He also considered Newburyport a safe city to build ships for the navy. The same William Coombs had sunk ships just below the surface making the harbor inaccessible to the British who had the bad habit of burning port cities to the ground. (Beverly and Portland for example.)
The Rise of the Federalist Party and the contribution toward the first constitution in the world (Massachusetts Constitution) and toward the Constitution of the United States. Theophilus Parsons and the citizens of Ipswich and Newburyport created a document widely published throughout the colonies called the Essex Resolves in which the concept of checks and balances were clearly demanded. This was incorporated into the world’s first Constitution and was continued in the U.S. version.
Theophilus Parsons, the Federalists and the birth of the Bill of Rights. Powerful merchants, most of them from Newburyport, were against Massachusetts ratifying the new U.S. Constitution until as Theophilus Parsons termed it; a Bill of Rights was added onto it. James Madison conceded by taking the Virginia version (which was modeled after the Massachusetts’s Bill of Rights which was largely advanced by Theophilus Parsons. Three amendments of the National Bill of Rights came directly from Parsons. The Federalist Party held sway in Washington initially with many of its strongest supporters from Newburyport.
The Birth of the Coast Guard by the launching of the Revenue Cutter Massachusetts. Until the rise of the income tax, customs was the primary means by which the Federal Government was funded. President Washington via the Secretary of the Treasurer, Alexander Hamilton, to field Revenue Cutters to enforce the levy. The very first launched was the RCS Massachusetts out of Newburyport. Later combined to the Lighthouse Service and the Lifesaving Stations, it then grew into the U.S. Coast Guard.
The First financing and building of a U.S. Navy ship, the Merrimack. In this setup, local merchants would pool their money together to build a ship for the Navy and then the money would eventually be repaid by the U.S. Government. Once Newburyport led the way, other cities followed suit allowing the young Republic to field a handsome fleet at minimum cost to the government.
Privateers went out in great force during the War of 1812, this time protected by valid letters of marque. The British were so afraid of Newburyport’s privateers they commissioned a warship to cruise just outside the mouth of the Merrimack attempting to keep them bottled inside the harbor.
The rise of Silversmithing in America centered on Newburyport. The Moultin House on the Ridge represents a family that diversified into many sectors and out of their influence came Lunt Silver and the famous Towle Silversmiths.
The rise of the China and Japanese Trade by Newburyporter’s supported by Caleb Cushing’s famous treaties. After the American Revolution, with wars distracting the European powers; trade all over the world was devoured by entrepreneurial captains and merchants. The term, ‘Yankee’ originated by disgruntled ports who found that New England traders were hard bargainers. Yankee came from the Dutch word, Yankers, which means wranglers.
Captain Robert Couch, who lived on Titcomb Street, went on with support by merchants in Newburyport to found the City of Portland. He went on to be one of the fathers of the city and a statue made of him is on one of their main thoroughfares.
William Wheelwright, born on The Ridge, went on to become a powerful force in the western edges of South America. He built ports, railroads and shipping terminals throughout the southern continent. Historians consider him to be numbered amongst the most influential in South America’s history. His statue stands in Valparaiso, Chile’s third largest city and he is considered a national hero in that country.
The practical invention of the Clipper Ship by Donald McKay, launched from Newburyport’s shipyards. Though history books incorrectly ascribe this to a Baltimore ship, anyone who actually understands the construction of a Clipper Ship would know that the Currier, made here off Merrimac Street was the first and not constructed in Wiscasset, Maine as one history book claimed!
The rise of the Abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison who inspired so many others in the movement. Though not appreciated by the citizens of Newburyport at the time (They had him arrested for slander and thrown in jail), Garrison went on to inspire many others to become giants in the effort to abolish slavery.
The Famous exploits of the Dreadnaught and her much vaunted ‘record’. The idea that shipping could cross the Atlantic at incredible speed (at the time) made the stuff of Clipper Ship legends.
Adolphus Greeley who paved the way for telegraph to be strung across America which later became telephone poles. He later went on to be a renowned Arctic Explorer and co-founder of the Explorer’s Club and the National Geographic Society.
There are many other notable actions that have occurred in Newburyport but occurred after the Romantic Era or had more impact toward the Commonwealth and to local history than to the National Interest. Such things as The Curse, The Great Fire, Smuggling, Tunnels and wild characters such as Bossy Gillis and Lord Timothy Dexter are wildly romantic but do not have national significance.
I feel strongly that the list above seals the case as to why Newburyport should be designated a National Landmark city. Local historians, museum curators and dedicated volunteers need to focus on these historical events to make sure every piece is well-documented.
If you, reading this post, feel I have overlooked something during the Romantic Era that should be mentioned, please notify me immediately. A full and comprehensive list, with facts, references and reliable sources will need to be accumulated to convince the National Park Service to grant full recognition.