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Then & Now: A Maritime Homestead

This house has both maritime and literary connections.

Driving down Derby Street, it’s easy to miss this house.

There are no signs along its fence that draw attention to it, nor is it part of the . It sits off Derby Street at 27 Herbert St.Yet, this house and its occupants really were the catalyst for the development of this area that would later become the national historic site.

The land and building on it dates back to the 17th century and attest to the continuing focus of Salem on the ocean and trade.

There were house lots here in the mid 1600s with frame dwellings for a succession of mariners into the early 1700s.  In 1713, John Gardner sold the property to John Langsford whose heirs sold what was then considered the Langford Estate consisting of a dwelling, bake house, shop and barn to James Lindell for 400 L in 1734. He in turn sold the property to Captain Richard Derby in Sept. 1735 for the same amount.

Captain Richard Derby (1712 -1783) first captained a vessel in 1735 at the age of 24. That same year, he married Mary Hodges. This house is believed to have been built in 1735-1736. It appears that he had the other buildings removed. Captain Derby added land to his house lot by lot, buying land from the Pickman family a few years later.

Captain Derby continued to captain ships for the next 21 years. Having success on the seas, he allied with Timothy Orne during the 1740s, in an effort to increase his wealth through maritime investment.

Orne was a Salem merchant who was very successful in a number of enterprises. His main focus was, however, maritime trade. Through this association, Derby gradually started accumulating capital so that he wouldn’t always have to be at sea. While amassing wealth, his family also grew with the addition of six children.

The children were: Richard Derby Jr. (1736-1781), who became a mariner, merchant and politician; Mary Derby (1737-1813), who married George Crowinshield, a mariner, ship owner and merchant; Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799). He became a ship owner, banker and the most prominent merchant in 18th century Salem. He is often listed as the first millionaire in America; John Derby (1741-1812). He too, became a mariner and merchant; Martha Derby (1744-1802), she married the noted minister, John Prince; and Sarah Derby (1747-1774) who married John Gardner III, a mariner and merchant.  This family, with its wealth and ties by marriage, became in many ways, the first family of Salem in the later years of the 18th century.

Having amassed some wealth, Captain Richard Derby in the 1750s started buying up wharf space and warehouses not far from his home. By 1757, Captain Derby had become a merchant and ship owner who could retire from the sea. At the age of 45, he turned over his ships to his eldest, the then 21 year old, Richard Jr., his 23 year old, son-in-law, George Crowinshield and Captain Jonathan Lambert.

Captain Derby then concentrated his attention on his trade with the West Indies, the American southern states, Madeira and the Spanish peninsula.

By the late 1760s, he owned six ships trading with the West Indies. In the early 1760s, he commenced the building project of Derby Wharf and a number of mercantile buildings to aid in his growing enterprise. At this time, his younger son, Elias, then 21 years old, entered the firm and started managing the business. While his brothers and brothers-in-law as well as hired captains, commanded the ships in the Derby fleet, he became the merchant prince.

In 1761, Captain Derby had a house built for his son, Elias, at 164 Derby St. as a wedding present. That house, the oldest brick house in Salem, is now part of the Salem Maritime Historical Site.

The Derbys continued to expand their wharf and warehouse space to accommodate the booming trade. Even during the Seven Years War that cost them several ships, they continued to amass their wealth. By 1770, Elias was doing such a good job running the business that Richard retired and turned his interests to politics where he was elected to the legislature from 1769 to 1773. From 1774 to 1776, he was a member of the Governor’s Council and a prominent Whig opposing the Royal Governor. His experiences with British privateers during the Seven Years War had made him a bitter enemy of the Crown.  

In 1770, his wife Mary passed away. In 1772, he married Sarah Langley, the widow of Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham. Captain Richard Derby died in 1783 and divided up his property among his three sons with Elias inheriting the house and waterfront properties. From 1785 to 1792, Elias rented the house to Joseph Chipman, a block maker. From 1793 to 1794, he rented the house to Monsieur Fousett, a fellow merchant and his family who were refugees from the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

In 1795, Elias sold the property to Miles Ward, a lumber merchant who had leased wharf and warehouse space from the Derby Family for a number of years.  He subdivided and sold much of the Derby land while retaining the house. Miles Ward passed away in 1796 and the house passed to his widow and children.

This house stayed in the Ward family for over a hundred years. During that time, several changes were made to the property through both additions and subtractions. There is a suggestion that when Derby Street was widened, the house was moved further back. According to the Mass Historical Commission, in order to determine the original house and its situation, there would need to be a thorough architectural forensic study done.

The Ward family was related to Nathaniel Hawthorne, the famous Salem author whose family lived up the street at 11 Herbert St. According to Hawthorne sources, the Wards often welcomed Nathaniel to their house and a room was set apart for his writing use. There is also conjecture that some of Hawthorne’s early writings were done in the Ward’s summerhouse or their garden on the property.

Whatever the case, it certainly adds to the history giving a literary connection to this house that saw so much of the Derby Family and Salem history.

Robert Booth July 11, 2011 at 04:06 PM
Good info about 27 Herbert St. The John prince who married Martha Derby was not a minister, he was a phsyician and he turned out to be a Tory. Richard Derby Jr. was the politician, but Richard Sr. was the "unelected mayor" of the East Parish, the fire chief, the leader of the rebel movement, and the underwriter of the Essex Gazette, which was, starting in 1768, the town's first newspaper, fearlessly anti-british in its politics. Robert Booth
Jerome Curley July 12, 2011 at 05:34 PM
Hi Bob, Thanks for the note and your take on the Derby family. I'd appreciate seeing the citation regarding Martha and John Prince since it appears we have duelling ones which is not that unusual for Salem history.
Robert Booth July 14, 2011 at 04:02 AM
Hi Jerome When I first did research about the Derbys, I was surprised to find that Dr. John Prince was a Loyalist, given how "rebel" the Derbys were. John Prince (1733-1816) married Martha Derby 1762 (d. 1802) and they had three children, and fled to England and resided there for 18 years. Their only son, Capt. John Prince (b. 1770), sailed as an E.I. shipmaster for EH Derby and m'd EHD's dtr Martha (Capt. JP's cousin)! For this, see perley Derby's write-up, in the Robert E. brooker Collection (online) of Boston College--I cd email you a copy if you'd like. The other JP was Rev. John Prince (1751-1836)--he was eleven when the other JP m'd Martha D.--the minister, scientist, and instrument-maker, m/1 1780 (Boston) Mary Bayley, m/2 1816 Milly (Messenger) Waldo (see sketch in "Portraits in the Essex Institute").
Jerome Curley July 14, 2011 at 04:50 AM
Thanks Bob, Good info which seems better than the citations I got from Mass historical and the Salem NPS. I've found inconsistencies in Mass historical before but this one is clearly wrong from your and other sources I checked. I like to see Perley's write up. If its not much trouble to email. Thanks again,Jerome
Robert Booth July 14, 2011 at 01:57 PM
Hi Jerome Pls send your email address to abe@abecsw.org Thanks Bob

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