The Salem Maritime National Historic Site is not the most interesting thing in Salem, Massachusetts. Salem holds a singular place in the American consciousness. We consider the witch trials and general hysteria a black spot on the rationality of Yankee cultural history. Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of the Scarlet Letter and House of Seven Gables, changed the spelling of his last name to distance himself from his great-great-grandfather’s role in the execution of innocent women and men. The Salem Witch Trials started in 1692, when the merchants of Salem were already making a killing through trade. Taxation, shipping and wealth is not nearly as exciting as the hysteria which gripped Salem in 1692, but this history that is what is preserved in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and it was more interesting than expected.
Salem’s shallow and protected harbor grew to be one of the most prosperous in the young United States. Salem shipping specialized in high quality, expensive goods from the East Indies. Spices, teas, black pepper were in short supply and high demand. Sets of china were actually brought back as ballast, since the spices and tea were so light-weight. Curiosities were also brought back, and some of these can be seen in the Peabody-Essex Museum down the road from the site. The profits were huge. Salem was home to the country’s first millionaire. The profits were also short-lived. The port was blockaded by the British in the War of 1812, and Salem’s status went into decline.
My wife and I visited Salem recently. We’ve been to Salem many times to visit the excellent Peabody-Essex Museum, the touristy but fun House of Seven Gables, and to experience the outrageousness that happens in October. We walked the long Derby Wharf out to the Light Station without realizing it was part of the National Historic Site. I want to visit all the National Parks and National Historic Sites, so we needed to go. We drove to the West India Good Store on Derby Street, and since it was not October we found a parking place right in front of the Customs House.
I wasn’t expecting it, but we had a fantastic tour of the Customs House and learned about the history of Salem after the Witch Trials. Salem’s original industry was ship building and cod-fishing. Cod was abundant and the West Indian trade started when excess cod was sold to plantation owners as cheap food for their enslaved workers. The schooners brought back the plantations’ sugar or cotton, which was shipped to England or the Mediterranean and traded for luxuries.
After the Revolution, Salem’s trade expanded to the East Indies, and the luxuries poured into the Salem. So did the profits – ship owners made huge profits on shipments, and the new US government collected tariffs. The Customs House was the first stop for a ship’s captain when in port. The Customs House stands at the end of Derby Wharf, and is a large imposing building with an immense gilded eagle on top. It was a symbol of the United States government, and the money collected here was vital to fund the country before the advent of income tax.
The Customs House was built after Salem’s decline. Jefferson embargoed trade with England and France, then Salem was blockaded during the War of 1812. The harbor was also shallow. As ships got bigger, they could not as easily make it into the Salem. These factors all caused the shipping industry to decline. It was well after this period of decline, in 1846, that a struggling writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne lobbied for an appointment to work in the Customs House.
Our tour guide (a fantastic Park volunteer) told us the story of Hawthorne’s appointment, and subsequent dismissal in 1848 when the Whig Party took office. Hawthorne was appointed by a Democrat. Hawthorne’s desk sits in the first floor of the Customs House. The tour went upstairs where our guide told us a story Hawthorne wrote in the first chapter of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne claimed to have found a beautifully embroidered letter A sitting around in a pile of papers left by his predecessor. Hawthorne instinctively touched the letter to his chest, where it burned and he instantly dropped it to the floor. This is the introduction to the Scarlet Letter, which includes some scathing assessments of his cohorts in the Customs House. These were just the sort of men who would have condemned Hester Pryne to wear the Scarlet A. I didn’t remember the introduction to The Scarlet Letter from my high school Literature class, but I plan to reread the book now. Our guide mused that the Scarlet Letter would have ever been written if Hawthorne wasn’t so angry by losing his job at the Customs House.
After our tour ended, my wife and I walked to the old cemetery and found the grave of John Hathorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather. We had not known about the walking tour of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life, so another trip will be in the offing!