Crowninshield's Wharf Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

“Salem with a little under eight thousand inhabitants, was the sixth city in the United States in 1790. Her appearance was more antique than even that of Boston, and her reek of the salt water, that almost surrounded her, yet more pronounced. For half a mile along the harbor front, subtended by the long finger of Derby Wharf, ran Derby Street, the residential and business center of the town. On one side were the houses of the gentry, Derbys and Princes, and Crownshields, goodly gambrel or hip-roofed brick and wooden mansions dating from the middle of the century, standing well back with tidy gardens in front. Opposite were the wharves, separated from the street by counting rooms, warehouses, ship-chandlers’ stores, pump-makers’ shops, sailmakers’ lofts; all against a background of spars, rigging, and furled or brailed-up sails. Crowded within three hundred yards of Derby street, peeping between the merchants’ mansions and over their garden walls like small boys behind a police cordon, were some eighteen or nineteen hundred buildings, including dwellings of pre-witch-craft days, with overhanging upper stories, peaked gables, small-paned windows, and hand-rifted clapboards black with age.”

The Maritime History of Massachusetts, Samuel Eliot Morison
Houghton Mifflin, 1921, 1941.

The Baltick of Salem Typical of coastal topsail schooners used before American Revolution. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

The port of Salem was at its prime between the end of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. By the time the crisis with Britain was reached in 1775, aggressive sea captains such as Richard Derby and George Crowninshield had accumulated great wealth, primarily due to the cod fish export and molasses import trades. Trading cod brought valuable cargoes of Valencia oranges, Malaga grapes, Bilbao iron, Cadiz salt and Madeira wines back to Salem, while molasses from the West Indies fueled the very profitable rum industry.