How Elias Derby Changed the History of the United States
If you enter Beverly, Massachusetts by crossing the Veterans Memorial Bridge (also known as the Beverly-Salem Bridge), you may see a sign depicting Beverly as the “Birthplace of the United States Navy.” While some may dispute this as historical fact—the nearby town of Marblehead begs to differ, for example—there’s no doubt that Beverly played a significant role in America’s naval history. It served as an integral port for continental and privateer vessels during the Revolutionary War and was an important strategic asset for then-General George Washington.
But Beverly wasn’t alone in being an important port city. Salem, too, was an essential port city during the Revolutionary War.
According to the city’s website, Salem was home to warships that were paramount to the colonies’ naval campaigns against the British: the privateers. Privateers were privately-owned vessels that were permitted by the government to attack and capture enemy ships, and Salem alone sent out 158 ships that captured 444 “prizes.”
Although multiple individuals were engaged in privateering in Salem, many of the privateering vessels docking at the city were owned by a single individual: Elias Hasket Derby. Here’s how Derby helped shape an important part of America’s history.
A Ship Owner Who Never Went to Sea
Born the son of a sea captain in 1739, Elias Derby would never go to sea. But the sea would play an important role in his life.
Derby got his start as a bookkeeper and established himself as a prominent merchant. By 1760, Derby already owned a fleet of at least thirteen vessels engaged in trade in the Caribbean and South Atlantic.
During the Revolutionary War, Derby equipped privateer vessels and had shares in as many as half of the privateer ships that came from Salem. Although Derby supported the Revolution, the privateering business was also very lucrative for him.
The Derby family’s Grand Turk, a 300-ton ship, was Salem’s largest and most successful privateering vessel. Grand Turk alone captured seventeen enemy vessels between 1781 and 1782.
Elias Derby himself wasn’t a captain and never went out to sea. He was, however, an excellent bookkeeper and businessman. Without his support, much of the privateering history of Salem never would have happened.
Derby eventually become one of the wealthiest men in America. By some accounts, he may have been the country’s first millionaire.
Pioneering Trade with Russia and China
When the Revolutionary War ended, Derby and many of the merchants of Salem found themselves with an abundance of war vessels but no war to fight. However, maritime trade had taken a serious blow during the war, and the privateer ships Derby and his colleagues had built were both larger and faster than Salem’s earlier trading ships.
Derby decided to recommission his privateering vessels for the business of trade. He then helped to initiate trading with Russia, the Baltic, and parts of Europe. He also helped solidify Salem’s specialty trading in the East Indian markets, which led to a period of significant prosperity within the city.
In 1789, at least sixteen American vessels had arrived in Canton (now Guangzhou), China. Elias Derby owned four of them. He would have little additional business with China in the future, but he would maintain his trade business with Batavia, Sumatra, India, Europe, and the West Indies until eventually entering his son, Hasket, into the business.
Elias Hasket Derby died in 1799. He’s remembered as an important proponent of naval warfare during the Revolutionary War and a pioneer when it comes to establishing the United States’ global trade ties.
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