When President James Monroe visited Salem in the summer of 1817, town diarist William Bentley noted, in a journal entry dated July 11, “This day the President waited upon Joseph Peabody Esqr., merchant of Salem & the wealthiest man now living in it.”
Joseph Peabody, in his youth, was a most unlikely candidate for a future visit from a U.S. president. He was born in Middleton in 1757, the ninth of 12 children. His father, Francis, was a farmer, as were four generations of his New England ancestors.
For the first two decades of his life, Joseph also seemed destined to make his living tilling the soil. For nearly a dozen years, beginning when he was 8, the youngster lived and worked with his sister, Ruth, and her husband, Joseph Curtis, at their Boxford farm.
Then in the early days of the Revolutionary War, when he was 19 or 20 years old, Joseph made a decision that would change his life. He traveled to Salem, where he found a berth on Elias Derby’s privateer Bunker Hill. From this point onward, the sea, not the farm, would be the focus of Peabody’s career.
During the course of the Revolution, Joseph Peabody made eight voyages aboard various privateers or letters of marque. On one occasion, he and the other members of the crew of the vessel Fish Hawk were captured by the British and sent to a prison ship in Newfoundland.
While incarcerated there, Joseph attended an informal “school” led by another prisoner. The only other education Joseph would have was a year of study under the Rev. Elias Smith in Middleton — sandwiched in between two voyages — in 1780-81.
In 1782, following his heroic actions in defending his ship Ranger against attacking pirates off the coast of Virginia, Joseph Peabody was promoted to first mate. Two voyages later, the 25-year-old veteran of the seas was given command of a vessel owned by Jonathan Gardner Jr. of Salem.
Joseph would maintain his business relationship with the Gardner family, first as an employee and then as a partner in owning and outfitting vessels for trade, into the next century. He would also, at various times, enter into successful partnerships with two other Salem merchants, Thomas Perkins and Gideon Tucker.
Until his marriage to Katharine Smith, his former tutor’s daughter, in 1791, Peabody spent much of his time at sea. After the wedding, he shipped out only once more before retiring to manage his growing mercantile business in 1793.
Sadly, Katharine died that same year. Twenty-six months later, Joseph married her sister Elizabeth, with whom he would have seven children. That union lasted nearly 50 years, ending with Joseph’s death in 1844.
The Peabody family wanted for little thanks to Joseph’s business acumen and good fortune. In partnership with others or singly, he owned 63 ships in his lifetime. These vessels were kept busy trading initially in the West Indies and along the American coast, and later in ports in the East Indies, Europe and the Mediterranean Sea.
The most famous of the Peabody’s vessels was the ship George. The 328-ton, Salem-built vessel may have been the fastest of its time.
Charles E. Trow, in his book “Old Shipmasters of Salem,” claimed that even clipper ships capable of covering “300 miles a day could not outsail her.” The George made 21 trips — most of them very lucrative — to India between her launching in 1815 and her eventual sale in 1837.
As early as 1817, Joseph Peabody was the richest man in Salem. One later indication of the merchant’s success is the customs duties levied on cargo brought back from Canton on three consecutive voyages made by Peabody’s ship Sumatra between 1829 and 1831. Those taxes averaged just under $136,000 per trip, a staggering sum for the times. No other Salem vessel was ever taxed more than $100,000.
The Peabodys lived in splendor in a mansion at 136 Essex St., originally built in 1795 by Samuel McIntire for Nathan Read and acquired by Joseph from a later owner, and on a farm (now called Glen Magna) in Danvers. The latter he rented during the War of 1812 as a retreat for his family in the event that the British might attack Salem. Peabody later purchased the farm, in 1814, and summered there for the last three decades of his life.
The Essex Street mansion, incidentally, was razed in 1855 to make way for the Salem Athenaeum’s Plummer Hall. Today, that building houses the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library.
Joseph Peabody also owned a wharf and counting house on the South River near the intersection of present-day Derby Street and Hawthorne Boulevard. The wharf must have been a busy place. During his lifetime, Peabody is supposed to have sent out hundreds of vessels and employed 7,000 seamen. Some he sent out just to keep men employed in times of economic hardship.
While Joseph Peabody was appreciated for his contributions to the local economy and respected for his success, the hard-driving merchant was not necessarily beloved by all of Salem’s citizens. When his great-grandson Augustus Peabody Gardner was running for Congress in the early 1900s, an ancient ex-mariner asked if he, Gardner, was a descendant of Joseph Peabody.
When the candidate acknowledged that he was indeed, the prospective voter queried, “Be you as mean as he was?”
Salem historian Jim McAllister writes a regular column for The Salem News.