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.