, Salem, MA


March 11, 2013

McAllister: The richest man in 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.

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