MARBLEHEAD MEMORIES: The women of Fort Sewall

Mark Hurwitz
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To begin, did you know that two Marblehead women were given the responsibility of looking after Fort Sewall in the 19th century?

But first, a little history:

The property now called Fort Sewall was originally known to 17th century Marbleheaders as Mavericks Head. Named for Marblehead resident Moses Maverick who originally owned the oceanside property.

. An 1860 watercolor painting of Fort Sewall depicting where the commander’s quarters once stood. COURTESY PHOTO / MARBLEHEAD MUSEUM

The original earthwork fort was built in 1644 and equipped with cannons to protect the town from possible attacks by the Dutch and the French.

By the 1670’s, the land on which the fort was built became known as Gales Head. Named for it ‘s next owner, Ambrose Gale.

In the 1790’s, the U.S. Government took charge of the property and by the year 1800, it received its new and current name, Fort Sewall. named for Judge Samuel Sewall.

Samuel Sewall was a judge best known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials. Sewall was perhaps most remarkable among the judges involved in the trials in that he later regretted his role, going as far as to call for a public day of prayer, fasting, and reparations in the year 1697.

In 1700, he also wrote and published The Selling of Joseph, a tract which argued that slavery was morally wrong. It was the first anti-slavery document ever published in North America. 

He served for many years as the chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature, the province’s high court.

The War of 1812 (1812-1815) 

The presence of British sloops in Salem Sound prompted Col. Stephen Ranney to muster a company at Fort Sewall under the command of Captain John Bailey, who was Fort Sewall’s company commander. 

In 1814, during the war of 1812, the citizens of Marblehead came to the rescue of the USS Constitution. Two British frigates gave chase to her near Cape Ann, but the Constitution found refuge in Marblehead Harbor. Many of the Constitutions crew were from Marblehead, so they knew the harbor well. They dropped anchor below the forts guns for several hours before sailing to Salem Harbor later that evening.

Speaking of the USS Constitution, who remembers the Summer of 1997! What a proud moment for Marbleheaders!


The women of Fort Sewall

After serving as commander of Fort Sewall for many years, Captain John Bailey died in 1828. His wife Mary Bailey was then chosen to look after the property. She was the first woman to be given that responsibility. Was she appointed by the U.S. Government or by the citizens of Marblehead, no one knows for sure. I could not locate any official records from that time period. 

In 1835, while Mary Bailey was still alive, another woman took up residence at Fort Sewall by the name of Maria Twist Perkins. She later became the “U.S. Agent in charge of the property.” -which was perhaps a more official appointment than Mary Bailey’s was (but perhaps not, since we do not know the official designation or appointment of either woman.) 

She resided in the Commandants house (no longer standing) for the next two decades.

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