MARBLEHEAD CHRONICLES: In the 18th century, town’s prosperity grows

Marblehead established its town and government in the 17th century and defined its livelihood with effective fishing and salting processes.

In the early 18th century, Marblehead’s reputation as a major port for the production and sale of salted fish increased, as did its population. The town grew significantly in the first half of the century as trade expanded, attracting newcomers eager to make their fortunes. Merchants began selling salted cod directly to the market, eliminating middlemen’s fees and increasing profits.

Much of this change can be attributed to the influence of Parson John Barnard, a Harvard College-educated young man, who some say would have pursued an MBA instead of ministry if he were alive today.

‘Schooner Amy Knight, Headers on the Banks’ by Thomas M. Hoyne. COURTESY PHOTO / RUSSELL KNIGHT COLLECTION / PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM

Barnard arrived in Marblehead in 1715 to serve at the First Church, now Old North Church. He assessed the town’s finances, brought new ideas and decided it was time to expand the fishing trade and let Marbleheaders take control of their product.

He convinced local merchants, including Joseph Swett, to sell salted fish in Barbados directly. Swett’s profits were high, and his success led others to follow suit.

Supporting businesses, including sail and rope making, ship building and suppliers of maritime needs, grew alongside the fishing industry. Notable merchants like Swett, Hooper, and Lee led this growth.

The increased trade soon gave rise to a new type of vessel: a fishing schooner that was larger, heavier, and better equipped for long distances. These schooners, known as Marblehead Heeltappers due to their shoe-like shape, ventured further from Marblehead, towards the Grand Banks. The elevated deck in the stern, referred to as the heel, allowed fishermen to stand and fish using hand lines.

The term “Heeltapper” also refers to shoemaking, a sideline that many Marblehead fishermen and their families undertook to supplement their incomes. As a result, Marblehead’s fishing fleet grew, establishing a tradition of sea-going fishermen that would persist for generations.

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