Marblehead, Massachusetts – Part of American History

Marblehead, Massachusetts – Part of American History

© David Burton 2021


     Extending north from Boston, the capital of Massachusetts, are some of the cities and towns of the “North Shore” of Massachusetts: Chelsea, Revere, Lynn, Swampscott and Marblehead.

     Marblehead is a quaint coastal community of about 20,000 residents located some 18 miles north of Boston. Marblehead is remembered for its contributions to the American Revolution and the Civil War. Today, its narrow streets and the historic 17th and 18th century buildings there characterize a Marblehead as it has existed since it was founded way back in 1629.

     Long before the first European settlers arrived in what was to become known as Marblehead, the area was inhabited by the Naumkeag tribe of Native Americans belonging to the Algonquin nation. Led by the “Great Sachem” Nanepashemet, they named their settlement Massebequash.
     The first non-Native American settlers migrated from near-by Salem in the early 1600’s to escape the strict discipline of the intensely religious Puritans. They and the Naumkeags existed peacefully together in Massebequash.
     An epidemic in 1615-1619 - smallpox? - devastated the Naumkeags, wiping out eighty to ninety percent of the tribe. Another smallpox epidemic in 1633 resulted in a further decline of the Native American population.
     On 12 December 1648, a Salem Town Meeting voted to grant Marblehead its complete independence from Salem. The area, which had previously been controlled by the Naumkeags, now had its own local governing body — a Board of Selectmen. On 16 September 1684 a deed of sale conveying the three thousand seven hundred acres now known as Marblehead from the Naumkeags to the town was signed by the rightful heirs of Nanepashmet. The original deed can be found hanging in the Selectmen’s room at Abbot Hall in Marblehead.[1]

     Marblehead became the Birthplace of the American Navy in 1775, when General George Washington commissioned the sailing ship Hannah, owned and crewed by citizens of Marblehead, to pursue, capture or sink ships of the British Navy.

     Over the years, controversy has arisen concerning where the American Navy began. There are many contenders: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Whitehall, New York; Beverly, Massachusetts; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire have all made claims to be the ‘birthplace.’ But, in the case of the Hannah, no other claim has the two important components of Marblehead's: the direct orders of George Washington to attack the British, and an owner/captain and crew so clearly from one small New England seacoast community. Beverly's claim is based on the fact that Hannah often berthed and resupplied in Beverly's safe shallow-water harbor. While without Beverly's facilities Hannah would have had a much harder time, the birthplace of the American Navy can be no other than Marblehead - the town the ship called home port - where the owner/captain lived and where the vast majority, if not all, of the original crew lived as well. Out of Marblehead's maritime ways and history came the ship, crew and know-how to carry out General Washington's command. [2]

     In 1814, the harbor became the refuge of the USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") as it was being pursued by two British frigates. Many of the Constitution’s crewmen were from Marblehead and, being familiar with the rocky waters, piloted the sailing ship into the protection of Marblehead Harbor. The British, with no charts of the rocks and channels and seeing cannons being readied at Fort Sewall at the mouth of the Harbor, retreated.

     Marblehead is also known as the Birthplace of Marine Aviation. W. Starling Burgess designed and built his first biplane — The Flying Fish — at his Marblehead boatyard. His obsession with air flight led him to build a “flying boat” with the first model taking a test flight over Marblehead Harbor in 1911. Having impressed officials in Washington, the U.S. Navy placed orders for this new flying boat. In 1917, Burgess was summoned by the Navy Department to Washington to supervise and design the construction of the plane. A plaque stands in Hammond Park in Marblehead at the end of Commercial Street, where the first flight took place.

     Marblehead is unique and picturesque because of its crooked narrow streets and its many ancient wooden houses from a bygone era – that of Colonial New England. Marblehead actually has the most colonial-era homes of any town in America – over 300 historic structures line its streets.

     I can personally attest to the fact that there are houses and buildings in Marblehead that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. My wife and I were looking to buy our first house in the greater Boston area in 1968 and came across a house for sale in Marblehead in our price range. We contacted the realtor and arranged to see the house. We found the house to be located on one of the narrow old streets in Marblehead and it appeared to have been built around 1700.

     Our main reason for not being interested in buying the house was the height of the ceilings. I’m over 6 feet tall and the low ceilings therein were indicative of the height of most Americans in the colonial age – well under 6 ft. There simply wasn’t a single room in the house where I could stand up without bumping my head on one of the ceiling beams.

     Marblehead Harbor boasts one of the finest displays of sailing craft anywhere. Over the years, the harbor has been both the starting and finishing port for numerous international races, including races between Marblehead and Kiel, Germany; San Sebastian, Spain; and Bermuda, as well as other national and international competitions. An annual race between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Marblehead, which began in 1905, continues to this day. And the yearly mid-summer Marblehead Race Week competition, which dates back to 1889, still attracts yachtsmen from around the world. At some points in the summer, over 2,000 boats are moored in and around Marblehead harbor. There are several yacht clubs that operate out of Marblehead, and the waters around town are quite often full of kayakers and boaters. Marblehead, appropriately, has earned the title as the “Yachting Capital of the World.

     A great spot to sit and watch a sunset is Chandler Hovey Park and Marblehead Lighthouse on Marblehead Neck. The view from there takes in the town shoreline and the surrounding bay and ocean. Marblehead Neck also has a great many magnificent homes. Driving around the Neck and viewing these expensive residences is a worthwhile experience in itself. The lighthouse is historic and there are plenty of benches and places to sit and either enjoy the scenery or have a picnic. The views of Marblehead from the park are magnificent.


  1. The Birthplace of the American Navy, Duane Westfield and Bill Purdin, Marblehead Magazine,
    Accessed 25 June 2021.
  2. About Marblehead: Visiting & Town History,, Accessed 26 June 2021.


22 July 2021 {Article_485; My State_26}    
Go back to the top of the page