|Mass.Gov Home Page||State Agencies||State A-Z Topic List|
The Mighty Merrimack
By David Trubey, CZM
If you have ever sailed through the mouth of the Merrimack River in Newburyport, Massachusetts during an outgoing tide and an easterly wind, it will come as no surprise that this is one of the most dangerous river mouths in the country. On an average day, the sheer volume of water rushing through the narrow opening between Plum Island and Salisbury is enough to make even the most seasoned mariner sweat.
In a northeast gale, standing waves at the river's mouth make landlubbers on the adjacent jetty check the rocks under their feet to make sure that they are firmlyin place. According to files kept by the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources (MBUAR), at least 70 vessels have come to an early demise in and around this area over the past two and a half centuries. Compared to a significant amount of other Massachusetts river mouths, the Merrimack has more than three times the number of reported wrecks.
While many of these shipwrecks have long since vanished, the details of wreck history are alive and well at the Newburyport Maritime Society (NMS). Since 1970, the NMS has worked "to protect, preserve and interpret the maritime history of the lower Merrimack Valley." This mission is currently accomplished through a variety of educational programs and exhibits at its Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport and Lowell's Boat Shop in Amesbury (www.themaritimesociety.org).
Legalized Piracy on the High Seas
Spirited involvement in maritime affairs is nothing new to the Newburyport community. During the early years of the Revolutionary War, the Merrimack River towns of Newburyport and Newbury were largely occupied in the construction and outfitting of privateers. Privateers were privately owned, armed vessels that targeted enemy trade during times of war. In his historical sketch, Ship Building on the Merrimac River, John Currier contends "...the first privateer fitted out within the limits of the original thirteen colonies sailed from Newburyport in August, 1775 . . .". Privateers, or Letters of Marque as they are sometimes referred to after their official government commission, played a significant role in the period leading up to and during the Revolutionary War when more than 600 hundred Letters of Marque were issued by the Continental Congress (federal legislative body of the 13 American colonies). These letters were, in effect, a license for a private vessel to take reprisal against the merchant vessels of an enemy nation during times of conflict or war. The system, which historian Samuel Eliot Morison describes as "legalized piracy," was extremely beneficial to the fledgling American Navy. American privateers were very successful "...in preying on the enemy's commerce, intercepting his communications with America, carrying terror and destruction into the very chops of the Channel, and supplying the patriot army with munitions, stores and clothing at Johnny Bull's expense."* As noted by Samuel Eliot Morison in The Martitime History of Massachusetts: 1783 - 1860: "Her [privateering] success . . . was probably the greatest contribution of seaboard Massachusetts to the common cause." In addition to the military benefits of privateering, the system also contributed socially to Massachusetts's coastal communities by employing fishermen and other maritime related tradesmen such as shipbuilders and sailors.
Privateering on the Merrimack: Neptune 's First and Final Voyage
While privateering brought wealth to some citizens of the newly founded community, the loss of life in Newburyport was substantial relative to its population. According to Currier, 22 vessels with crews totaling more than 1,000 sailors were lost from that port. One such vessel was the privateer, Neptune, constructed at the Cross Yard in Newburyport and commanded by Captain William Friend. Neptune appears to have been a relatively small vessel of 16 or 20 guns. While heading to sea, she was lost shortly after exiting the mouth of the Merrimack River. The Independent Chronicle and The Universal Advertiser of August 29, 1777, reports that "Thursday last a 20 gun ship, coming out from Newbury-Port, instantaneously overset, and in a little time after went down head fore mast in 14 fathom water; providentially a sloop and boat being near, took off all the hands but one just as she went down. The whole crew consisted of about 70." While the exact location of this wrecking incident is not known, one historical source states that Neptune was "...about a league [3.18 nautical miles] from the bar."
In the coming months, the MBUAR, with the assistance of the NMS, will be delving into the mysterious disappearance of Neptune. It is hoped that historical research combined with marine remote sensing of the Merrimack River coastal area might shed some light on the vessel and its significance to the maritime heritage of Newburyport and the Commonwealth.
1 Morison, Samuel Eliot, 1961 The Maritime History of Massachusetts: 1783-1860. Northeastern University Press, Boston.
Andreesen, David, Petty Officer, U.S. Coast Guard, Merrimack River Station, personal communication, March, 2005.
Bayley, William and Oliver O. Jones. History of the Marine Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Daily News Press, Newburyport, Massachusetts. (1906).
Currier, John J. Shipbuilding on the Merrimac River. William H. Huse and Company, Newburyport, Massachusetts. (1877.)
Weare, Nancy V. Plum Island: The Way It Was. Newburyport Press, Newburyport, Massachusetts. (1996.)
* In literature and political cartoons during this period, the term "John Bull" was commonly used to personify England and English manner.