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Historic Document Offers Glimpse Into Seafaring Past

August 27, 2010

Newburyport Current


By Gillian Swart/
Posted Aug 27, 2010 @ 11:38 AM

With the original Maritime Society in Newburyport, it was a case of “Rule No. 1 – obey all rules.” A historical document now in the possession of the society shows how dedicated sea captains of old were to maintaining and preserving their lot and their place in the city while engaged in a dangerous business.

The standing laws of the Marine Society, as it was called when formed in 1772, were printed on a broadside, apparently for distribution to its burgeoning membership. With the help of a historically minded citizen and the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank, the document now belongs to the Newburyport Maritime Society.

Attorney Mark Guay, president of the society, does not yet want to disclose the implications or historical significance behind the piece of paper, which lays out 17 rules of the newly formed society. The society will hold a public presentation at its First Friday Social, from 6-8 p.m., on Sept. 3, to go over just that.

The 1772 Marine Society of Newburyport Broadside

What is clear from reading the document is that the six sea captains who started the Marine Society that November of 1772 had a clear goal: to form “an association whereby they might gain knowledge of the various ports and unknown seas, winds, current, courses and distances upon which their duties called them,” while also providing a fund for the widows and children of members “who might, in the opinion of the society, be found needy, also to assist their own members, who might by adverse circumstances be brought to distress and suffering.”

Mariners from Newburyport traveled far and wide conducting trade to and from the city. Many seafaring types ended up in the city because of the large number of vessels doing business in the West Indies and around the world, says a history of the Marine Society published in 1906.

Not only was there trade but original members of the Marine Society were involved in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Little of those adventures was preserved as written history (much to the chagrin of the authors of the book).

Following the lead of the Boston Marine Society and one in Salem, the six captains met on High Street, at the head of Marlboro Street, at the Ilsley House. A few days later, their number had grown to 13, and it was those 13 who signed the Standing Laws, a copy of which is now in the hands of the Maritime Society.

Matthew Needle, a Newburyport rare books dealer, bought the document earlier this year and offered it to the Custom House Maritime Museum collection.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful piece of paper,” said Needle. “A very important aspect is that it represents the coming of age of Newburyport as a maritime force … I think Newburyport was a powerhouse on its own.”

Stepping in to cover the $4,500 cost was Richie Eaton, president and CEO of the Newburyport Five, and with the approval of the bank’s board. Eaton is a staunch supporter of the Custom House Maritime Museum and former president of the Maritime Society.

“We’ll deep dive into all the information that’s relevant to the document [on Sept. 3],” said Guay. “We’re doing the whole enchilada.”

The current Maritime Society was established in 1968 “for the purpose of protecting, preserving, and communicating the maritime heritage of the Merrimack Valley and its role in American history.”

Interested in learning more about the Marine Society of Newburyport?

In 1906, The Press of the [Newburyport] Daily News published "History of the Marine Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts, from its incorporation in 1772 to the year 1906: together with a complete roster and narrative of important events in the lives of its members", compiled by Capt. William H. Bayley and Capt. Oliver O. Jones.

This book has long been out of print but  is in the public domain now and available online.

To read this book online, click HERE.  To download a PDF of this book, click HERE.

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