An Introduction to Newburyport History

The Newburyport Preservation Trust exists to promote preservation education and advocacy. But just what are we preserving, anyway? And why? How did Newburyport get to be the way it looks now? Has it always been this way? This page and its links aim to provide answers to these questions. The narrative below is a brief and broad overview of Newburyport history that purposefully avoids identification of heroes, villains, brilliance, or ignorance. But to be sure, it is the resilient citizens of all persuasions, working through or around the inherent disharmony of democracy, that have made Newburyport work. Readers desiring more detail are encouraged to consult the bibliography and links at the bottom of this page.

The narrative below, Newburyport History In-Brief: A Preservationist Perspective, with accompanying photos, is also available as a viewable, downloadable, and printable PDF file.

For those interested in the dramatic changes in recent decades, a must-see video is the 30-minute documentary about Newburyport’s restoration, A Measure of Change, by Lawrence Rosenblum (1975).

Newburyport History In-Brief:
A Preservationist Perspective

The present city of Newburyport, Mass. on the Merrimack River was originally the northern "Waterside" area of Newbury, Mass., which was settled as an agricultural enterprise by English colonists in 1635. Newburyport became a separate town in 1764, and a city in 1851.

The port city flourished with shipping, fishing, and the West Indies "triangle trade" --- the tidy euphemism for an economy built squarely on the backs of enslaved Africans at sugar cane plantations throughout the Caribbean --- until the economy slowed after the 1807 Embargo Act (and War of 1812). It was in the flush 1790-1820 period that so many of the city’s notable Federal-style homes were built. In 1811 a fire destroyed over 16 acres of wood-frame buildings, and when the downtown was rebuilt, brick construction and thick firewalls were required.

In the 19th century, shipbuilding remained a big business (including the clipper ships of the 1850s), although mid-century saw a manufacturing economy evolve in Newburyport, with several large cotton mills and numerous shoe manufacturing businesses employing the newest arrivals to the U.S.

The early 20th century brought the beginnings of the long slow decline of mill manufacturing along the Merrimack River. In Newburyport, its own experience of the Great Depression began before 1929 and lasted for decades. (One accidental result of the protracted economic stagnation in the neighborhoods was the general "preservation-by-benign-neglect" of the city’s stock of unspoiled Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival domestic architecture.)

The late-1960s redirection of urban renewal and the 1970s  preservation and restoration of the post-1811 downtown buildings spurred investment by both businesspeople and homeowners. This confidence led to improved and restored properties, lifting the city out of its doldrums and sparking its renaissance. In the decades since, Newburyport’s "waterside" location and its historic character --- framed by its authentic architecture --- have made the city a desirable place to visit as well as a desirable place to live.

(R.W. Bacon, Newburyport Preservation Trust, 2012)

Photo credits:The black-and-white photos of Newburyport in the 19th-20th century are used by permission of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center. The color photos of Newburyport's urban renewal demolition are by William Eusko (donated to the NPL by Joanne Brislin, and used by permission). The pre-1923 public domain postcard images are from the author's collection.

Newburyport History: Bibliography & Links

A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, by Joshua Coffin (1845). This dense 416-page tome, packed with excerpts from town records, still stands the test of time over 150 years after its publication. The author, Joshua Coffin (1792-1864), was Dartmouth graduate, a founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society (1832), an itinerant schoolmaster, and the town clerk in Newbury for seven years. (The link is to a copy online at the Internet Archive.)

History of Newburyport, Mass. 1764-1906 (Vol. 1) , by John J. Currier (1906). John James Currier (1834-1912) was an exceedingly prolific local historian --- the first volume alone is 755 pages. Vol. 1 includes valuable information about Newburyport's streets and buildings. (The link is to a copy online at the Internet Archive.)

History of Newburyport, Mass. 1764-1909 (Vol. 2) , by John J. Currier (1909). For those that didn't get enough in Vol. 1,  there are 679 more pages in Vol. 2. Currier also wrote History of Newbury, Mass. 1635-1902, a work of 755 pages. (The link is to a copy online at the Internet Archive.)

North End Papers 1618-1880, Newburyport, Massachusetts: Development of the North End of the City, by Oliver B. Merrill (1906-08). This series of articles was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News 1906-1908. The series was transcribed by Margaret Peckham Motes, and published in book form in 2007. (The link is to a Google Books online preview.)

Patriots and Partisans: The Merchants of Newburyport 1764-1815, by Benjamin W. Labaree (1962). This focused study looks at the economy of Newburyport in its period of greatest prosperity, and the roughly 200 merchants that dominated local affairs in that period. The clash of money-hungry Federalists vs. democracy-advocating Jeffersonians plays out leading up to the 1807 Embargo Act, as Newburyport merchants generally preferred the status-quo of "Triangle Trade" profits

A Brief History of Old Newbury: From Settlement to Separation, by Bethany Groff (2008). This is an excellent up-to-date introduction to local history by historian and museum professional Bethany Groff, who happens to be a regional site manager for Historic New England, based at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, Mass. This book is available at local libraries, booksellers, and at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm.

Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City, by Stephen Thernstrom (1980). (This is a limited online preview at Google Books.) This book is a study of the Newburyport economy and stratified society in the mid- to late-19th century. Inspired by the five-volume Yankee City series of 1930s social and economic analysis by W. Lloyd Warner, the author of this study tackles the earlier period with more historical context.

Life in Newburyport 1900-1950, by Jean Foley Doyle (2007). The author's two books on the city's 20th-century history proceed chronologically using a formula that covers political, economic, and social history separately by category. The raw material for the books included newspaper accounts, city records, interviews, and photos from the Newburyport Public Library's Archival Center and the Historical Society of Old Newbury. The author is a lifelong Newburyport resident now retired from a 30-year career teaching history and international relations at Newburyport High School. This book is available at local libraries or from your favorite bookseller.

Life in Newburyport 1950-1985, by Jean Foley Doyle (2010). This book picks up where Doyle's previous book left off, and using the same format, carries the story of Newburyport through the mid-1980s. This book is available at local libraries or from your favorite bookseller.

Newburyport: As I Lived It! The Trials and Tribulations of a Young Wharf Rat During the Early 1900s in Massachusetts, by John Lagoulis (2011). This book of first-person accounts is a compilation of the author's columns that first appeared in the Newburyport Daily News. The author grew up in Newburyport in the 1930s Depression years, and his recollections give his impressions of the city in the early- and mid-20th century.

History Your Way: Newburyport 1950-1990. This blog by a former Newburyport resident invited readers to post their own memories of their youth in Newburyport in the latter part of the 20th century. The blog appears to be untended at present, but there are informative posts from past years and a gallery of photos and ephemera well worth viewing.

Newburyport and Its Business District,  by Josephine P. Driver (1964). This 10-page article was published in the spring 1964 issue of Old Time New England, a quarterly journal of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now known as Historic New England). The article features 19th-century photos of Newburyport by George E. Noyes, and voices concern about urban renewal plans that were taking shape at the time.

Newburyport and a New Kind of Urban Renewal,   by Paul J. McGinley, Executive Director, Newburyport Redevelopment Authority (1971). This 5-page article was published in the spring 1971 issue of Old Time New England, a quarterly journal of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now known as Historic New England). The article recaps the preservation vs. demolition decisions of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

City of Newburyport Historic Preservation Plan (1991). The city's Historic Preservation Plan was completed in 1991. The findings and recommendations of the plan were included in the city's still-current Master Plan of 2001. Within the Historic Preservation Plan is a cogent and illuminating narrative of Newburyport history.

A Port in Progress. (2007) Between March and November 2007 the Newburyport Daily News published a 37-part series of articles on Newburyport's 1970s renewal entitled "A Port in Progress." The series included over 200 photos. The link above is to a list of 28 articles in the series. A good place to begin is the introductory article by Daily News editor John Macone. (Since the articles in the archive are not in chronological order and do not include all the photos, those interested may want to consult the hardbound book of the same name published by the Daily News in 2008 and available at the Newburyport Public Library.)

Walk Newburyport: Three Self-Guided Residential Walking Tours, With an Overview of Common Styles, Local History, and Significant Public Buildings, by the Newburyport Preservation Trust (2011). Prepared by local architects, writers, and designers, the book includes an introduction to the periods and styles of domestic architecture found in Newburyport, a glossary of terms, and historical sidebars in addition to the walking tours. Walk Newburyport is a must-have for residents who want to learn more about the buildings that give the city its special character. You can also purchase Walk Newburyport directly from the Newburyport Preservation Trust online, or locally at the Book Rack, Jabberwocky, the Cushing House Museum, the Custom House Maritime Museum, or Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm.

Clipper Heritage Trail. Speaking of walking Newburyport, visit the Clipper Heritage Trail website for a fascinating immersion into Newburyport's notable places and people through the centuries ... and then get out and walk and see the sites for yourself. The walking tours and the website are the initiative of Newburyport historian Ghlee Woodworth.

Newburyport: Farms to Factories (Video, 2010, 82 min.). This Preservation Week 2010 presentation at the Firehouse Center for the Arts by the Newburyport Preservation Trust was in collaboration with the Historical Society of Old Newbury. The program details the evolution from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Presenters are architect Linda Miller and Cushing House Museum curator Jay Williamson. (Filmed by Jerry A. Mullins, Port Media volunteer.)

A Measure of Change (Video, 1975, 29 min.). This award-winning documentary by Lawrence Rosenblum is a must-see for every new arrival to Newburyport. In just 29 minutes, the documentary examines the landmark decision to use historic preservation principles for the first time in federal HUD urban renewal projects. Go directly to the video here.


Newburyport Historic Maps

For Newburyport history enthusiasts, especially those researching Newburyport houses and neighborhoods, maps of the past offer valuable context to augment information found in the written records of history. Go to our Newburyport Historic Maps page for links to maps of Newbury (1640 & 1700) and Newburyport (1871, 1872, 1880, 1884, 1891, 1900, 1904, and 1909. The early Newbury maps are downloadable; the later Newburyport maps can be viewed online in great detail. Some of the maps viewable on a commercial web site are also available for purchase.

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