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Building Wealth Through the China and East Indies Trade
Primary Sources

Theme: An Industrious People: American Economic History
Topic: Building Wealth Through the China and East Indies Trade
Date: Summer 2005

Primary Sources from Partner Collections
Primary Sources from Local Archives and Collections
Additional Primary Sources Used in Content and Follow-up Sessions

Sources selected and annotated by SALEM in History Staff.

Primary Sources from Partner Collections


The China Tea Trade, 1790-1800
Oil on canvas
Museum purchase
Peabody Essex Museum, M25794

This painting was executed by a Chinese artist in oil on canvas - a western medium - for a patron who desired a souvenir object. The scene depicts the process of producing tea from planting to packing for shipment.


Chinese porcelain platter

Platter, 1790-1800
Gift of George Peabody Gardner
Peabody Essex Museum, E49440

This platter is an example of the type of Chinese porcelain that Salem residents might have owned. It is of excellent quality, but is not of the same design or high style that European aristocracy might have ordered for their grand palaces and estates.


Packing Porcelain for Export

Packing Porcelain for Export, ca. 1820
Gouache on paper
Museum purchase
Peabody Essex Museum, E81592.23


Whampoa Anchorage, ca. 1850
Youqua (active 1840-1880s)
Oil on canvas
Gift of Walter H. Trumbull
Peabody Essex Museum, M4468




Crowninshield’s Wharf, 1806
George Ropes (1788-1819)
Salem, MA
Oil on Canvas
Gift of Nathaniel Silsbee
Peabody Essex Museum, M3459

In the years following the Revolutionary War, many of Salem’s merchants grew wealthy through the China and East Indies trade.    Tax revenues collected in Salem’s ports substantially supported the federal government at a time when it had many debts from the Revolutionary War. The wharf seen here in a painting by George Ropes was built by George Crowninshield and Sons. Several ships that they owned are also included: the America, Fame, Prudent and Belisarius.  Because merchants made money when their vessels were exchanging goods in other ports, it is unlikely that all of these vessels would have been in Salem’s port at once.  Curious, too, is the lack of activity on the wharf, which would have been bustling with workers.  Rather than considering this painting as a view of a typical work, it should be seen as a pristine view of the Crowninshield family's wealth and accomplishment.


Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby, 1800-1825
James Frothingham (1786-1864)
Oil on canvas
Gift of the Derby Family
Peabody Essex Museum, M353

"James Frothingham's posthumous portrait celebrates the life of a man who never went to sea, yet made his fame and fortune during Salem's maritime heyday. Elias Haskett Derby (1739 - 1799) owned seven vessels at the outbreak of the American Revolution, four of which were quickly captured by the enemy. He converted his remaining ships to privateers to attack British merchantmen, purchasing more privateers with proceeds from the vessels they captured. From 1776 - 1782, Derby owned, in part or whole, eighty-five privateers that employed eight thousand men. These ships captured 144 enemy vessels, while only 19 of Derby's were lost. Following the war, he returned to maritime commerce, sending the first New England ship, Grand Turk, to China to trade American ginseng for silk and tea. At his death, Derby left what was probably the largest sing-owned business in America. The Reverend William Bentley said that wealth flowed 'with full tide in upon that successful man.'"

Quoted from Maritime Art - The Sea: Art and Experience. Peabody Essex Museum Gallery Guide, n.d.

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Primary Sources from Local Archives and Collections


Map of Salem About 1780. Based on the Researches of Sidney Perley and the Accounts of Col. Benjamin Pickman & Benjamin J.F. Browne with Additional Information Assembled by James Duncan Phillips & Henry Noyes Otis. Drawn by Henry Noyes Otis. James Duncan Phillips, 193

This map is useful for comparing change over time in Salem from 1700 through 1870s: changes in wharves in particular. Many individuals and their occupations are noted on this map, which provides evidence of the locations of diverse occupations in Salem at this time. Note the detail of wharves on Derby St. and Stage Point.  Map available at Salem State College Archives, Salem, MA



Chart of the Harbors of Salem, Marblehead, Beverly and Manchester From a Survey Taken in the Years 1804, 5 &6 by Nathl Bowditch AM. AAS. Second Edition Nov. 1, 1854.

This provides an “aerial” view of the harbors, waterways and hazards ships had to navigate (within close range of home) at the height of China/ East Indies trade. Offers a sense of the complexity/difficulty of the act of navigation. Map available at Salem State College Archives, Salem, MA.



Plan of the Town of Salem in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  From Actual Surveys made in the years 1796 & 1804 with the Improvements and Alterations since that period as Surveyed by Jonathan P. Saunders.  Boston: Anoin & Smith, 1820.

This map, prepared in 1820 but based on surveys from 1796 and 1804, offers a point of comparison for studying both “”change over time,” and also a different perspective from the contemporary Bowditch Chart, above, Note the detail of wharves on Derby St. and Stage Point.  Available at Salem State College Archives, Salem, MA.


"Records of a Salem Vessel in 1803: An Online Exhibit" Online at: [Viewed 10 November 2005].

This National Archives and Records Administration Northeast Region on-line exhibit features the Salem vessel, Mount Vernon.

From the website: "...tall ships from Salem, like the Ship Mount Vernon, traveled around the world exporting and importing cargoes from the West and the East, including exotic locations such as Canton and Sumatra. These documents, and the information recorded on them, are typical examples of records for thousands of American ships of that time. They are also documents that were an integral part of the daily life of seamen, merchants, and officials."


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Additional Primary Sources Used in Content and Follow-up Sessions



--none selected--


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