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Building Wealth Through the China and East Indies Trade
Resources and Links

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

Annotated Bibliography | Websites and Web Resources | Related Archives and Collections | Other

Resources and Links compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

Annotated Bibliography
Compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

Secondary Sources

Bean, Susan S.  Yankee India: American Commercial and Cultural Encounters with India in the Age of Sail, 1784–1860.  Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum, 2001.

Interspersing commentary based on her vast knowledge of American contact with India with selections from the journals of Salem captains and supercargoes (business agents), Bean gives us a unique study on an important aspect of the China/ East Indies Trade.  Lavishly illustrated with images dawn from the collections of Salem’s Peabody Essex museum, the book pulls from five journals that provide early Americans’ views on virtually aspect of Indian life, from marriage, to religion, to trade.  Included are selections from the journals of Dudley Leavitt Pickman, the Derby (1803) and William Augustus Rogers, the Tartar, 1817.

Cobblestone (September 1988). “Salem and the East Indies” issue

This issue is devoted to short articles about the early American trade with China. Reading level makes it accessible to upper elementary school students and above.

Crane, Elaine Foreman. Ebb Tide in New England: Women, Seaports, and Social Change, 1630-1800. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998.

Wonderful book on women and  the interaction of biology, economics, politics and ideology in the colonial era and early republic in places like Salem.

Downs, Jacques M.  The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784-1844.  Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1997.

Downs provides the most incisive scholarship we have on the Old China Trade.  His focus on the expatriate community of Canton is rich in detail, making the reader feel a   part of this world.  He treats, as well, the First Opium War, Treaty of Wangha, a consequence for subsequent Sino-American relations.

Essex Institute Historical Collections

An unparalleled resource of primary source materials and interpretation, covering life in Essex County. Available at the Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.

Forbes, Robert Bennet. Letters from China: The Canton-Boston Correspondence of Robert Bennet Forbes, 1838–1840.  Compiled and edited by Phyllis Forbes Kerr.  Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1996.

Although Forbes, was a Boston, rather than Salem trader, Letters from China is an accessible collection of one merchants observations on the opportunities and obstacles that faced a China trader.  The book offers a male perspective, making it an interesting choice to pair with Harriet Low’s journal.

Hawes, Dorothy Shurman.  To the Farthest Gulf: The Story of the American China Trade. Ipswich, MA: Ipswich Press, 1990.

This is a charming, brief survey of the Old China Trade. Hawes sets the trade in context of European contact with the East, then focuses on Salem, providing some nice anecdotes on the ways in which the China Trade influenced everyday life in Salem.

McCusker, John J. “Estimating Early American Gross Domestic Product. Historical Methods 2000 33(3): 115- 162.

Presents and demonstrates a particularly good way to determine the gross domestic product in the colonial and early national periods—eras in American history that are very difficult to pin down.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860. Boston:    Houghton Mifflin, 1921.

A classic on the topic. A great range of data included.

National Park Service. SALEM:Maritime Salem in the Age of Sail. Washington DC: US Department of the Interior.

Lushly illustrated brief introduction to the individuals, economic processes, groups, ideas and activities that helped Salem grow and prosper from the early 17th century through to the early 19th.

Phillips, James Duncan.  Salem and the Indies: the Story of the Great Commercial Era of the City.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.

Phillips has written extensively on Salem, and was a frequent contributor to the Essex Institute Historical Collections.  Although his research was extensive and rich, as a    historian his interpretations were often idiosyncratic, reflecting the anti-New Deal conservatism of his times.

Rothenberg, Winifred Barr. “The Invention of American Capitalism: The Economy of New England in the Federal Period.” In Temin, Peter ed. Engines of Enterprise: An Economic History of New England. Cambridge, MA  and London: Harvard University Press, 2000.

While not expressly discussing the China/East Indies trade, Rothenberg does place the growth of the trade into a broader discussion of the economic revolution that took place in New England in the same years as the American Revolution. Discusses the growth of markets in the early national period and explores the ways in which they established the basis for even greater growth in the years to come.

Stewart, Doug. “Salem Sets Sail.” Smithsonian (June 2004):92-99. 

Overview of Salem’s maritime history, with focus on the China/East Indies trade. Includes many images of objects in the Peabody Essex Museum collections.

Tamarin, Alfred, and Shirley Glubok. Voyaging to Cathay: Americans in the China Trade.  New York: Viking Press, 1976.

This is simply the best overview of American involvement in what historians call the Old China Trade, from inception to decline.  Salem, of course, figures prominently in the tale.  In a text rich with illustrations, Tamarin and Glubok touch on a variety of topics, from the early trials with trading ginseng, to the effort to tap the Northwest Coast fur trade, to the influence of the East on American material culture.

Vickers, Daniel.  Farmers and Fishermen:  Two Centuries of Work in Essex County,   Massachusetts, 1630-1850.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

This book is an excellent study of the economics of early Essex County, including Salem. Helps place the China/East Indies trade in broader historical perspective vis a vis traditional industries on the North Shore of Boston.

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Websites and Web Resources
Compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early Americal Life

Covering topics related to the history and culture of early America (through 1900), this online journal and meeting place for ideas and scholarship was created to bridge the gap between what academic historians write and what the public wants to read, Common-place brings together historians and history buffs, high school teachers and archivists, collectors and college students, to explore and exchange ideas about American history." Its tone is a bit less scholarly than a traditional journal, but the content no less stimulating or professional (Note that the Editorial Board is made up of some of the most renowned historians of Early America). Includes feature articles, reviews, curriculum ideas, explorations of objects and artifacts, and a discussion board serving a wide range of interests and needs among Early Americanists in K-12 schools, museums, archives and universities. Focus is on the “common-place” or “ordinary” in early America, so not much about great men and Presidents, but rather about ordinary men and women and their world. No digital archives here, but simply one of the best places to go for up-to-date and engaging writing and conversation about pre-1900 America. Great for teachers: In each edition, the “Common School” section of site offers an example and detailed discussion of a classroom teaching experience using primary source material. 

"Early American Trade with China" - Lesson Plan
University of Illinois - Chicago

Four lessons for U.S. History courses on the China trade. Includes activities and teacher and student resources. Ties to history/social studies; math; L/A.

Essex National Heritage Commission

The ENHC's mission is to foster partnerships and educational opportunities that enhance, preserve and promote the heritage of Essex County. The website offers educators a host of information about activities and educational resources (including educational programs) at the numerous historic and cultural sites throughout the county which preserve and interpret Essex County’s heritage from pre-contact to the 20th century. The “Educator’s Resource Guide” section of the site allows teachers to search for programs and sites directly applicable to the curriculum frameworks at his or her grade level. This section also includes a rich selected bibliography of secondary sources related to the history and culture of Essex County, keyed to five themes: Early Settlement, Maritime, Arts and Literature, Environment, and Industrial.

Historic Cost-of-Living Calculator

Calculate the purchasing power of money in any year from 1665 to 2003.

National Archives and Records Administration, Northeast Region

Information on programs for educators and historians on doing research in the federal records held by NARA. Also includes changing online exhibits highlighting particular historic records in their collections. In particular, see the on-line exhibition, "Records of a Salem Vessel in 1803: An Online Exhibit" Online at: This National Archives and Records Administration Northeast Region on-line exhibit features the Salem vessel, Mount Vernon, which sailed to Canton and Sumatra, among other destinations.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site

A first stop for information, history and programs related to Salem, New England and United States maritime history from the colonial era through the mid 19th century. Salem Maritime National Historic Site preserves and interprets that history with emphasis on the triangular trade, the era of privateering, and the growing international trade with the Far East in the years of the Early Republic. The activities of this last period helped secure American economic independence after the Revolutionary war. Note: no primary sources available on line.

The Art of Shopping in China
Peabody Essex Museum

Current exhibit (summer 2005) at the PEM on 19th century trade between Canton, China and the west. Includes paintings depicting the China trade and a variety of export art created in China for the western market. URL offers a link to brief overview of exhibit.

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Related Archives and Collections
Compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

National Archives and Records Administration, Northeast Region

Collections of the NARA branch in Waltham include ship manifests, accounts of cargo, duties paid, etc. It may require time to research, but the federal records are a valuable source of information on the economics of the China/East Indies trade and the growth of American wealth in the Early Republic.

Peabody Essex Museum

The PEM is one of the best sources of material anywhere on the China/ East Indies trade. The website has details on current exhibits, and items from the collection can be searched and viewed online through ARTScape ( The Phillips Library has a wealth of primary and secondary sources on the China trade, including captain’s logbooks, shipping records, letters, journals, etc.: The Gardner-Pingree house on PEM campus offers visitors a glimpse into the grand lifestyles of those who profited from the wealth of the China/East Indies trade.

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Compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

Reading Material for Students

Cobblestone (September 1988). “Salem and the East Indies” issue

This issue is devoted to short articles about the early American trade with China/East Indies. Reading level makes it accessible to upper elementary school students and above.

Lesson Plans – Print

“China Trade in Growing America: 1783-1843.” Jackdaw 624M. Amawalk, NY: Jackdaw Publications, 2002.

“Students discover how Post-Revolutionary America became a world trading force. Learn about the Empress of China (America’s first ship to hoist her flag in Chinese waters) how tea, porcelain and silk were produced and what life was like on sailing ships and in Canton.”[from Jackdaw cover] Includes historical documents for activities including maps, ship’s papers and Asian artifacts. Illustrates the methods and successes of American traders in the Far East, and the opening of the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii to trade. Geared to upper elementary and middle school students as well as lower level high school students.


“To the Farthest Port of the Rich East.” National Park Service. (20 minutes)

Engaging overview of Salem’s growth as a shipping center from the colonial era to the height of the China/East Indies trade in the early 19th century.

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