Gloucester Harbor is located on Cape Ann at Massachusetts Bay about 30 miles northeast of Boston. It has been a maritime and fishing center since the first colonists arrived there in 1623. It is home to the famous Fisherman’s Memorial, a bronze monument honoring those who have been lost at sea. Gloucester Harbor’s shipping and fishing history has inspired several literary works, including Kipling’s Captains Courageous, Connolly’s Gloucestermen, and Longfellow’s "The Wreck of the Hesperus." While fish-based industry is the economic foundation for the community, it has also been recognized as a popular summer resort area. The 2000 US Census reported a population of just over 30 thousand.
Samuel de Champlain entered Gloucester Harbor in 1606, naming it “Le Beauport.” Several years later in 1614, Captain John Smith came here. When he presented a map of the new colonies’ eastern coast to Prince Charles, he had named the land Cape Anne after his mother.
Gloucester Harbor is the first settlement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Settled in 1623 by men from Dorchester, England, it pre-dates Salem (1626) and Boston (1630). The Dorchester party landed at Half Moon Beach and settled there in what is known today as Stage Fort Park.
Life was hard there, and about 1626, the colonists abandoned the settlement and moved to today’s Salem, Massachusetts. They even took apart their meeting house and moved it to the new settlement. But the area was resettled over the years and formally incorporated in 1642.
Unlike many New England coastal towns, Gloucester Harbor development did not focus on the harbor. People first settled inland, almost two miles from the waterfront, where they placed the Town Green and the first school.
The colonists lived on subsistence farming and logging. But the soil and hills of Cape Ann did not permit large-scale farming, and small family farms and their livestock supported the local economy. Fishing was not yet important to the community. Limited to near-shore, subsistence fishing complemented families’ farm and livestock.
Residents of Gloucester Harbor cleared much of the forest on Cape Ann, using the land for farms and pastures and using the lumber for building from Massachusetts Bay to Boston. Forests did not reclaim the land until the 20th Century. For many years, the community was made up of small dwellings scattered without pattern throughout the hills and swamps.
By 1718, a second parish was formed when, although still a part of the town of Gloucester Harbor, settlers across the river built their own meeting house and cemetery. Then in 1728, a third parish was formed to the north. By 1754, there were five parishes in the settlement of Gloucester Harbor stretching east to what is now Rockport.
Early in its history, the town was a shipbuilding center. The first schooner is thought to have been built there in 1713. Being near Georges Bank and fishing banks off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, the town became an important fishing port. By the mid-1800s, Gloucester Harbor fishermen were well-known to the region.
In 1849, John Pew & Sons founded a seafood business that became Gorton’s of Gloucester. In the late 1800s, immigrants from Portugal and Italy began arriving to work in Gloucester’s fishing industry, changing the New England “Yankee” character of the town and its culture.
In the 350 years that Gloucester Harbor fishermen have sailed, the town has lost over 10,000 men in the Atlantic Ocean. A huge mural in City Hall lists the names of those lost in memory to their courage and sacrifice. Ocean fishing is still a dangerous business, as evidenced by the loss of the Andrea Gail during the famous 1991 “Perfect Storm.”