Marblehead Harbor is located in Essex County at the northeastern end of Massachusetts Bay. Marblehead Harbor is about 18 nautical miles (22.5 kilometers or 14 miles) east-northeast of Boston. Marblehead Harbor is also about 11 nautical miles (20 kilometers or 12 miles) southwest of Gloucester Harbor. In 2010, the US Census reported that almost 20 thousand people lived in Marblehead Harbor.
Called the birthplace of the United States Navy, Marblehead Harbor is a narrow deep harbor that is sheltered by a 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) long promontory of rocks that look like marble. As a port, it played an important role in US history from time of the American Revolution until the War of 1812. Modern Marblehead Harbor is largely a residential community with some light manufacturing, commercial lobster fishing, and facilities for yachters.
The first Europeans who arrived in the area that would become Marblehead Harbor found that it was already populated by the indigenous Naumkeag people. The Naumkeag were part of the Massachuset Confederacy of Tribes, but their people remained independent. The greatest population of the Naumkeag lived in the future Essex County.
Before Europeans arrived in the early 1600s, the Naumkeag had already had significant losses of population during a war with the Tarrantine people. Then a 1617 plague took many Naumkeag lives. In 1633, an epidemic nearly caused the tribe to disappear completely.
When it was first settled by John Peach Sr. in 1629, Marblehead Harbor was a fishing settlement (or plantation) under colonial Salem. In 1684, the surviving Naumkeag tribe sold 3.7 thousand acres of land to the new settlers. The resulting deed is still on display in Salem.
Settlers confused the granite ledges in the area as marble, giving Marblehead Harbor its name. The narrow crooked streets of the new fishing village grew inland from the harbor. Fishers dried fish, primarily cod, at the shoreline and then exported their catch to Salem and abroad. Shortly before the American Revolution, Marblehead Harbor reached an economic peak. It was an era of privateering, the vessels having been financed by local Marblehead Harbor merchants. Much of the architecture from that period survives.
Many Marblehead Harbor residents joined in the American Revolution. Scholars believe the sailors from Marblehead Harbor were forerunners of the United States Navy. The first ship commissioned by the Navy was the Hannah, built in Marblehead Harbor. It carried a crew of Marblehead sailors.
Men from Marblehead Harbor ferried George Washington as he crossed the Delaware River to attack Trenton. Soldiers from Marblehead Harbor, commanded by General John Glover, helped the Continental army escape by rescuing nine thousand men and horses after the Battle of Long Island. Marblehead Harbor lost much of its population, and its economy suffered as a result of the Revolution. Despite this, it was still the tenth most populated town in the United States' first census in 1790.
After American independence had been won, Marblehead Harbor's fishing economy returned. In the 18th Century, ships moved between Marblehead Harbor and Europe, the West Indies, and other English colonies. The area around Marblehead Harbor was rich in timber and fish exports, and imports of manufactured goods, salt, hemp, sugar, rum, and molasses returned to the port.
In 1837, 98 fishing vessels set out to sea. In 1846, a storm took 1 ships and 65 men and boys on the Grand Banks of New Foundland. With this loss of its fishing fleet, the Marblehead Harbor fishing industry began to wane.
In the late 1800s, shoe-making factories brought a short economic boom to Marblehead Harbor. The great natural harbor also appealed to yachters and yacht clubs. Marblehead Harbor was home to the Boston Yacht Club and at least four other clubs as well as the US' oldest junior yacht club, the Pleon Yacht Club.
Marblehead Harbor could be called the "Birthplace of Marine Aviation." The first biplane, The Flying Fish, was built by W. Starling Burgess in his boatyard in Marblehead Harbor. He developed his dream of a flying boat, testing the first model in 1911. The US Navy and the Canadian Aviation Corps ordered more flying boats. In 1917, the Navy Department brought Burgess to Washington to oversee the construction of the airplanes.
Marblehead Harbor experienced population growth from the end of World War II through the 1970s when it ran out of room for developments. Marblehead Harbor became a bedroom community for people working in Salem, Lynn, and Boston.
Marblehead Harbor has attracted summer tourists and yachters since the late 19th Century. Summer homes appeared from the mid-1800s. Resort hotels and restaurants arose to support the seasonal population peaks of wealthy summer residents and visitors. Called the "Yachting capital of America," Marblehead Harbor continues to be a vital summer resort and vacation center in the 21st Century.