Essex National Heritage Area



The natural environment of Essex National Heritage Area helped shape the lives of all who settled here from the earliest times. The rocky soil, the rugged coastline with its natural harbors, and the abundance of fish and forests determined how people lived and worked for centuries. Before the Europeans settled in this New World, the native peoples migrated between the coast and inland forests, fishing and gathering in cycle with the changing seasons.

By contrast, the Puritans settled in tightly knit communities based on the strict practice of religion and tried to cultivate the rocky soil. Timber-framed houses took place on the land, while new shallops (small ship) collected the codfish that was a staple food. The self-reliance and spirit of these early New Englanders created many of the institutions that are still regard as distinctively American today.

By the early 18th century, this Area began to prosper, finding its greatest source of sustenance and wealth in the sea. The early coastal settlements, which had started as small fishing outposts, grew into prosperous seaports. Sailors, shipbuilders, blacksmiths, and carpenters flocked to the towns in the Area, which specialized in shipbuilding, coastal fishing and exporting fish overseas.

The Area's skilled maritime inhabitants became the leaders in the march towards the American Revolution, boldly defying British restrictions and volunteering their ships and crew to support the infant American Navy. After the war, when the British banned trade with the new American nation, the Area's merchants reacted by sending their ships out across the perilous seas to the Far East, discovering the secrets of the spice islands and opening up the great ports of the Orient. Exotic goods such as coffee, tea, pepper, and spices were imported in great abundance. With each voyage, America's influence around the globe grew - and, for a time, this Area's reputation as the center of international trade was unrivaled.

As international trade moved to deeper ports outside the Area, new sources of prosperity were sought. Wealth earned from the sea was soon invested in manufacturing and it transformed the cottage based shoe and textile industries into mighty manufacturing giants, harnessing the local rivers for power.

News of manufacturing jobs that offered a foothold into America spread across the world, and immigrants flooded into the Area. Soon, the boot and shoe industry grew until it employed more people than any other industry in Massachusetts. Lynn became the largest producer of women's shoes in America; Peabody emerged as the nation's leather processing center; Lawrence grew into the world's largest producer of wool; Massachusetts emerged as one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the world, second only to England. The great prosperity had its price. The deplorable conditions in the mills caused workers to protest. And it was in this Area that some of the first labor strikes took place.