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Elias Hasket Derby
Frothingham EliasHasketDerby.jpg
c. 1800–25 portrait by James Frothingham
Born August 16, 1739 (1739-08-16)
Died September 8, 1799 (1799-09-09)
Salem, Massachusetts, U.S.
Occupation Merchant
Known for Owner of the first New England vessel to trade with China
Net worth $800,000 at the time of his death (approximately 1/515th of U.S. GNP, equal to an estimated $11 million in 1996)
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Crowninshield

Elias Hasket Derby (August 16, 1739 — September 8, 1799) was among the wealthiest and most celebrated of post-Revolutionary merchants in Salem, Massachusetts, and owner of the Grand Turk, the first New England vessel to trade directly with China.


Early life

Born in Salem, he was the son of sea captain and merchant Richard Derby (1712–1783), but never went to sea. At a young age he entered the counting house of his father and was in charge of bookkeeping there from 1760 until the start of the Revolution. By 1760, Richard Derby had a fleet of at least thirteen vessels engaged in coastal, West Indian and Southern Atlantic trade. The Derbys, like many in Salem at the start of the Revolution, both supported and profited from the Revolution. From all accounts, Elias Hasket Derby was heavily involved in equipping privateers or had shares in as many of half the privateers (one hundred and fifty-eight in all) which hailed from Salem. The Derbys' Grand Turk, launched in May 1781, became Salem's largest and most successful privateer, capturing seventeen prizes between 1781 and 1782. Even before the close of the Revolution (Richard Derby died in 1783) Elias was trading on his own and in partnership with his brothers. By the time peace was declared, Derby's contemporaries claimed that in all of New England his fortune was second only to the Cabots of Beverly.


The first Grand Turk ship
The first Grand Turk ship

In probably one of his many interactions with the privateers both out of Salem directly, of which there were many during the Revolutionary war, on August 19, 1776 Elias Hasket Derby acted as a proponent merchant agent on behalf of Commander/Captain Joseph White and his marines of the sloop Revenge in a prize case regarding the capture of the brigantine Anna Maria, a British vessel laden with a variety of goods.

Immediately following the war, coastal and international trade were depressed. The privateers built during the Revolution were substantially larger and faster than earlier Salem ships and represented a substantial resource which must now be converted to peacetime use. Derby was instrumental in initiating new trade with Russia, the Baltic, Europe and in 1784 with the East Indies. Salem's pioneering of, and specialization in, the East Indian markets was responsible in large part for its remarkable, if temporary, prosperity.

In November 1784, Derby sent the Grand Turk under Capt. Jonathan Ingersoll to the Cape of Good Hope. The voyage was successful, and in December 1785 the Grand Turk under Ebenezer West, master, and William Vans, supercargo, once again cleared Salem bound for the Cape. West and Vans arrived at the Cape of Good Hope after a passage of 82 days. They found the markets there less favorable than they had anticipated. Vans and West continued on to Mauritius, at the time under French control and recently opened as a way station to United States vessels. The Grand Turk was apparently the first American vessel to call there.

The original purpose of the Grand Turk was privateering, which she did well, capturing 25 ships and yielding great wealth from the sales. She was of 300 tons burthen and was designed for speed, while still having a good cargo capacity. Thomas Barstow, at his Two Oaks yard in Hanover, Massachusetts, built Grand Turk for the firm controlled by Elias Hasket Derby, launched her in May 1781, and fitted her for 28 guns. Derby sent one of his captains, James Gibaut, to Hanover to supervise the construction. Grand Turk was largely paid for by barter, with goods (rum, butter) being exchanged for the labor and materials. The materials used were of the best quality, and Grand Turk was copper-bottomed.

West and Vans wrote Derby that they were again "Miserable disappointed in the demand for our Cargo." Subsequently, Randall Ouery and Sebier de la Chataignerais, French merchants who had purchased the Turk's cargo, offered a solution. They contracted with the Grand Turk to take a cargo to Canton and thence onto Boston. Vans and West wrote to Derby to inform him of the new plan, but he would have known of it only retrospectively. The deal, however, did not go off as planned. Sebier and Ouery were undercapitalized, and once they paid the many "charges & duties & presents" at Canton, they could not afford to continue the voyage to Boston. Thus, Vans and West purchased a cargo on Derby's behalf. The Grand Turk was one of five American ships and the first from Salem that reached Canton during the 1786 season. She arrived back in Salem harbor on 22 May 1787, the first New England ship to trade directly with China.

Derby-Beebe Summer House - Salem, Massachusetts
The Derby-Beebe Summer House in Salem is now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.

Trade with China

Initially, Derby, like most Americans, must have been optimistic about the trade with China. In 1789, there were at least sixteen American vessels at Canton. Derby owned four of these vessels — the Astrea, Atlantic, Light Horse and Three Sisters — although only the Astrea and the Three Sisters, instructed to work in tandem, going first to Batavia, and soliciting a freight there for Canton — initially planned to go to China. After the flurry of the 1789 season, no Salem ship called at Canton until 1797. A mere three years into the American China trade, the market was glutted with tea. In addition, the cost of doing business with the Chinese and the length of the voyage seriously undermined profits.

After the return of the Astrea and the Light Horse in 1790, Derby never sent another ship to Canton. Meanwhile, he was conducting business at the Isle of France, Batavia, Sumatra and India, as well as maintaining an extensive commerce with Europe, the West Indies and Atlantic islands. Between 1786 and 1800, as many as one tenth of all American vessels touching at Mauritius were owned by Elias Hasket Derby. Most of these vessels were en route to or from other ports. In 1787, Elias Hasket Derby sent his son Hasket (Elias Jr.) to manage the firm's eastern trade from a base there. In 1788, Hasket traveled to Bombay with two ships and purchased a cargo of textiles. Hasket continued to trade in India throughout the late 1780s, eventually returning home in 1791. The Derby's then entered the India textile trade in earnest, sending no fewer that five ships over the next four years.

Derby is often referred to as "King Derby" or as America's first millionaire. However, it is improbable that Elias Hasket Derby was known as King Derby during his lifetime. Nathaniel Hawthorne bestowed the title on him in The Scarlet Letter (p. 4). As for being America's first millionaire, Derby was but one of a number of highly successful Massachusetts merchants of the period.


Elias Hasket Derby Jr 2
Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby Jr.

The early merchant barons of Salem intermarried endlessly. George Crowninshield married Mary Derby, sister of Elias Hasket Derby, who married in 1761 Elizabeth Crowninshield, George Crownshield's sister. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, married (eloped with) Captain Nathaniel West of Salem; their marriage ended in an ugly, very public divorce in 1806 (West v. West). Elizabeth was awarded a great sum of alimony, and moved to Danvers, where she inherited a country seat from her father, which was known as Oak Hill, where currently the North Shore Mall is located. Her sister, Anstiss Derby married merchant Benjamin Pickman. The son of Benjamin Pickman and Anstiss Derby was Hasket Derby Pickman, Harvard Class of 1815, who died the same year he graduated from college.

Elias Hasket Derby's father was merchant Richard Derby (1712–1783). Richard's second wife was Sarah Langley Hersey (1714–1790). She was the widow of Dr. Ezekiel Hersey of Hingham, and Derby was her second husband. On his death, she used the large fortune Derby left her to endow Derby Academy in Hingham.

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