Newburyport has a long and rich history. Located on the southern bank of the Merrimack River where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Originally the area was inhabited by the Pawtucket Indians.
Newburyport was first settled in 1635 as part of "Newberry Plantation," now Newbury. On January 28, 1764, the General Court of Massachusetts passed "An act for erecting part of the town of Newbury into a new town by the name of Newburyport." The act begins:
Whereas the town of Newbury is very large, and the inhabitants of that part of it who dwell by the water-side there, as it is commonly called, are mostly merchants, traders and artificers, and the inhabitants of the other parts of the town are chiefly husbandmen; by means whereof many difficulties and disputes have arisen in managing their public affairs - Be it enacted ... That that part of the said town of Newbury ... be and hereby are constituted and made a separate and distinct town ....
The act was approved by governor Francis Bernard on February 4, 1764. The new town was the smallest in Massachusetts, covering an area of 647 acres, and had a population of 2800 living in 357 homes. There were three shipyards, no bridges, and several ferries, one of which at the foot of Fish Street, now State Street, carried the Portsmouth Flying Stage Coach, running between Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Boston, Massachusetts
In 1811, major fire leveled the downtown area. With restrictive federal trading policies and embargoes in place in due to the War of 1812 coupled with national financial panic of 1816, this resulted in the city’s economic downturn at that time. The 1811 fire led to improved fire safety and building codes, which facilitated the preservation of the City's downtown brick facades.
The town prospered and became a city in 1851. Being situated near the mouth of the Merrimack River, it was once a fishing, shipbuilding and shipping center, with an industry in silverware manufacture. The captains of old Newburyport (as elsewhere in Massachusetts) had participated vigorously in the triangular trade, importing West Indian molasses and exporting rum made from it. The distilleries were located around Market Square near the waterfront. Caldwell's Old Newburyport rum was manufactured locally until well into the 19th century.
Although the purchase of slaves in Massachusetts was illegal, ownership of slaves purchased elsewhere was not; consequently the fine homes on High Street were staffed by African and native American slaves until the newly independent General Court of Massachusetts abolished slavery altogether in the Revolutionary War.
Newburyport had never been comfortable with slavery. It had been a frequent topic of pulpit rhetoric. After the Revolutionary War abolitionism took a firm hold. Several citizens are recognized by the National Park Service for their contributions to the Underground Railroad. The abolitionist movement reached a peak with the activities of William Lloyd Garrison, who was born in Newburyport and raised in its anti-slavery climate. His statue stands in Brown square, which was the scene of abolitionist meetings.
Newburyport once had a fishing fleet that operated from Georges Bank to the mouth of the Merrimack River. It was a center for privateering during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Beginning about 1832 it added numerous ships to the whaling fleet. Later clipper ships were built there. Today, the city gives little hint of its former maritime importance. Notably missing are the docks, which are shown on earlier maps extending into the channel of the Merrimack River, and the shipyards, where the waterfront parking lot is currently located.