was Jeremiah Lee?
Col. Jeremiah Lee was one of the
most successful and affluent men in America before the Revolution.
A leading merchant in Marblehead, MA, he owned one of the largest
fleets of vessels in Britain’s North American colonies. A
1771 tax listing indicates that he was the wealthiest man in Massachusetts.
By 1765, Marblehead was the 10th largest town in the colonies.
It had grown into a flourishing commercial center with a population
of nearly 5,000. The economy of the town was based on the processing
and sale of dried salt fish from the North Atlantic. Lee’s
prosperity mirrored that of the town’s. The complex commercial
enterprise Lee built and commanded is little-known but fascinating.
It is a testament to early American commerce and business. Col.
Lee was a prominent community leader, a respected town official,
and served in the Provincial Congress.
As the American colonies moved toward revolution, Lee played a
pivotal role. He utilized his trade connections to smuggle gunpowder,
weapons, and supplies. His death at age 54 -- shortly after the
conflict began -- was a direct result of his involvement in clandestine
events in Lexington, in April, 1775.
Born in 1721 in Manchester, MA on Cape Ann, Jeremiah
Lee was the third surviving son of 14 children born to Samuel
Lee, a successful local merchant and justice of the peace. Around
1743, young Lee and his father came to Marblehead.
The seaport’s teeming wharves and burgeoning international
trade attracted these enterprising gentlemen. Jeremiah Lee was an
ambitious businessman, and achieved dramatic financial success.
In 1745, just a few years after his arrival, the promising young
man reinforced his social and professional standing by marrying
nineteen-year-old Martha Swett. The young woman was the daughter
of esteemed merchant Joseph Swett and sister-in-law of Robert ‘King’
Hooper, who dominated the fish trade for 30 years.
Lee, the Businessman
As America’s largest colonial ship owner,
Jeremiah Lee's inventory listed full ownership of 21 vessels --
mostly fishing schooners, 70-120 tons each. He also owned several
snows and brigs (300-500 tons). While the large commercial vessels
mainly sailed across the Atlantic to markets in Europe (primarily
Spain, the wine islands, Portugal for salt, and England for manufactured
goods), the schooners made seasonal trips to the prolific North
Atlantic fishing grounds or plied the waters of England’s
Atlantic trade routes – to coastal North American ports and
the Caribbean West Indies. While most investors owned shares in
ships, Lee appears to have owned his vessels outright.
Lee's Revolutionary Activities
Lee represented the patriotic cause to the colony’s royal
officials. At the same time, he was serving on revolutionary committees
responsible for amassing men, supplies, food, provisions, and
weapons for rebel militia companies in the Massachusetts colony.
He furthered the cause of independence in risky, undercover capacities
– including the clandestine procurement of weapons from France
and Spain. His covert activities, the secrecy of his meetings
with John Hancock and Sam Adams, and his early and tragic death
explain why Jeremiah Lee plunged into obscurity, and remained absent
from the history books both then and now.
The First Lee Mansion.
Soon after his marriage, young Lee and his father took title to
one of the town’s most fashionable houses. Situated on
today's Union St., it was close
to his wharves, as well as the home of his new brother-in-law ‘King’ Hooper.
Lee, his wife and 3-year-old son, moved into that dwelling in
1751. That same year, he became a militia Colonel. The Lees
lived in this home -- now famous as the legendary
(though inaccurately termed) "Lafayette
House" -- for 17 years, raising six children, while Lee
built his extraordinary shipping enterprise.
The Second LeeMansion.
In 1766, Col. Lee began construction on an impressive new 3-story
mansion on today's Washington St. When completed in 1768, it was
one of the largest and most opulently finished houses in America.
Today, it is considered to be among the most outstanding houses
from that time, and is nationally recognized as a superior example
of pre-Revolutionary Georgian architecture. The interior retains
elements of superlative late-colonial craftsmanship, including
intricate rococo carving, rich mahogany woodwork, and original
English wallpapers. These papers include the only 18th-century
English hand-painted mural paper still in place, and one of only
two surviving examples in the world. In addition, there are rare,
block-printed papers, featuring Chinese motifs.
Col. Lee and his family lived in this great mansion for only 7
years, until his death in 1775.
The Mansion after
Martha Lee survived her husband by 16 years, and died in Newbury,
MA in 1791, at age 62.
The Mansion remained in the family until 1785. By that time, the
great merchant’s empire was bankrupt. It passed on paper
to a variety of out-of-town mortgage holders. In 1804, the Mansion
was deeded to the newly established Marblehead Bank, which operated
on the premises until 1904. Because the bank made few changes to
the building, a remarkable number of the Mansion's elaborate
elements survive to the present day.
The Marblehead Historical Society purchased the Mansion in 1909
and has owned, maintained, and operated it as an historic house
Guided tours are available to the public from June through
Jeremiah Lee’s Mansion remains a superlative example of late-colonial
aspirations, taste, and craftsmanship. It stands as a symbol of
Marblehead’s illustrious history and Marbleheaders’
commitment to preserving their heritage.
For further information, please contact the Curator
Notes by Judy Anderson, former Lee Mansion Curator
The information in this summary is
derived from the unpublished research of Robert Booth; published
histories of Marblehead by Samuel Roads, Virginia Gamage & Priscilla
Lord; oral history by Bette Hunt; and primary source documents.
page was made possible through the generosity of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati