Elias Hasket Derby: The Privateer Who Pioneered the Russia Trade

Elias Hasket Derby (1739–1799) painted by James Frothingham. (Peabody Essex Museum)

At the height of his wealth and power in the 1780s, Elias Hasket Derby may have been seen around Salem, Massachusetts or nearby Boston dressed in nothing less than absolute finery and opulence; sometimes donning a Sir Roger de Coverley coat, sometimes leaning on a gold-headed cane[1].

Indeed, Derby was among the wealthiest men of his time and is sometimes said to be the first American millionaire[2]. He accumulated his wealth by assisting his father in the family merchant shipping business, eventually inheriting it and turning it into a major global player. Derby’s vessels achieved a number of seafaring milestones, becoming among the first few American ships to trade with such foreign ports as St. Petersburg, Russia. Not surprisingly, a posthumous portrait of Derby shows him charting courses on a map while sitting in an office, outside the window of which two ships float, perhaps weighing anchor to sail for the West Indies or the Cape of Good Hope or India or China, perhaps returning from such a voyage[3].

Derby operated a small fleet at the onset of the Revolution and attempted to trade with Jamaica, Haiti, and Dominica, with whom he conducted business prior to 1776. He was not insensible of the dangers, though. The British occupied Boston with a stranglehold on the harbor. In February 1776, he notified one of his ship’s commanders to wait for further instruction to sail north given the dangers presented by the British occupation, telling Nathaniel Silsbee “I have Rote you a long letter & hope you will fully know my Mind by it wich is for you to keep most of the Interest in Your hands till You think the Danger not so much as at this time.”[4]

Indeed, British naval superiority threatened his business, intercepting his ships and impounding their cargoes of rum and sugar[5] to the point that “his trade was ruined, and his property seriously impaired.”[6] To combat the British and improve his mercantile affairs, Derby “united with his townsmen, and took a prominent part in the equipment of at least 158 armed vessels, fitted out from Salem during the Revolution, mounting more than 2,000 cannon, and manned by the gallant seamen of Salem and the contiguous ports of Beverly and Marblehead.”[7]

On June 13, 1776, Derby’s schooner Sturdy Beggar, burthen ninety tons, was outfitted with six guns that fired three-pound balls, twenty-four men and four months of provisions, “for the purpose of making reprisals on the Enemies of the United Colonies of North America.”[8] Armed privateers like this one proved successful in not only safeguarding Derby’s ships but also in helping him turn a modest profit; his sloop Revenge, armed with ten guns, took an enemy ship with 733 hogsheads of sugar and other assorted cargo.[9] When the government provided letters of marque, privateers could legally capture enemy ships and retain any goods. Under this legal protection the Revenge struck again, commandeering an enemy ship near Jamaica, taking 334 hogsheads of sugar, 143 puncheons of rum, 40 pipes of Madeira wine, various West Indian goods, in addition to 27 cannon of four to nine pounds.[10]

By 1778, Derby was in control of ships larger and more powerful than the likes of Sturdy Beggar. One such brig, called Franklin, burthen 200 tons, carried eighteen 6-pound cannon and was manned by a crew of over 100 who required 120 barrels of beef and pork, and 3,000 pounds of bread.[11]

Derby’s dabbling in privateering was more lucrative in the long run than in the short. Victory was secured for the American cause in 1783. News of peace was brought from France aboard Astrea, a ship belonging to none other than Elias Hasket Derby.[12]

The war had forced changes to Derby’s business model that now needed to be adapted once again for peacetime operations. He owned four ships and three brigs, all seven of which were augmented for the wartime necessities of size and speed. “His ships had outgrown the humble trade he pursued before the war. They were no longer adapted to a small business, or the slow carriage of lumber, live-stock, and fish to the West Indies.”[13] The war had required larger vessels which obsoleted the smaller ones Derby had been accustomed to using for commercial purposes. Larger ships meant larger cargo holds to fill, a higher volume of goods to sell, and a heftier cargo accumulation for the return trip. The West Indies were ill-suited for the sizable demands of ships like Astrea¸ or Derby’s even larger Grand Turk, a 300-ton vessel. Expenses rose. Profits were hardly guaranteed.

Less than a year after a peace treaty between Great Britain and American was signed, Derby established trade relations between the United States and Russia, specifically in the port city of St. Petersburg. Sailing for Russia was an experiment for Derby and a pecuniary risk. He tended to buy his cargo in full, placing a greater financial burden and risk on him with each voyage. “Derby’s barque Light Horse opened New England trade with St. Petersburg, leaving port June 15, 1784.”[14]

Sailors brought back commodities such as iron, hemp, and a fine linen canvas called duck.[15] The prominent merchant and Boston Brahmin, George Cabot, wrote “the hemp, iron, and duck brought from Russia have been to our fisheries and navigation like seed to a crop.”[16] Duck was used to make sails. Nails were used to peg and reinforce wood. In return, American vessels carried abroad such products as tar, turpentine, and rice from the southern states; tea, spices and pepper from those ships which reached far East ports like Canton in China; and rum and other assorted provisions from New England.[17]

And Russian ships began sailing across the sea to unload their stores in Boston. “The ship Thomas and Nancy arrived at Boston from St. Petersburg Aug. 31, 1786; and the ship Garrick Nov. 15, 1787.”[18] The importation of Russian iron was a boon for manufacturing nails domestically which in turn stoked the carpentry industry. Houses and furniture made of abundantly supplied wood were fastened and secured easily with iron nails and the widespread want for nails, not just by the wealthy but commoners as well, catalyzed further innovation. “Jacob Perkins, a wonderful inventor of Newburyport, started a machine for cutting and heading [nails], in Amesbury, about 1790. In the following decade, 23 patents were granted in the United States for improving this excellent device for elevating the condition of mankind.”[19] The same year Perkins was reinventing nail production, twenty-two American ships dropped anchor in the port of St. Petersburg; seven were from Boston, three from Salem, and one each from Beverly and Gloucester.[20].

The Derby House, Salem, Massachusetts, National Historic Site. (Daderot)

Elias Hasket Derby died in 1799 as a man of considerable wealth. His true legacy, though, was establishing formidable trade with Russia via St. Petersburg in addition to his trade in the East Indies and China. From 1790 until his death, “Derby dominated American trade in the Indian Ocean from his Isle of France depot. One-fifth of all American ships to visit the Isle of France in the decade from 1789 to 1799 were Derby’s; almost one-third of all Salem ships to round the Cape of Good Hope were his … Some of his methods changed but never his fortunes, which only increased.”[21]

By the early 1800s, the trade between New England and St. Petersburg “assumed large proportions. Captain Swain, who arrived from St. Petersburg at Boston in the brig Betsey, in the autumn of 1803, gave a list of ninety American vessels which had arrived at that port between February 28 and July 24, and of these fifty-four belonged to Massachusetts.”[22] Of the fifty-four ships from Massachusetts, twenty-one were from Salem, fourteen from Boston, eight from Newburyport, five from Marblehead, four from Gloucester, and one from New Bedford.[23] In Marblehead, annual customs duties, fueled in large part by the Russia trade as well as with ports throughout the Baltic, rose from $22,300 in 1801 to $156,000 in 1807.[24]

But it wasn’t long before some American merchants started becoming disenchanted with the trade. In an 1806 letter to the former secretary of state and then-sitting senator, Timothy Pickering, Cabot wrote that he found himself at a disadvantage when it came to Russian relations. He was buying from them more than he was selling. His vessels were selling in Spain, but at a loss. And they would arrive in Russia carrying little cargo, the empty space of which he had to pay for. He couldn’t, though, help but acknowledge usefulness of Russian imports:

In Russia, we sell little or nothing, and buy to a great amount. We go there dead freighted, and pay all in case or rather in bills on London, better to us than money, having cost us a considerable premium in Spain or elsewhere; yet who, among those that think no trade is important to the buyer as to the seller, will dare to deny that the trade with Russia since 1783 has been for its amount the most useful trade to the country?[25]

Despite the trade being one-sided, however, with American merchants carrying more of the burden, Russian ships were also sailing into American ports though the return voyages were sometimes marred with misfortune. It was decided in 1805 to dispatch three ships to America; two sailed in 1806, one from St. Petersburg and the other from Archangel.“One returned to Kronstadt ‘with rich freight.’ The other, coming from Boston, was lost near the Danish coast, and only part of its cargo of 3,600 bottles of liquor was saved and reached Reval … The third ship was sent in 1809, but never reached the United States, having presumably floundered, at a loss to [merchant, K.A.] Anfilatov, estimated at 450,000 rubles.”[26]

Cabot wrote his letter as the Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe. Britain and France were belligerent nations and the ocean was a theater of war in which American merchant ships were caught. The British were engaging American ships suspected of carrying British military deserters and impressing those men into British service, even Americans if they were unable to prove then and there that they weren’t British. This was seen by the United States as the British forcing foreigners into their service.

As president, Thomas Jefferson relayed the actions of the British to Congress:

On the impressment of our seamen, our remonstrances have never been intermitted. A hope existed at one moment of an arrangement which might have been submitted to, but it soon passed away, and the practice, though relaxed at times in the distant seas, has been constantly pursued in those in our neighborhood. The grounds on which the reclamations on this subject have been urged, will appear in an extract from instructions to our minister at London now communicated.[27]

The American response would culminate with the Embargo Act of 1807—an attempt to remain neutral between the two European powers, uphold the safety of U. S. sailors, and promote domestic commerce and industry. The embargo lasted for little over a year but its effect was felt in every corner of the nation. In 1807, Massachusetts exported $20,112,125 worth of goods; the entire United States, $180,343,150. In 1808, at the height of the embargo, those sums plummeted to $4,128,333 and $22,430,960—a decline of approximately seventy percent and eighty percent, respectively.[28]

Once the embargo was lifted and foreign trade rekindled, “American trade in the Baltic surged, bringing in huge profits to American merchants. One vessel, the Catherine of Boston, cleared $115,000 on one voyage alone in 1809.”[29] But the surge was fleeting. The War of 1812, followed by westward expansion, the adoption of the railroad as a primary mode of domestic transportation, and the development of native manufactories in the Baltic region all had a hand in the decline of the Russia trade. Like a high-wattage light bulb, it was bright and vibrant and quickly burned out.

The importance of the Russia trade, short-lived though it was, should not be underestimated. It generated large sums of money and influence for men and cities. It survived war and hardships, opening up the fledgling United States to new and untapped foreign markets, and provided the new nation a foothold in the international arena.


[1] James R. Fichter, So Great a Proffit (Harvard University Press, 2010), 133.

[2] Anthony Dane Morrison & Nancy Schultz, Salem: Place, Myth, and Memory (Northeastern University Press, 2004), 189.

[3] Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby by James Frothingham, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. c. 1800–1825.

[4] Elias Hasket Derby to Nathaniel Silsbee, February 23, 1776, in William Bell Clark, et, al, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), 4: 44–46 (Naval Documents).

[5] Freeman Hunt, Lives of American Merchants (Derby & Jackson, 1858), 2: 30.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 2: 33.

[8] Journal of the Massachusetts Council, June 13, 1776, Naval Documents, 5: 506.

[9] Hunt, Lives of American Merchants, 2: 34.

[10] Richard Cranch to John Adams, July 22, 1776, Naval Documents, 5: 1177-1178.

[11] Petition of Elias Hasket Derby, Fancis Cabot, and Job Prince, Jr., to Massachusetts Council, April 18, 1778, Naval Documents, 12: 148-149.

[12] Richard H. McKey, Jr., “Elias Hasket Derby and the Founding of the Eastern Trade (Part I),” Essex Institute Historical Collections v. xcvii (Newcomb & Gauss, Co., 1962), 1.

[13] Hunt, Lives of American Merchants, 2: 52.

[14] Bulletin of the Essex Institute v. xv (The Salem Press, 1881), 44.

[15] William Babcock Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England, 1620–1789 (Houghton Mifflin, 1890), 825.

[16] Justin Winsor, The Memorial History of Boston: Including Suffolk County, Massachusetts, 1630–1880 (James R. Osgood and Company, 1881), 4: 223.

[17] James Duncan Phillips, “Salem Opens American Trade with Russia,” The New England Quarterly v. 14 no. 4 (1941), 689.

[18] Winsor, The Memorial History of Boston, 4: 223.

[19] Weeden, Economic and Social History of New England, 856.

[20] Walther Kirchner, Studies in Russian-American Commerce: 1820–1860 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975), 14.

[21] McKey, “Elias Hasket Derby and the Founding of the Eastern Trade (Part II),” 83.

[22] Hamilton Andrews Hill, The Trade and Commerce of Boston: 1630–1890 (Boston: Damrell & Upham, 1895), 127.

[23] Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts: 1783–1860 (Houghton Mifflin, 1921), 179.

[24] Ibid., 140.

[25] George Cabot to Timothy Pickering, March 29, 1806, in Henry Cabot Lodge, The Life and Letters of George Cabot (Little Brown and Company, 1877), 358.

[26] Kirchner, Studies in Russian-American Commerce, 15.

[27] Thomas Jefferson, January 17, 1806, in Journal of the Senate of the United States of America: 1789–1873, 23.

[28] J. Van Fenstermaker & John E. Filer, “The U.S. Embargo Act of 1807: It’s Impact on New England Money, Banking, and Economic Activity,” Economic Inquiry v.28 no. 1 (1990), 165.

[29] David W. McFadden, “John Quincy Adams, American Commercial Diplomacy, and Russia: 1809–1825,” The New England Quarterly v. 66 no. 4 (1993), 618.

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