Who was Jeremiah Lee?

 

Col. 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.

Lee's Life

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.

Map of Marblehead

From the Journals of Ashley Bowen

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.

Jeremiah Lee

1st Lee house on Union St.

 

Lee Mansion, Washington St.

Lee's Homes

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 Lee’s death

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 museum.

Guided tours are available to the public from June through October.

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.

Lee Mansion, Marblehead, MA


For further information, please contact the Curator at 781-631-1768

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.

This page was made possible through the generosity of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati