Elias Hasket Derby~ America’s First Millionaire and His Family


Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby
Elias Hasket Derby

Today we are going to the sordid life of Elias Hasket Derby. His father arranged his marriage to his political rival George Crowninshield’s daughter and built them a small brick house. Now it was strange for a man as smart and wealthy as Richard Derby was to build this new couple such a small home and to build it out of brick. For everyone knew who lived in Salem you never build a brick house in this town. One man did and he died of a cold, so no one there after with any good sense would ever build a home out of such.

Soon this little brick house would spur a slur of brick homes built for the wealthy in town associated to the Derby’s through marriage or blood. Now the queer thing about the house, beyond it being made out of bricks, was it took a year to just get the roof on. A second thing was the pile of bricks that were purchased was enough to make 3 homes of the same size as this modest dwelling. Day after day the pile got smaller and the home didn’t get any bigger. So what was going on?

Small picture of the DErby Mansion on Essex Street which is connected to the tunnels.
Small Derby Brick Mansion

Behind this tiny brick house on the next block was a home of a totally different affair. The Derby’s cousin had a home there. This man of the Hodges family was the founder of the Salem East India Marine Society whose museum would morph into the Peabody Essex Museum in time. Se the museum he founded had a series of tunnels leading to every location it dwelt in to move artifacts to. Also the Hodges utilized these tunnels to move cargo from their wharves to their stores without paying taxes to  his majesty. Now Richard was bringing his son up in the business and felt it pertinent to have his house connected to the tunnels too.

Now the Derby’s were loyal British subjects at the onset of the Revolutionary War, but that would all change once they confiscated one of Elias’ ships. Afterward Elias had became the most successful privateer in the country which led him to become America’s first millionaire. He might not of been the first privateer in Salem, but he sold his ship Come Along Paddy to the first privateer which was renamed Revenge!  His brother John sailed for England and was the first to tell the crown the war had started.  I guess he failed to mention that his brother was the most successful privateer fleecing their merchant fleet… Plus it was Elias’ cannons they smuggled out of Salem to Lexington during Leslie’s Retreat.

Silver punch bowl made out of Blackbeard's skull
Blackbeard’s Skull

Now what is the difference between a Privateer and a Pirate? A Piece of paper. Even Blackbeard was a privateer who let his paperwork slip… By the way, that museum I was mentioning earlier; it has Blackbeard’s skull in their basement because of his poor clerical skills. So just in case the British would invade Salem, they had extended the tunnels throughout town to smuggle cargo through. Derby had a second mansion built next to his tiny brick home. Only half of it remains. The second half was moved off the commons. This home he never finished or moved into. He used it as his warehouse in which he smuggled all of the booty he confiscated from the British. In fact the half that was moved has a  plaque on it describing it as Derby’s warehouse. Now this was strange though, the fact they feared an invasion from the British. The colonial merchant knew the war was unfavorable in London. The longer the war took, the longer the British merchant was not going to get paid for the credit he extended to these merchants who turned into privateers.  Also they were still doing business with them.

Original picture depicting the size of the Hawkes House.
The original size of the Hawkes House set to the right. The portion which can be seen in photo has been removed.

Point in fact. The HMS Nautilus was chasing a privateer into the Salem-Beverly harbor when both ships ran aground on a sand bar. The privateer unloaded their cannons and floated them to the beach and began firing. Fort Lee was trained on the Nautilus as well as cannons on the beach in Beverly. Within 6 hours all of those cannons did not hit the Nautilus even once. There might of been naval battles off Marblehead, but never again off Salem. In fact these families aligned with the Derby’s would become Federalist. The Federalist were led by the Adams who had strong monarchical tendencies, they shared the same colors with the Tories (Black and White), and continued to do business with the British off the coast during the War of 1812.  They were so blatant about their beliefs many painted  their chimneys black and white right after the war. Only supporters of the crown painted their chimneys this way. Federal Street has the most in town painted in this fashion. We still can see politicians in our government today with ties to these New England families doing favors for British Petroleum; assassinating presidents in Iran and Chile, finishing the Great Game, and leading coups in Venezuela. JP Morgan being fined for causing the housing bubble and market crash of 2008 has ties to George Peabody who started the banking firm and his engineering with Norman Rothschild 4 financial collapses in the 1800’s. Eventually the Federalist after their collapse would rise again as the Whig Party which was a British designation…

Portrait of Elias Hasket Derby Junior the man who built tunnels in Salem.
Elias Hasket Derby Jr.

Now after the war, these privateers went into politics and extended the tunnels throughout town to avoid paying customs to the new country they helped create. The person who laid out the plans for the extension of these tunnels was Elias’s son. Elias Hasket Derby Junior had inherited his father’s 4th mansion. The infamous tunnel maker Charles Bulfinch had built it for the father who died within the first year living there. So after 2 years of living in retirement as a playboy, Elias Junior had to find gainful employment. So he outfitted the country’s first National Guard unit paid by 144 merchants in town to extend the tunnels in town under the disguise of improving the local common.



Tunnel Entrance in the Joshua Ward House
Tunnel Entrance in a Fireplace Arch in the Joshua Ward House.

Remember that first brick house? Now it was all the rage to build these brick mansion all over town. When you built two next to each other no one asked where all of the extra brick was going…   A lot easier than hiding the bricks when you are building a tiny single home. Over the next 50 years the five ponds in the common, the river leading to Collins Cove, Mill Pond, Ruck’s Pond, the pond by the train station, Collins Cove, Forrester Street, and portions of the South River would be used to hide all of the tunnel dirt that was being dug up. All of these brick homes not only hid the purchase of bricks needed to build the tunnels, but it also allowed for the tunnels to be connected to their fireplace arches in the basement. This provided an advancement to the previous simple square door frames that connected the homes to the tunnels which were always leaking.  Now these arches would extend 2 to 3 feet into the homes removing the fear of leaking. Also with the flue in the arch leading up the chimney it created a draw system throughout the tunnels which would draw fresh air into them. Now Elias Junior kept this up till 1814 when he decided to take his friend John Fairfield to New Londonbery, NH and go into the Sheep business.

He sold the mansion and its property to John Derby and Senator Benjamin Pickman. They tore it down and built several properties on Derby Square which they promptly connected to the tunnels. Also Elias Hasket Derby III would find the Colonial Railroad and work with John Kinsman, superintendent of the Eastern Railroad, and connect the old train tunnel on Washington Street to the Kinsman Building which had a secret underground train station in front of it.

Tunnel Leading from the Kinsman Building.


By the way, all of those brick homes around the commons are separated by the original length from that tiny brick house to the Hodges home on the corner of Essex and Orange Streets. You work with what you know. Elias Junior had the plans and purchase orders for the bricks needed to build that tunnel to his cousin’s house from his grandfather. If any of the Derby’s descendants are out their in politics to this day, you can be guaranteed they are sticking to what they know too. One of those things is the ability to utilize game theory. When Coke and Pepsi decided to only have taste challenges against each other these to giants shared the funding to out promote all of the competition which went by the way side. In Salem the Crowninshiled’s of the Democratic-republican party had worked with their enemies the Derby’s of the Federalist Party to effectively control both sides. Much like today graduates and friends of Yale sit on both sides of the aisle in Congress and control both of our current political parties. Things do not change much, now do they….

For more about the tunnels in Salem read Salem Secret Underground:The History of the Tunnels in the City. Also you can venture on the route of the tunnels and learn their history first hand by going on one of Salem’s best walking tours there is!  The Salem Tunnel Tour offers tours at various times throughout the week. Check them out today!



3 thoughts on “Elias Hasket Derby~ America’s First Millionaire and His Family

    1. The Derby’s were interesting up to Elias Hasket Derby III the railroad lawyer and railroad owner. He is responsible for the Hoosac Tunnel and had some intrigue with George Peabody the founder of JP Morgan Bank. The tunnel got the nickname from the Thames Tunnel, “The Great Bore”. They also said during construction they wished they could dig out only one side and shove all the lawyers in and seal it off. His children I believed moved to NYC and became optometrists. The family probably had many other wonderful people like yourself, it just seems the scurrilous side was left behind.

      1. Also the Derby’s are mentioned in the books A Walk Under Salem, Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City, and Sub Rosa. All available locally in Salem, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com. If you buy it directly from http://www.salemhousepress.com the author gets to keep more of his profit. Supporting local artists is always a good thing. It is like going to a local baseball game when actual locals played on the team…

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