History of Marion, Massachusetts
Marion, Early Settlement
What is now known as Marion, was once known as Sippican, named for the Indian tribe that lived here. Thanks to the late Massachusetts state archaeologist Dr. Maurice Robbins, we can trace the settlement of the Marion area back several thousand years to the days when the Indians came here every summer. Indeed, archaeologists have concluded that Indian settlements in our area date as far back as 3000 B.C.
Marion area Indians were members of the Wampanoag tribe who, when the Pilgrims came, lived in a number of villages in Southeastern Massachusetts under the leadership of the great Indian chief Massasoit.
Around 1678, some 29 families were sent to settle the area of what is now Marion, and was then Sippican. Thanks to the warm relations between Massasoit and the Plymouth leaders, relations between the Indians and the white settlers were friendly for many years.
As the years passed, that tiny settlement expanded. New settlers began moving up the area rivers and those settlements became what are today Marion, Mattapoisett and Rochester center. However, the three villages remained part of Rochester until Marion and Mattapoisett broke away in the 1800s.
When the towns of Southeastern Massachusetts were founded after the Pilgrims came in 1620, different grants were issued to the different towns. The grant issued to Rochester included what is today Marion, Mattapoisett and parts of Wareham. The name Rochester was chosen because many of the original settlers had come from Rochester, England.
On May 15, 1852, after several years of bickering between the villages of Sippican, Rochester, and Mattapoisett, Marion became a separate town. Instead of keeping the Indian name, Sippican, the people of Marion chose the name Marion in honor of General Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War hero from South Carolina.
The years from 1815 to 1890 were years of change for Marion. At the beginning of this period, Marion was a small but thriving seacoast town. Its chief product was seamen who sailed on whaleships, coastal schooners, and Liverpool packets.
While Mattapoisett was a major shipbuilding town, Marion tended more toward whaling and producing captains than making money from shipbuilding. At one point, 87 sea captains lived in Marion. Marion boys went to sea at the age of 16 and worked their way up through the ranks to become mates and captains.
Some captains became very wealthy, and some built magnificent homes in Marion. Among the well-known whaling families who were successful at sea were the Luce’s, the Briggs’, the Delanos, and the Gibbs. Captain Benjamin Briggs, of the brig Mary Celeste, stands out in maritime history as the central figure in what may be the greatest unsolved mystery of the sea, the disappearance of the entire crew of the Mary Celeste between the Azores and mainland Portugal in 1872.
Legacy of a Lady
The whaling industry went into decline beginning in 1859 thanks to the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. Shipbuilding in this area died off as well. Americans turned their backs on the sea to develop the West and build other, great industries.
During those years of decline in Marion after the Civil War, the town was being run by a small group of stubborn old sea captains who did not believe in education and change. It took the will and generosity of a formidable lady – Elizabeth Pitcher Taber – to revive the town of Marion.
Born in Marion, Elizabeth Taber attended the Sippican Seminary which was the equivalent to a modern high school and the only center of learning beyond grammar school in Marion in the 19th century. Elizabeth ultimately became a teacher and taught in Marion prior to marrying clockmaker Stephen Taber and settling in New Bedford.
Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth returned to Marion a wealthy widow with a mission to revive the town of Marion. She established the Elizabeth Taber library and the Natural History Museum; she built what is now known as the Music Hall; and she contributed a significant sum to build the Marion Town Hall.
Most of all, however, Elizabeth Taber sought to devote her life to education. In 1876, at the age of 85, she established Tabor Academy.
The Rise of Tourism
While Elizabeth Pitcher Taber had more of a hand in bringing Marion out of its post-Civil War decline than anyone else, the railroad also brought changes to Marion and indeed, the rest of the United States. After the Civil War, the trains to Marion began bringing more and more people from Boston and New York who wanted to spend a vacation at the seashore, away from the heat of the city summer.
Wealthy families from as far away as Chicago heard about Marion and arrived with steamer trunks, valises, hat boxes and carry-alls. They bought big and beautiful summer homes, many of which are still standing, and still lived in by those same families.
By the 1880s, Marion was becoming a nationally-known resort for the rich and famous and it remained such for many years. The man responsible for putting Marion on the map as a tourist destination was Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Century Magazine. Gilder purchased what is now called the Old Stone Studio for his wife and together they hosted musicians, writers, and leading stars of American Theater.
“The purpose of this Society shall be to create and foster an interest in the history of Marion…”
This opening clause in the “Statement of Purpose “ was filed by the founding members of the Sippican Historical Society at their first meeting, September 16th, 1963, at St. Gabriel’s Church in Marion, Massachusetts.
The Sippican Historical Society was founded by Olive Hiller Somers and several of her friends, including June Butler Converse, who bequeathed the building on the corner of Front and Main Streets that serves as our museum and headquarters.
At its inaugural meeting of approximately 35 Marion citizens, the organization was formed, and John H. Wisner was elected president. In its first year, Society dues were $2 for an annual membership!
“…to encourage historical research and writing…”
The Society actively supports the preservation of Marion’s history by publishing and republishing important works and communicating with its members and the community through its newsletter and lectures.
From founding member Olive Hiller Somers’ Three Centuries of Marion Houses, to past president SHS advisor Judith Rosbe’s, Images of America: Marion, the Society has not only supported historical research and writing but always shares these important and interesting efforts with the community for the benefit of all.
“to collect documents and relics and to provide the proper care for them…”
Over the years, there have been many displays and exhibits at the Society of documents, paintings, and other collections that have been loaned or given to the Society.
In a visit through this website or to the SHS headquarters, we strive to remain true to the spirit of purpose set forth by our founders and to act for the benefit and enjoyment of all who will follow in the future.