Over the past three years, Salem has planted new signs at entrances along six major corridors into the city. They proclaim Salem’s little-known place in US military history: “Birthplace of the National Guard.”
And like soldiers, a couple of these signs are given a special assignment. Their mission includes putting certain neighbors — namely those with military birthplace claims of their own — in their place.
With a 5-foot span and bright white lettering, green highway-style signs at entrances from Beverly and Marblehead are impossible to miss. These were the first and largest of Salem’s “birthplace” signs to go up after the city won federal recognition in 2013 for drawing up the first colonial militia, or first muster, in 1637. They dwarf all the other “birthplace” signs, which are hard to see on telephone poles.
By placing signs prominently in these two locations, Salem playfully sends a message to its seaside neighbors, who have been arguing since at least the 19th century about which one is the real birthplace of the American Navy.
“Unlike Marblehead and Beverly, who contest the birthplace of the American Navy, it’s pretty definitive that Salem is the birthplace of the National Guard,” said City of Salem Veterans Agent Kim Emerling, who coordinates the signage project. Planting big signs to face those neighbors “is all in good fun to make sure they know there’s no doubt about what Salem has.”
On the North Shore, four communities claim to be a nexus where brave citizens first organized into fighting units that later evolved into branches of the US military. The fourth is Newburyport, whose visitors are met with a sign announcing they’ve arrived at the “Birthplace of the United States Coast Guard.”
Entry signs of these military-linked communities have evolved over time. How they now inform newcomers of those ties depends not only on links to historic events but also recent challenges and opportunities that shape the stories they tell. They’ve crafted welcome signs with political and economic ends in mind, while never missing a chance to bolster civic pride — or take local rivals down a notch.
Take Beverly. Through the mid- to late-20th century, Beverly had a large white sign telling every motorist crossing the Salem-Beverly Bridge that they’d landed in the “Birthplace of the American Navy.” Today no such sign exists. It’s been replaced by a wood-carved sign, obscured by cherry blossom grove, announcing more modestly in hard-to-read lettering: “Welcome to Beverly: Washington’s Naval Base 1775-1776.”
The reason for the shift in messaging is apparently wrapped up in the so-called “Great Debate,” which is still not settled. To wit: On March 25, the Essex National Heritage Area will pit historians from Beverly and Marblehead against each other in a debate at the National Park Service Visitor Center in Salem. The two sides will argue who deserves the Navy birthplace title.
At the center is the schooner Hannah, a Colonial-era fishing vessel commissioned as the first Revolutionary warship. She was outfitted with canons in Beverly Harbor and sailed from there into the war’s first naval battle off Beverly’s coast. But she was a Marblehead vessel, owned and crewed by Marblehead men. So which community gets to claim birthplace status?
“How do you want to define birthplace?” said Sue Goganian, director of Historic Beverly, a nonprofit that preserves local history. What’s important is the Hannah’s story, she said, not which community gets bragging rights to the amorphous “birthplace” label. Yet because entry signs in other communities still tout “birthplace” status, she explains how the reasoning goes in Beverly.
“We’re deciding that the Navy begins when the first battle is fought,” Goganian said. “The ship leaves from Beverly for the first battle. So if you want to define that as the birthplace of the Navy, then that’s what you do.”
Not all area historians agree.
“A Marblehead boat, owned by a Marbleheader, just happened to be docked in Beverly at the time that it was decided [she would] be used for this new Continental Navy,” said Lauren McCormack, executive director of the Marblehead Museum. “For that reason, Marblehead has a pretty good claim to being the birthplace of the Navy.”
Marblehead runs with that interpretation in a big way, literally. An 8-foot-wide, hand-painted sign tells all who enter from the direction of Salem and Beverly that they are now in the “Birthplace of the American Navy.” The claim is backed up by a 1926 plaque at Marblehead’s Abbot Hall marking a US Navy recognition of Marblehead as the birthplace. Its purchase at a Philadelphia auction several years ago is regarded by some as the blow that led to Beverly’s toned-down claim.
“That’s when Beverly sort of gave up and said, ‘Well, we’ll call ourselves Washington’s Naval base,’ ” said Beverly Director of Public Works Mike Collins. “There’s honor in that, too.”
For full disclosure, Collins noted that he’s a native of Marblehead, “which,” he said, “we all know is the birthplace of the American Navy.” And plenty of Beverly residents still make the birthplace claim even if their Public Works director and city entrance signs don’t. Apologists include historian K. David Goss, who will make the Beverly case at the upcoming Essex Heritage event.
At stake in claiming military roots on entry signs is a sense of local association with national bravery even when the nation was not yet born. The Navy birthplace controversy escalated in the 19th century, as seen by the penning of the town’s 1887 anthem, “Marblehead Forever.” Lyrics brazenly dub Marblehead “First in Revolution” and therefore “enrolled among the bravest writ high in history.”
“Marbleheaders tended to be very isolated in those times,” said Marblehead Town Historian Donald Doliber. “Populations were smaller. They married within the populations. Some would have spent more time on ships going to Europe than going to Boston. So there was a strong sense of being from the place you grew up in. . . . It’s locals taking national pride in saying: We were there. We sacrificed.”
Further north, Newburyport’s claim as birthplace of the Coast Guard has no local rivals disputing it. The first vessel in the US Revenue Cutter Service, which later became the US Coast Guard, was the Massachusetts, built in Newburyport in 1791. President Lyndon Johnson signed a USCG birthplace proclamation recognizing Newburyport in 1965. Now Mayor Donna Holaday bristles at the reference to the town’s birthplace status as a mere “claim.”
“I wish you would stop saying ‘claim,’ ” Holaday said to a reporter who had been using the term. “Nobody says ‘claim’ anymore. . . . There clearly is well-documented history of the Coast Guard’s relationship to the City of Newburyport,” she said, noting the 1965 federal proclamation.
But Newburyport hasn’t always trumpeted its link to military origins on the city’s entry signage. Its “birthplace” sign went up in the 2000s when the Coast Guard was marking bases for closure and Newburyport feared it might lose its small Coast Guard base. The sign was part of a local effort to preserve the base, in part by appealing to the city’s unique place in Coast Guard history. The sign still stands as a reminder, not only of distant history but also of recent political maneuvering to maintain the base, which impacts the local economy and civic pride alike.
“It gives those who are assigned to the [Newburyport] station a sense of pride too,” Holaday said. “They see the direct relationship and the honor that the city has for the Coast Guard, and how we really want to share that story.”
For Salem’s part, all the birthplace visibility is about more than neighborly provocation. It’s helping raise Salem’s stature in National Guard circles. For more than a year, Massachusetts National Guard brass has been seeking to establish in Salem a museum of the Massachusetts National Guard, Emerling said. The long-term vision is for that institution to give rise, in Salem, to the first national museum to tell the story of the Guard. Touting Salem’s birthplace status is a step toward that goal.
“Salem is not just home of the witch trials,” Emerling said. “We have a rich military history that begins with the Salem first muster. So every chance we have, we highlight these other aspects of our history.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.