The town was founded in 1629 as a commercial fishing operation. In 1660, in an official report to the English king, Marblehead was acclaimed as "the greatest Towne for fishing in New England".
For most of the first decades, its earliest settlers were primarily from England’s West Country. They were a unique mixture of non-conformists whose hardiness and seafaring adventures brought prosperity to the town by the mid-1700s. A vigorous shore-based industry of rope-makers, sail-makers, ship’s block-makers, carpenters, and others supported the fishing and shipping fleets from the mid-1600s through the mid-1800s.
Marblehead mariners were crucial participants in America’s War for Independence, serving General George Washington and his army in several pivotal and famous operations on both land and sea. General John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment transported the Continental army across the Delaware River for the surprise attack on Trenton and rescued 9,000 men with horses and equipment from the British on Long Island.
Marblehead was first settled as a plantation of Salem in 1629 by John Peach, then set off and incorporated in 1649. Originally called Massebequash after the river which ran between it and Salem, the land was inhabited by the Naumkeag tribe of Indians under the sachem, Nanepashemet. But epidemics in 1615–1619 and 1633, believed to be smallpox, devastated the tribe. Heirs of Nanepashemet would sell their 3,700 acres (15 km2) on 16 September 1684, the deed preserved today at the town hall.
At times called Marvell Head, Marble Harbour (by Captain John Smith) and Foy (by immigrants from Fowey, Cornwall), the town would be named Marblehead by settlers who mistook its granite ledges for marble. It began as a fishing village with narrow, crooked streets, and grew inland from the harbor. The shoreline smelled of drying fish, typically cod, which were exported abroad and to Salem. The town peaked economically just prior to the Revolution, as locally financed privateering vessels pirated the seas for bounty from large European ships. Much early architecture survives from the era, including the Jeremiah Lee Mansion.
A large percentage of residents became involved early in the fight for American freedom, and the sailors of Marblehead are generally recognised by scholars as forerunners of the American Navy. The first vessel commissioned for the navy, the Hannah, was equipped with cannons, rope, provision (including the indigenous "Joe Frogger" molasses/sea water cookie)—and a crew from Marblehead. With their nautical backgrounds, soldiers from Marblehead, under General John Glover were instrumental in the escape of the Continental army after the Battle of Long Island, and Marblehead men ferried George Washington across the Delaware River for his attack on Trenton. Many who set out for war, however, did not return. Indeed, the community lost a substantial portion of its population and economy. After the conflict, fishing would remain important, with 98 vessels (95 of which exceeded 50 tons) putting to sea in 1837. But a gale or hurricane at the Grand Banks of Newfoundland on September 19, 1846 sank 11 vessels and damaged others. With 65 men and boys lost in the storm, the town's fishing industry began a decline.
- "Reckless, hardbitten fishermen from Cornwall and the Channel Islands settled Marblehead in 1629 as a plantation of Salem. Their rude huts clung to the rocks like seabirds' nests.
- "WPA Guide to Massachusetts, 1937
Marblehead prospered as an important fishing port with an abundance of fish just off its coast. Hearing about the availability of this rich commodity, vessels carrying fishermen and others from Cornwall in Great Britain and the Channel Islands arrived and their passengers settled in Marblehead. So abundant were the fish that the King’s Royal Agent, after visiting Marblehead in 1660, returned to England and declared that Marblehead was “the Greatest Towne for Fishing in New England”.
It was in 1749, when Marblehead was celebrating the centenary of its incorporation, that the Le Gros Bisson brothers who were to found the The Besom families arrived from Jersey.
Marblehead’s fisheries continued to grow. By 1837 the local fleet consisted of 98 vessels, 95 of which were over 50 tons. Then the beginning of the end for the fishing industry blew across Marblehead. On 19 September 1846, while the Marblehead fleet prepared to haul its catch of cod from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, a massive storm with hurricane-force gales caught the fleet by surprise. The crippled ships limped back to Marblehead, missing at least eleven vessels.
Sixty-five men and boys had been lost and the decline of the fishing industry in Marblehead had begun. Today, there are still many residents who make their living as fishermen and lobstermen, but the town will never again see the prosperous fishing industry that at one time had made Marblehead famous world-wide.
However, Marblehead’s deep-rooted affection for the ocean would not end; it would simply turn the attention away from fishing and towards sailing craft for pleasure and competition.
Marblehead still has a Jersey Street and a Guernsey Street, which intersect, and are known locally as 'cow corner', There is also a Jersey Hill Guest House in operation in the town.