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The Doliber Family

by Carin M. Gordon

NOTE: This is the first of a five-part series on the founding families of Marblehead. We will take you from the first generations who settled along the “Marble” rocks of Little Harbor to present generations still living in town.

Legend, and some say fact, has it that the first settler in Marblehead, other than the Naumkeag Indians, was a man named Doliber.

His first name is not known for sure, but the first Doliber did come over from Salem some time in 1629 or 1630. He settled on Peach’s Point around Little Harbor, near what is now Doliber’s Cove. He set up housekeeping in an English ale hogshead, a large wooden barrel, and set about earning a living as a fisherman.

From that humble start he helped “populate the town and produce taxpayers,” as a present day Doliber says. Indeed, what the first Doliber did was to begin a family whose descendants have served Marblehead in war and peace; and whose family’s history closely parallels the fortunes and failures of the town.

The Dolibers originally came from the county of Dorset in England as did many early Marbleheaders, and went by the spelling “Dalyber.” The name has been alternately spelled with two “l’s” instead of one, a “v” instead of a “b”, an “a” instead of an “i”, and any combination of these. It is known that a Samuel Dalyber sailed to the New World in the early 1600’s. In 1649, when Marblehead separated from Salem and became a town, the residents met and elected their first selectmen: John Bartoll, John Deverox (later Devereux), Francis Johnson, Moses Maverick, Nicholas Merritt, John Peach, and Samuel Doliber.

Ripley’s depiction of the first Doliber residence as they founded the Town.

Ripley's depiction of the first Doliber residence as they founded the Town.

Samuel and his son, Joseph, were one of 44 families in the town among whom common property was divided when Marblehead split from Salem. Samuel and Joseph got one “cowe” each. In 1651, Samuel was named constable but was discharged a year later for not attending to his duties. The next year he sought his New World fortune elsewhere and went to the fishing villages on Cape Ann.

Meanwhile, Joseph remained in Marblehead and was named constable in 1660. Two years later he was fined for killing a horse in town, although later acquitted. In 1669, he was chosen to be a selectman.

Joseph was also one of twelve town residents who signed an agreement to set up a common landing place for the town along the harbor. Samuel Roads, chronicler of the town’s history up to 1897, refers to these twelve public-minded citizens as those “who were probably all of the commoners who could write.”

By the 1700’s, the Dolibers owned land from Peach’s Point to Salem and signed on as fishermen aboard many ships. They were not prominent or well-to-do people. They served their country as well as their town, even before the rallying of troops for George Washington’s Army. In 1771, Crown loyalist Thomas Hutchinson was appointed Governor of Massachusetts, and Boston revolutionary Samuel Adams called for a “Committee of Correspondence” to proclaim the grievances of the colonists to the world. Marblehead formed a committee composed of William Doliber, then Deacon of the Second Congregational Church, Elbridge Gerry, Thomas Gerry, Jr., Captain John Glover, Captain John Nutt, Azor Orne, and Joshua Orne. (Deacon Doliber’s house still stands at 29 Beacon Street.)

This committee endorsed the actions of their Boston compatriots and recommended that Samuel Adams’ “State of Rights” be read annually at the opening of every town meeting until the colonists’ grievances were redressed. Although Britain had prohibited town meetings at this time, Marblehead continued to do so, despite the company of British Regulars stationed on the Neck. The committee also recommended a meeting of delegates from each town to consider the acts of Parliament.

Since the Revolution, Dolibers have served their nation when called to take up arms. Several of the families served in General John Glover’s Regiment that helped Washington cross the Delaware. In the War of 1812, Frances Doliber, Jr., was taken as prisoner. Two Dolibers were killed in the Civil War. And in Vietnam, Edgar “Pete” Doliber lost his life.

As in many old New England colonial towns, some families in Marblehead owned slaves. Most of these slaves were house servants, and often took their master’s surname. It is probable that some Dolibers owned slaves for there is record of a Jack Doliber marrying Dinah Russell with the notation, “both were Negroes.”

As was inevitable for a town almost surrounded by water, Marblehead’s history, as well as the Doliber’s, was tied closely to the sea. Dolibers served in all capacities aboard ships, from captain to cook. Deacon William Doliber was master of the schooner “Mercy” which sailed to Portugal and other ports in the early 1760’s. His son, Thomas, was a privateer in the War of 1812.

John Doliber, master of a fishing schooner owned by Joshua Orne, died of smallpox and was buried at sea in 1773. The dreaded disease caused the vessel and all of its contents to be thoroughly smoked and cleaned.

In the 1800’s, Dolibers crewed on the “Ino” under Captain Perkins Cressy, famous skipper of the “Flying Cloud,” and helped him set a record for the fastest Atlantic crossing.

Another Thomas Doliber lost his life in the gale of 1846 while fishing off the Grand Banks. He was one of 65 Marblehead men who lost their lives on September 19 of that year, when more than 11 ships from the town sank, leaving 43 widows and 155 fatherless children. Marblehead’s fishing fleet never fully recovered and the townsmen turned to other ways of earning a living, mainly through the growth of shoe factories.

One of the most colorful characters remembered was Captain Samuel Doliber, known to his grandchildren as “Capt’n Sam.”

“He was a gruff old boy, about five foot tall and about four foot around; when old Capt’n Sam came up the sidewalk, you got out of the way of him,” stated his grandson George Doliber. “He had an unlimited ticket: he could go anywhere on sailing ships.”

It was Capt’n Sam who inspired the old story about “Doliber go below.” It seems the Captain was caught in a bad gale one night and quickly shut himself inside his cabin, later to claim he heard a faint voice calling to him, “Doliber, go below.”

Grandson Ashton Doliber said that there was another story that Capt’n Sam never had more than one person on his crew who spoke the same language. That way the crew could not get together and mutiny. Capt’n Sam was the model for the round little ceramic ship captain produced by Sebastion Studios in Marblehead.

At the age of 12 he took his first fishing trip to the Grand Banks. At 14 he went to China; he was shipwrecked off the coast of California and, from a crew of 41, was one of only two saved. At 15, Capt’n Sam joined the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.

The Dolibers worked in various trades in town. Another Thomas owned the Marblehead Hotel which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1877. Many Dolibers worked in the town’s burgeoning shoe trade, starting first in their homes or in small shops known as shoe shacks, and eventually working in the huge factories. To make a living they were known at times to work ten hours a day at their benches.

Three Dolibers today: Donald, Jr., Donald, Wm. Felton

Three generations of Dolibers today: Donald, Jr., Donald, Wm. Felton

Gordon Doliber, whose father, Ben, was a policeman, has worked in a variety of interesting jobs in town. He worked on Pitman’s farm on Village Street with his brother; he owned Gordon’s lunch counter in the 1920’s on Pleasant Street (where Miguel’s Mexican Food now stands); he raised turkeys for State Representative Malcolm Bell on Beacon Street; and worked 30 years for the B & M Railroad.

Gordon remembers when his father owned a variety store before becoming a policeman. “On Fridays we’d get in the horse-and-wagon and sell fish through the town; on Saturdays we’d fill the wagon with fresh vegetables and sell them through the town.” Before that his father worked as a turn workman in the shoe factories, and, as Gordon explained, “the shoes are made inside out, and my father would turn them right-side out.”

Still another Thomas Doliber made a rags-to-riches story for himself, starting out in a shoe shop. He was the son of Sarah Homan and John Smethurst, and was named after Sarah’s great grandfather, Thomas Doliber. According to reports, Sarah was not pleased with her marriage, and her son’s name was changed to drop the Smethurst. In the Salem Evening News of August 21, 1931, the following account was given by a friend of Thomas’:

We were classmates in the first class of the new high school. Thomas was the only one in the class who made any amount of money and became a very successful and prosperous businessman. He came from a poor family and was a bright scholar. He went to work in John Roundy’s Apothecary Shop after he left school. Roundy told Tom to go to Boston because there’s no chance of advancement in Marblehead. After Tom worked there a year or two, Tom went to Boston. He became homesick and got a job in William Roger’s shoe shop on Watson Street.

Tom worked there three months until one day he threw down his lap stone and jumped up from his seat, saying, “I’m done. I am going back to Boston.” He went back to Boston and got a job in a drugstore.

Six years later he came back to Marblehead saying he was sick of Boston and wanted to take up carpentry. Friends convinced him to go back to Boston. He did and became head clerk of the drugstore. He thought Mellin’s Food would be good to stock in the store, so the owner of the drug store sent him to London to get the right to sell it here, which he did. It sold so well that he went back to London to get the rights to manufacture it here. He leased an old warehouse on the wharves in Boston. He worked hard there during the hot summer, remaining at work at times until 10 o’clock at night.

Gordon Doliber remembers the teenage gang fights between the “downtowners,” the “wharf rats,” and the “shipyarders.” He also remembers the town’s speakeasies

during the 20’s! “There were two groups in town. The Better Business Bureau allowed kitchen bar rooms and a little card playing. The Citizens Committee was a temperance group; they would raid Gaudy Kimball’s place and Biddy White’s over by the shipyards.” He recalls almost being arrested by his father when he raided a “smoker”-a strip tease joint- which Gordon ran at the Rechabite Building. “My father let me know I was old enough to know better.”

Not all Dolibers believe their ancestor was the first settler. Although no Doliber will admit it in public, many have a theory as to why the original Doliber left Salem. Explained one, who asked for anonymity, “he was the town drunk and wasn’t too welcome in Salem. He came over to Marblehead, owned a lot of land and then sold half of it for a year’s supply of rum.”

Recently, a present-day Doliber was taken to task at a party for calling a more senior citizen of the town by her first name. This Doliber defended himself by stating, “Well, I sure can call her by her first name. After all, I’m sure that somewhere way back one of her ancestors married one of mine which puts us on a family first name basis.”

The Dolibers intermarried with most of the Marblehead families- Peaches, Ornes, Martins, and Merrows. In the present century the Dolibers often married “foreigners” women from Danvers, Salem, and Peabody. From old portraits and photographs, as well as meetings with the present Dolibers, it is evident that most of the men are ruggedly handsome and remain that way well into the twilight of their lives. Thus, it may be no surprise to learn that in 1730 John Doliber, 73, married Ruth Merrow, 24.

There are many branches of the Doliber family today. Estimates range from 50 to 100 Dolibers living in Marblehead. According to Donald Doliber, a high school history teacher and a member of Marblehead’s 350th Anniversary Committee, most Dolibers live along the eastern seaboard, but some are scattered across the country. A Doliber served as a US Senator from Iowa and another as a Washington State Supreme Court Justice.

If there is one thought which almost all Dolibers share, it is their abiding love for and pride in Marblehead. As William Felton Doliber, who still lives in the house where he was born on Circle Street and has four sons in Marblehead, explained, “All my boys love to come back to their town.” Gordon believes, like so many in his family, that the “Dolibers always took an interest in their town. They never missed voting.” In fact, voting day in Marblehead was always quite a holiday.

Not all of the Dolibers feel so strongly about the town, however. According to one estimate, there are only half a dozen Dolibers under 30 still living in town. “Dolibers of the present day generation are marrying out of town and leaving the town to work,” says Donald Doliber. Edgar “Kip” Doliber, 30, a Marblehead police officer says he is “a little tired of the town,” but he is still “very proud of being a Doliber because of the history, the tradition.”

Gordon Doliber loves to show a 1951 newspaper clipping of a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” drawing with the caption, “A Fish Barrel for 2 years was the home of John Doliber First White Settler of Marblehead, Massachusetts (1627- 1629).” When asked if he believes the legend, Gordon states, “No question about that; there’s the proof of it in Ripley’s.”

At least two Dolibers say, with a twinkle in their eyes, that they would have felt a little more special about being descended from one of Marblehead’s first families “if the Dolibers had hung onto more land.”

Being descended from the first settlers would create a certain celebrity status in some communities, but not in Marblehead. In town, it matters more to be a Marbleheader, than which family one comes from. Ashton Doliber, whose father, a head linesman for the electric light department and a singer in local vaudeville, claims, “If I ever boasted about being descended from the first settler, some one would say that isn’t true. But I always felt a little special about being a Doliber, a little bit apart, but my feelings were all inside.”

Jane Doliber Davis, whose father worked for the light department, whose uncle Earl served on the board of health, whose grandfather was a policeman and whose great grandfather was a fisherman, lost at sea, was “never impressed with being a Doliber, but I had a certain pride. Grandmother Doliber told me ‘you’re a Doliber, but so what? You’re no better than any one else’.”

Past Commander of the V.F.W. in town, like his father before him, George Doliber, is very proud to be a member of this family, but he laments, “We are all losing our heritage, forgetting our holidays and traditions.”

Loving Marblehead for its small, closed community, he echoes the sentiments of Jane Doliber Davis, when she says, “You knew everybody in town, and everybody was born here and their people before them.” George adds: “When people borrowed something, they would always return more than you gave them.” This is what was more important to them than being from the first family in town. What mattered was that the people were good and honest, supportive and strong.

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(Carin G. Gordon grew up in Marblehead and now practices law in Salem.)

Sources: interviews; Marblehead Historical Society; “Marblehead in the Year 1700” by Sidney Perley, Essex Institute Historical Collections; “The History and Traditions of Marblehead” by Samuel Roads, Jr., 1897; Salem Evening News.

 

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