Beriah Brown Papers
Sheriff, Washington County, R.I.
Family papers, 1696-1874
Size: 3 linear feet
Catalog number: MSS 109
Processed by: Rick Stattler, October 1992
Slightly revised, January 1998
©Rhode Island Historical Society
Beriah Brown of North Kingstown (1714-1792) was sheriff of Washington County (originally Kings County) for most of 46 years. His grandfather, Beriah Brown (1648-1717), came from Rowley, Massachusetts to Kingstown toward the end of the seventeenth century, and was apparently not related to the illustrious Brown family of Providence. His son Alexander Brown (c1690-1758) also lived in Kingstown, and had seven children by his first wife Honor Huling, including the sheriff Beriah Brown.
Beriah Brown was first mentioned in public affairs in March of 1740/41, when he recovered three judgements from the last summer's court on behalf of plaintiffs. In 1745, he was chosen as town sergeant of North Kingstown, and the following year became county sheriff, a post he was to hold with scattered interruptions for the 46 years until his death.
The sheriff in early New England was, within his county, the foremost representative of the state, and was responsible for serving summonses, enforcing laws, arresting criminals and in general executing the orders of the court. Brown apparently did not work for a set salary; he collected sheriff's fees from the court, the plaintiffs and their lawyers, and was compensated by the state for any expenses he incurred. He was assisted in his work by a variety of deputies, appointed as he saw fit to act in his name. In practice, the main role of the sheriff was in the collection of debts brought before the court. Brown was charged with serving the writs, which instructed him to collect the stated sum or place the debtor under arrest. This often became intertwined with Brown's own personal finances, as he would frequently purchase debts from the creditors as an investment, or bring his own suits into court.
Apart from his duties as sheriff, Brown occasionally engaged in other business ventures. In 1748, he invested in a sloop, Elizabeth, which traded in the Caribbean for two years. In 1768, he became a leading investor in the Susquehanna Purchase, a controversial Connecticut-based settlement in the wilds of Pennsylvania, though his involvement seems limited to an organizational role from the safety of North Kingstown. During the Revolution, Brown supported the cause and mixed profit with patriotism, as he outfitted the privateer The General Mifflin to plunder the British fleet. In 1785, Brown's always complex network of debt and credit seems to have been shaken, as a warrant was placed for his own arrest, and his long-term business associate George W. Babcock was actually jailed. When Brown wrote his will in 1789, however, he still possessed extensive land holdings, as well as several hundred dollars, and innumerable notes payable.
Beriah Brown married twice. First, he wed Elizabeth Smith, who is scarcely mentioned in his papers, but who was the mother of his five children. In 1771, he then married Elizabeth Babcock (1725-1815). His oldest son, Beriah (1744-1819), usually called Beriah 2nd or Beriah Junior, followed to some extent in his father's footsteps, acting as a deputy and gaol-keeper from 1768 onward, receiving powers of attorney from his father in 1771, and generally assisting in public affairs, though he never held an official office. Beriah Senior's youngest son, Christopher (1751-1778), was less successful, running into extreme financial distress just before the Revolution, resulting in his imprisonment, and shortly thereafter his untimely death. Another son, Alexander (b.1748), apparently died young. Beriah Senior also had at least three daughters: Honor Gardner (b.ca.1740), Sarah Waite (b.1742), and Abigail Gardner (b.1746).
Boyd, Julian Parks. The Connecticut Company: Connecticut's Experiment in Expansion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University, for the Tercentenary Commission of the State of Connecticut, 1935)
Eakle, Arlene. "American Court Records" in The Source, ed. Eakle and Cerny (Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing Co., 1984), 173-174.
Harris, George J. A Visitation to the Cemeteries of Ancient Kingstown (manuscript), 25-27.
Smith, Joseph J. Civil and Military List of Rhode Island, 1647-1800 (Providence, 1900).
North Kingstown, R.I. (Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1979)
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Scope and content:
The large majority of this collection pertains to Beriah Brown's duties as sheriff from 1746-1792. Most numerous are official writs, generally for debts that the sheriff was ordered by the court to recover. These are filed separately at the beginning of each folder. Also voluminous are documents regarding sheriff's fees due to Brown, often presented in the form of running accounts stretching over several years. There are many receipts, running in a vague spectrum from official to personal in nature, as much of Brown's work was done on commission.
There are a wide variety of other documents, only a sampling of which can be described here. There are documents giving Brown or his son power of attorney to manage a person's affairs, generally for the collection of debt. There are deputations (indexed here), deputies being basically subcontractors doing work for the sheriff on commission. There is extensive legal correspondence, mostly notes inquiring about debts, or desperate pleas from Brown's hard-pressed debtors. The collection also contains occasional warrants for crimes other than debt, including trespass or assault, though Washington County was generally a tame jurisdiction. There are also many of Brown's small notebooks, which detail the progress of various cases, as well as his personal affairs.
Scattered through the collection are many personal documents from Brown and his family. These are generally filed with the other papers, as the line between Brown's public and private lives was so blurred. Especially noteworthy are Brown's will from 1789, his 1771 marriage receipt, and the will and estate of his immigrant grandfather from 1717. All letters of a personal or family nature are filed separately, in box 6, folder 13.
Many of Beriah Brown Junior's papers are also scattered through the collection, especially from 1768 onward. His papers include sales at auction, attorney powers, some gaol documents and personal papers. There are several documents related to the wife of Beriah Jr., Amy Sherman, and her father Abiel Sherman, which have generally been filed in box 6, folder 14.
The papers were apparently passed on, along with the original family homestead, to Beriah Jr.'s son Beriah Brown 3rd (1768-1854), who contributed a few of his own personal papers, and then on to his daughter Amy Ann, who in 1828 married Isaac Hall. As late as 1880, the seventeenth century land of the immigrant Beriah Brown was in the hands of the heirs of Isaac and Amy Hall. Their daughter Anna P. Hall seems to be the last member of the family to contribute to the collection, and she also added some ancient papers of the Hall family, which are filed in box 6, folder 14.
There are several documents of interest to the student of African-American and Native American history, all filed with the main body of papers. The most interesting is an extensive case from 1779, in which a John Rice of North Carolina bought four slaves in Narragansett, only to discover it was illegal to move them out of state, at which point Brown was charged with selling them on Rice's behalf. There is also a large scrap of paper filed under 1778, on which Brown drafted a letter to the new government regarding Sipio, his slave, who had enlisted in the army. Brown claimed to be "willing to serve his country" but "wants his boy back".
In 1785, Brown drafted an advertisement for his runaway slave Pomp. A scrap note from 1786 indicates that Pomp worked in Scituate that year; he was presumably captured. Other items include an undated suit regarding a slave purchased by one Joshua Holmes, who later proved to be free; a deed dated 3/19/1785 from Beriah Brown Jr. to Beriah Brown Sr. of "one certain Negro named Pero aged about thirty-eight years"; a slave named Jim auctioned off in the estate of Charles Slocum in 1777; a receipt for "a Negro man named Jack" purchased by the sheriff in 1774; a 1765 reference to a slave that Beriah Brown Jr. received; and a 1761 mention of a writ to arrest a "Negro man named Quacco"; a July 4 1771 warrant against “Seaser, a Negro”, suspected of assault; and a mention on March 11, 1771, of “Henry Harry, Indian”; a 1770 sentence of Hannah Sias, "Indian Woman", to be whipped for stealing; and an interesting 1780 case involves an "Indian woman" pauper named Abigail Westcott from Block Island. A careful review of the entire collection would undoubtedly yield more.
The following are the deputations issued by Brown, with years of filing.
Matthew Allen 1769
William Babcock 1785
Nathaniel Barber 1764
Thomas Brand 1784, 1787, 1789
James Brayman, Jr. 1787, 1788
Beriah Brown, Jr. 1769, 1773, 1792
Nathaniel Burdick 1757
Joseph Cross 1778, 1780, 1781
Phineas Edwards 1785, 1786, 1788, 1789, 1790
Ezekiel Gardner, Jr. 1778
Francis Gardner 1791, 1792
Parris Gardner 1782, 1783, 1784
Jonathan Hazard 1784, 1785, 1786, 1788, 1792
George Jones 1789, 1790
Thomas Kinyon 1746
John Lad 1753
Elias Lewis 1783
Joseph Maxson 1769
Robert Moore 1754, 1755, 1763
Peleg Peckham 1785
Peter Phillips 1767
Robert Potter, Jr. 1790
Robert G. Sand 1786, 1787, 1788. 1790-1792
John Sheldon 1746
Palmer Sheldon 1769
Samuel Stanton 1782, 1783, 1784, 1786, 1789
Joseph Thurston 1792
William Vincent 1762, 1764, 1772
Beriah Waite 1783
Samuel Wells 1790, 1791
Thomas Wells 1771, 1772, 1773, 1782, 1784
There are also several apprenticeship papers, as follows:
1741 Jonathan Bly to Beriah Brown
1745 Warrant for William Sweet, runaway apprentice
1762 Josias Ceaser to Beriah Brown
1774 Solomon Ceaser to Beriah Brown Jr.
There are several estate inventories in the collection, some taken by Brown or his deputies in an official capacity, and some from the family.
Year Folder Name
1696 Hall Abiel Carpenter of Pawtuxet
1712 1710-1719 Francis West, will and testament (son Peter deeded land to Alexander Brown).
1717 1710-1719 Beriah Brown (grandfather of the sheriff)
1739 1735-1739 --- Eldred
1746 Sherman Abiel Sherman (father of Beriah Jr's wife)
1758 A. Brown Alexander Brown (father of the sheriff)
1765 Hall Robert Hall
1772 1772 Several unnamed estates auctioned by Beriah Brown Jr.
1777 1777 George Sweet
1777 1777 Charles Slocum
1790 1790 Esek Thurber
Finally, these are a few interesting documents not mentioned elsewhere, all filed chronologically:
1751 Death warrant for execution of Thomas Carter, with receipt from hangman.
1751 A list of the sheriff's children in his own hand, on the reverse of a summons.
1759 Oath against bribery.
1770 An arrest warrant for nine men who forcefully freed prisoners from a South Kingstown jail.
1776 Release of Christopher Brown from jail; debt paid by his brother Beriah Jr.
1780 Tax bill from town of Exeter listing all rates paid
1785 Notice to town treasurers giving them 30 days to collect taxes or be jailed
1791 Death warrant for Thomas Mount and James Williams to be hung.
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The provenance of the bulk of these papers is unknown. In 1882-1884, "Selections from the Sheriff Brown Papers" were published in the Narragansett Historical Register, but these seem to have been culled from a different group of papers entirely; their present location is unknown except for three items donated in 1964. A letter by R.I.H.S. librarian Clarkson Collins in reference to that gift states that "we have had a large collection of Beriah Brown manuscripts for a long time and recently were given more." Several small additions to the main body of papers were added from a variety of sources, as follows:
#1875.13.1 A 1775 writ was donated by Horatio N. Knowles as part of a gift of "ten miscellaneous manuscripts".
#19220.127.116.11-4 Four Beriah Brown documents were donated by Frederick S. Peck as part of the massive Peck Collection: a 1757 bond, a 1771 letter from Mary Borden, an 1785 bond as sheriff, and a 1756 pay order from the Committee of War.
#1918.104.22.168- Mrs. Ralph M. Sommerville donated "Papers of the Brown and Hall families" along with several museum artifacts of Beriah Brown. The museum pieces, including Brown's watch, cane, cufflink and purse, can likely still be found in the R.I.H.S. Museum Department.
#1964.45.1-16 Albert S. Larrabee donated 16 items that he had found in an old desk. These included three of the items that had been published in 1882.
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The papers are generally filed chronologically, in groups through 1744, and then by single years through Beriah's death in 1792. There are many running accounts, or documents created over several years, and these are filed in five-year groups according to the bulk of their dates, a somewhat arbitrary but unavoidable arrangement. There are several folders reserved for special topics, but in general a chronological format has been maintained. There are several undated manuscripts, and the more interesting of these have been separated into box 6, folder 9. All severely damaged manuscripts and fragments are also in separate folders.
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Box 1 (1710-1759)
11. Records of the sloop Elizabeth, 1748-1750
19. Records of the Committee of War, 1755-1763
23. Estate of Alexander Brown, 1758 onward.
Box 2 (1760-1769)
11. Records of the Susquehanna Company, 1768-1769
Box 3 (1770-1774)
Box 4 (1775-1779)
2. Revolutionary War documents
8. Records of the privateer General Mifflin, 1779-1781
Box 5 (1780-1786)
Box 6 (1787-1874)
7. 1793-1800, mostly the estate of Beriah Brown.
8. 1800-1874, papers of Beriah Jr., Beriah 3rd, Isaac Hall, Amy Ann Hall, etc.
9. Undated materials of interest
10. Miscellaneous undated material (child's notebook, poetry clippings, receipts, etc.)
11. Severely damaged manuscripts, as follows:
Will of Alexander Brown, 1758
Financial records of Christopher Brown (son of Beriah), November of 1777
Public sale of land of George Hazard, 1772
Note paper, 1762
Receipt of money owed by Brown to the Colony, 1752
Note paper, 1773
12. Manuscript fragments
13. Letters of family or personal nature
14. Estate of Abiel Sherman 1746, and guardianship of Amy Sherman 1746-1765
15. Hall papers, 1696-1740
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African-Americans - Rhode Island - Washington County
Brown, Alexander (ca. 1690-1758)
Brown, Beriah (1714-1792)
Brown, Beriah Jr. (1744-1819)
Capital punishment - Rhode Island - Washington County
Carpenter, Abiel (d.ca.1696)
Courts - Officials and employees - Rhode Island - Washington County
Exeter, R.I. - Taxes
General Mifflin (ship)
Inferior Court of Common Pleas - Rhode Island - Washington County
North Kingstown, R.I. - Social life and customs
Sheriffs - Rhode Island - Washington Co.
Sherman, Abiel (1723-1746)
United States - History - French and Indian War, 1755-1763
Washington County, R.I. Court of Common Pleas.
West, Francis (d.1724?)
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