Merchant, of Providence, R.I.
Size: 1 linear foot
Catalog number: MSS 312
Processed by: Pam Narbeth, 1995
Finding aid by Rick Stattler, October 1996
USE MICROFILM E445 .R4, part 1, reels 1-2
©Rhode Island Historical Society
John Brown (1736-1803) was born in Providence, R.I., the fourth son of merchant James Brown II (1698-1739) and Hope (Power) Brown (1702-1792). He began his working life in partnership with his three brothers (Nicholas, Joseph and Moses) and his uncle as Obadiah Brown & Co., a mercantile firm that traded in rum, slaves, molasses and other goods. The firm was renamed Nicholas Brown & Co. after the death of Obadiah in 1762. This firm in turn dissolved in 1774, and John Brown went into business on his own account. He briefly took on his son-in-law, John Francis, as a partner in 1792, until Francis' untimely death in 1796.
John Brown was among the leading American merchants and businessmen of his day. He remained active in the slave trade and in distilling rum. He was the first Rhode Island merchant to break into the lucrative trade with China by sending the General Washington to Canton in 1787. The ship was one of the first American vessels to arrive in China. Along with his uncle Moses Brown, he led the merchants in Providence to found the Providence Bank in the early 1790s. John was elected the first President of the bank in 1791. John Brown also came into possession in 1795 of 210,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks in New York State which he and his heirs spent considerable time and money trying to develop. His home on Power Street was described by John Quincy Adams as "the most magnificent and elegant private mansion I have ever seen on the continent."
In addition to his mercantile activities, Brown was active in many civic circles as well. He was an ardent patriot, helped organize the famous burning of the British ship Gaspee in 1772, and served as a civilian on a wide variety of committees during the war. He served in the Continental Congress from 1784 to 1785, and as a United States Representative from 1799 to 1801. He was active in the First Baptist Church, and was treasurer of Rhode Island College (later Brown University) for 21 years. He also promoted the construction of the Washington Bridge across the Seekonk River at Fox Point in 1793, and supervised the paving of city streets.
Brown's involvement in the slave trade took many forms. He had been involved through ownership of slave vessels for most of his life, beginning with shares in his family's Wheel of Fortune in 1759 and Sally in 1764. He began investing outside of the family in slave ships in 1769, and was a partner in several voyages before his death, though the trade was never at the center of his business. Beyond owning vessels, Brown was also a vocal supporter of the slave trade, defending it in the press and in Congress, often in direct conflict with his abolitionist brother Moses Brown (1738-1836). In 1797, he was the first Rhode Islander, and quite possibly the first American, to be tried under the Slave Trade Act of 1794. Though he was acquitted of criminal charges, his ship Hope was forfeited and placed at auction. He beat another prosecution in 1798. In 1799, Brown and others personally paid a call upon Samuel Bosworth, the Surveyor of the Port of Bristol, warning him not to take part in an auction of a slave ship the next morning. Bosworth ignored the thinly veiled threats, and while walking to the auction the next day this federal employee was kidnaped and deposited two miles down the bay. This effectively intimidated the officials, and effectively put a halt to local enforcement of the Slave Trade Act.
John Brown married Sarah Smith (1738-1825) in 1760. They had six children: James IV (1761-1834); Benjamin (1763-1773); Abigail (1764-1766); another Abigail (1766-1821); Sarah (1773-1846); and Alice (1777-1823).
James, the only surviving son, never married, and never developed a taste for the family business. Abigail married John Francis (1763-1796), who was briefly in partnership with John Brown. Sarah married Charles Frederick Herreshoff (1763-1819), who was briefly involved in the Brown family business and lost large sums of money on its behalf. Alice married James Brown Mason (1775-1819), a physician and U.S. Congressman.
The Chad Brown Workbook; A Continuing Family Genealogy of the Descendants of Chad Brown. 2nd edition. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1987.
Hedges, James B. The Browns of Providence Plantations: Colonial Years. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1952.
Rogers, L.E., ed. The Biographical Cyclopedia of the Representative Men of Rhode Island. Providence: National Biographical Publishing Co., 1881. 51, 189.
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Scope and content:
The bulk of this collection consists of correspondence, much of it with family members. As these papers were gathered from several different sources, few of them are actually letters addressed to Brown. Many are letters Brown sent to his son James, his daughter Sarah (Brown) Herreshoff, or his son-in-law John Francis. Only a small portion of the correspondence deals directly with Brown's mercantile concerns.
Also included are deeds, a few scant business records, "cyphering books" in which Brown practiced his school lessons, many of his estate papers, and miscellaneous papers of his widow.
Among the more interesting items are a 1790 letter written by future president John Adams expressing his great annoyance that Rhode Island had not yet ratified the U.S. Constitution; and a long series of letters in which John Brown attempts to impart business precepts and other rules for living to his son James.
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The bulk of this collection arrived in several gifts and deposits by family members Henry A.L. Brown and Norman Herreshoff between 1965 and 1976. Other smaller gifts from 1840 onward have also been integrated with this collection. More details on the provenance of this collection can be found in a note in the collection file at the repository.
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This collection was first processed in 1978 by Nathaniel Shipton. Starting in 1995, the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization at Brown University, in partnership with the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University and the Rhode Island Historical Society, conducted a two year collaborative project to arrange, describe and catalog records relating to the Brown family of Providence, Rhode Island. The John Brown Papers where reprocessed at that time as part of the Brown Family Papers Project which was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. At that time, one item listed in the 1978 inventory, a memorandum book dated 1772-1774, could not be located; it was likely returned to a depositor. In 1996, 17 letters and a diary relating to Sarah (Brown) Herreshoff were transferred to the Herreshoff-Lewis Family Papers, though letters between her and her parents were kept in the John Brown Papers.
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Series 1: Correspondence and documents
Box 1, folder 1. Sept. 15, 1757 - Oct. 9 1775, and undated.
Box 3, folder 1. Oversized items, photostats of letters, 1768 - 1775
Box 1, folder 2. Aug.15, 1776 - April 9, 1780
Box 3, folder 2. Oversized items, deeds and account of rateable estate, 1777 - 1783
Box 1, folder 3. May 25, 1780 - Nov. 3, 1782
Box 1, folder 4. Nov. 11, 1782 - Jan. 24, 1783
Box 1, folder 5. Feb. 7, 1783 - Sept. 15, 1783
Box 1, folder 6. Feb. 3, 1784 - Nov. 24, 1785
Box 3, folder 3. Oversized deeds, 1785 - 1798
Box 1, folder 7. Nov. 25, 1785 - Nov. 14, 1786
Box 1, folder 8. Nov. 22, 1786 - Aug. 26, 1787
Box 1, folder 9. Sept. 29, 1787 - April 15, 1788
Box 1, folder 10. April 29, 1788 - Dec. 29, 1788
Box 1, folder 11. Feb. 16, 1789 - Oct. 21, 1790
Box 1, folder 12. Jan. 17, 1791 - April 14, 1791
Box 1, folder 13. May 30, 1791 - April 25, 1793
Box 3, folder 4. Oversized letters and deeds, 1792 - 1800
Box 1, folder 14. June 23, 1793 - March 31, 1795
Box 1, folder 15. April 11, 1795 - Jan. 11, 1797
Box 1, folder 16. Jan. 22, 1797 - Oct. 18, 1797
Box 1, folder 17. Oct. 27, 1797 - June 30, 1798
Box 1, folder 18. July 18, 1798 - Oct. 20, 1798
Box 1, folder 19. Feb. 5, 1799 - Aug. 5, 1799
Box 1, folder 20. Nov. 26, 1799 - Dec. 29, 1799
Box 1, folder 21. Dec. 30, 1799 - Feb. 3, 1800
Box 1, folder 22. Feb. 4, 1800 - April 13, 1800
Box 1, folder 23. April 17, 1800 - Dec. 18, 1800
Box 1, folder 24. Jan. 5, 1801 - March 27, 1801
Box 1, folder 25. April 10, 1801 - July 31, 1803
Series 2: Maritime business records (formerly called Merchant Marine)
Box 3, folder 12. Invoice memorandum, brig Hope, 1781
Box 2, folder 1. Journal and account Book, ship General Washington, 1788-1789
Box 2, folder 2. Instrument of protest, of schooner L, 1789
Box 2, folder 2a. Certificate, 1789, clarifying that the vessel described as the schooner L was actually named the N. (NOT MICROFILMED)
Box 3, folder 13. Cargo manifest, ship General Washington, 1791
Box 2, folder 3. Cargo accounts, ship George Washington, 1795
Series 3: Estate records
Box 3, folder 5. Schedules of John Brown's Estate, June 8, 1802 and January 28, 1813
Box 1, folder 26. Will, June 12, 1802 (Attested copy)
Box 3, folder 6. Will, September 13, 1802
Box 3, folder 7. Power of attorney documents, 1803
Box 3, folder 11. Obituary, September 20, 1803
Box 2, folder 11. Description of land shares, Ohio lands, 1813
Box 1, folder 27. Estate papers, 1812, 1819
Box 2, folder 12. Bill to Sarah Brown from Peter Wheaton for wood, 1820
Box 2, folder 13. Will of Sarah Brown, November 3, 1824
Box 3, folder 9. Map of Township 6, New York tract, undated, between 1807-1835
Series 4: Family records and miscellaneous
Box 3, folder 10. Broadside advertisement: Turlington’s Balsam of Life, 1743
Box 2, folder 4. Cyphering book, 1749 - 1752
Box 2, folder 9. Letter copied by Ruth Smith [sister of Sarah (Smith) Brown]: February 2,
1752 - April 2, 1767, sewn together.
Box 2, folder 5. Cyphering and navigation book, 1753-1755
Box 2, folder 6. Visiting card, n.d.
Box 2, folder 7. John Brown's receipt for 2 counterfeit bills of John Mason, 1770
Box 3, folder 8. List of Massachusetts state soldier notes, 1781-1784
Box 2, folder 8. French bill of exchange, 1784
Box 2, folder 10. Ruth Smith’s day book [sister of Sarah (Smith) Brown], 1785
Box 2, folder 14. Republic of Haiti currency, Billet for Deux Gourdes, 1827, in French.
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China - Commerce
Cyphering books - 1749-1755
Merchants - Rhode Island - Providence
Providence, R.I. - Commerce
Rum industry - Rhode Island
Slave-trade - Rhode Island - Providence
West Indies - Commerce
The bulk of this collection has been cataloged by item in the card catalog at the repository.
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