1.   Historical note

2.   Scope and content

3.   Provenance

4.   Processing note

5.   Inventory

6.   Subjects

    List of finding aids

    R.I.H.S. Library page

    R.I.H.S. home page

 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

Manuscripts Division


Historical note:

            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)

Return to top

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.

Return to top


            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".

#1944.62.8.1-4           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.

#1959.55.5.1- 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.

Return to top

Processing note:

            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.

Return to top


Box 1 (1710-1759)

            1. 1710-1719

            2. 1720-1729

            3. 1730-1734

            4. 1735-1739

            5. 1740-1744

            6-10. 1745-1748

            11. Records of the sloop Elizabeth, 1748-1750

            12-18. 1749-1754

            19. Records of the Committee of War, 1755-1763

            20-22. 1755-1757

            23. Estate of Alexander Brown, 1758 onward.

            24-25. 1758-1759

Box 2 (1760-1769)

            1-10. 1760-1767

            11. Records of the Susquehanna Company, 1768-1769

            12. 1768-1769

Box 3 (1770-1774)

            1-6. 1770-1774


Box 4 (1775-1779)

            1. 1775

            2. Revolutionary War documents

            3-7. 1776-1779

            8. Records of the privateer General Mifflin, 1779-1781

Box 5 (1780-1786)

            1-9. 1780-1786

Box 6 (1787-1874)

            1-6. 1787-1792

            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

Return to top


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)

Hall Family

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)

Susquehanna Company

United States - History - French and Indian War, 1755-1763

Washington County, R.I. Court of Common Pleas.

West, Francis (d.1724?)

End of finding aid - return to top