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

 John Brown Papers

 Merchant, of Providence, R.I.

 Papers, 1743-1829

 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

Manuscripts Division


Historical note:

            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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Processing note:

            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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