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

 Usher Parsons Papers

 Physician, of Providence, R.I.

 Papers, 1812-1868

 Size: 0.5 linear feet

 Catalog number: MSS 604

 Processed by: Rick Stattler, January 1999


©Rhode Island Historical Society

Manuscripts Division


Historical note:

            Usher Parsons (1788-1868) was born and raised in Alfred, Maine, the son of William and Abigail Parsons. After studying under physicians in Maine and in Boston, he secured a commission as naval surgeon's mate at the outset of the war of 1812. He was later assigned to a small fleet under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry, and his performance as the only surgeon at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10 1813 has become legendary in the annals of military surgery. He remained under Perry's command after the conclusion of the war on the frigate Java, which sailed to Algiers and other Mediterranean ports, returning in March of 1817. He then obtained a medical degree at Harvard and returned to naval service on the frigate Guerriere through 1820.

            In 1822, Parsons settled permanently in Providence, R.I. He soon married Mary Jackson Holmes (1802-1825), the sister of famed poet Oliver Wendell Holmes. They had one child, Charles W. Parsons (1823-1893).

            Usher Parsons was a professor of anatomy and surgery at Brown University from 1823 to 1828; president of the Rhode Island Medical Society from 1837 to 1839, served briefly as acting president of the American Medical Association in 1853, and was the first president of the Rhode Island Natural History Society in 1837. He was also active in the early years of the Rhode Island Historical Society, and was the author of "A Brief Account of the Early Physicians and of the Medical Society of Rhode Island" (American Quarterly Register, February 1840) as well as numerous other medical and historical articles and addresses. He was an avid genealogist.


Goldowsky, Seebert J. Yankee Surgeon: The Life and Times of Usher Parsons (1788-1868) (Boston: Francis Countway Library of Medicine, 1988).

Rogers, L.E., ed. Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island (Providence: National Biographical Publishing, 1881), 75.

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Scope and content:

            The most important items in this collection are Parsons' two diaries and his daybook of medical practice, all of which were kept during his naval service. They give an extremely detailed account of his famous role in the Battle of Lake Erie. The collection also includes some family correspondence, as well as letters and notes regarding his genealogical and historical research.

            Other Parsons-related papers at the R.I.H.S.L. include:

Draft letter from Henry Bull re early R.I. physicians, 10/10/1839, in Bull Papers (MSS 319)

Extensive research notes re Parsons in the Seebert Goldowsky Papers (Mss 894)

Letter to George Mason, 9/21/1834, in Mason's Extra-Illustrated History of Newport (MSS 554), vol. 3, page 172

Mentioned in Rhode Island Medical Society Records (Mss 38).

Mentioned in Rhode Island Society of Natural History record book, 1837-1838 (MSS 9001-R)

Notes prepared for a biography of Perry, 1835-1840, in the Oliver Hazard Perry Collection (Mss 617), folder 11.

Otis Bullock membership certificate in R.I. Medical Society, signed by Parsons, in Harris-Hawes Papers (MSS 482), oversized storage.

Receipt to John B. Herreshoff for medical services, in Herreshoff-Lewis Papers (Mss 487), box 3, folder 5.

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            The memorandum on descendants of Roger Williams was donated by Usher Parsons himself in 1857. The two diaries were donated by his son Charles W. Parsons in 1880, who also donated the daybook in 1882. The 1840 Charles Collins letter was donated by Frederick S. Peck in 1944 as part of the Peck Collection. The Codman, Mussey, Taylor and Updike letters were originally bound into a volume titled "Notes in Regard to the R.I. Medical Society and Early Physicians of R.I.", apparently cataloged circa 1955 and disbound circa 1985. The three Moore letters, the four Charles and George Parsons letters, and probably the notes on the Louisburgh siege, were purchased from Goodspeed's Bookshop in 1977. The 1848 letter to Joseph Blunt was donated in 2001 by Richard Bowen. The 1843 letter to Abigail Gerrish was purchased in 2002 from Phil Bansner. The provenance of the Charles W. Parsons, Charles Collins, E.R. Arnold, George Usher, David King and Reed letters, and the contents of the miscellaneous folder, is unknown. Many of these documents could have been part of the gift of "Letters and manuscripts left by the late Dr. Usher Parsons" donated by Stephen N. Arnold in 1893.

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Processing note:

            This collection was originally processed by Nathaniel N. Shipton in 1977. It was completely reprocessed in 1999, incorporating additional material, and a new finding aid was prepared. A full microfilm of the collection is available, excepting the 1848 letter to Joseph Blunt and the 1843 letter to Abigail Gerrish, which were donated after the filming.

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Series 1: Correspondence and memoranda

Folder 1. Correspondence, 1821-1840

1821/05/03     From Reuben D. Mussey, D[artmouth] College. Concerning medical books.

1839/11/24     From Wilkins Updike. Notes on early physicians in South County.

1839/11/29     From Wilkins Updike. Notes on early physicians in South County.

1840/09/07     From Lt. William Rogers Taylor, Newport, R.I., about Vigneron family.

1840/09/14     From Charles Collins, Newport. Time to operate on Collins' diseased eye.

1840/12/28     To son Charles W. Parsons. Unimpressed after meeting national leaders, including vice-president Richard Johnson. "At some future day when my old acquaintance General Harrison is in the White House you shall have an opportunity of seeing him."

Folder 2. Correspondence, 1841-1848

1841/08/09     To Miss. E.R. Arnold of New Bedford. Offers choice of 18th century autographs for her collection.

*1843/10/15   To niece Abigail Gerrish of South Berwick, Me. Family news, leaving for Paris.

1844/04/01     From Henry Codman, London. Concerning letters and engravings.

*1848/06/05   To cousin Joseph Blunt. Search for material on William Perrerell.

1848/07/03     To Jacob B. Moore. Search for material on Sir William Pepperell.

1848/10/17     Draft [from George Henry Moore]. Offers to show Pepperell papers.

1848/10/27     To George Henry Moore. Plans to see Moore's Pepperell papers.

Folder 3. Correspondence, 1860-1868 and undated

1860/04/18     To nephew George Parsons. Thanks for shad; Edwin's eye problems.

1860/05/05     To nephew George Parsons. Travel plans, family news.

1864/10/20     To George B. Usher, "Consul of Hayti"

1867/12/23     To nephew Charles Parsons. Thanks for bear meat, family news.

[1868]/09/05   To nephew Charles Parsons. Election news, travel plans.

----/12/09        Invitation from Mr. and Mrs. Reed.

----/--/--           From Dr. David King. Describes nervous condition of his patient Miss Clarke.

Folder 4: Notes on Sir William Pepperell and the Siege of Louisburgh, 1844-1859

Folder 5: Miscellaneous:

Memorandum on living descendants of Roger Williams, 10/5/1857

Acknowledgment from Public Library of Boston, 12/21/1858, for gift of Lake Erie book

Obituary from Providence Journal, 1868

*not microfilmed

Series 2: Diaries and journal

In folder 6:

Diary, 1/1/1816 - 7/22/1816, 5/1818 and 11/12/1818. 100 pages.

Kept as surgeon on U.S. frigates Java and Guerriere. Begins off Newport in January 1816, proceeds to Algiers, and visits many locations on Mediterranean coast, finishing in Naples in July 1816. Also long single entries from Palermo and Gibraltar, 1818.

Contains interesting commentary on Muslim society. In Tunisia, "every rich man has four wives and any number of concubines. The Bey of Tunis has 4, he is particularly attached to one who has borne him two sons. He locks her in a closet and carries the key with him." (4/29/1816) Observations on Malaga in Algeria(?): "How much better it would be if the property or at least the power of acquiring it were equally distributed among them, and all religions tolerated. Truly this people may with propriety be said to be priest-ridden." (2/20/1816).

Generally good travel accounts throughout the Mediterranean. Visits Corvo in the Azores, 2/3/1816: "It has about 600 inhabitants who cultivate wheat & feed hogs." Good description of Straits of Gibraltar, 2/13/1816; of the town of Malaga, 2/16/1816 and 2/20/1816; of Majorca, 3/14/1816; Algiers, 4/9/1816. Pillaged the ruins of Carthage, 4/22/1816. Tripoli, 4/29/1816; Mount Etna, 5/18/1816; Palermo, 6/1816. Long description of Turkish baths in Algiers, 6/30/1816. Long description of hospitals in Palermo, 5/1818.

In folder 6:

Diary, 9/24/1812 - 12/10/1814. 200 pages.

Kept during expedition to Lake Erie under Capt. Oliver H. Perry. Begins sailing up the Hudson River, then by land to Lake Erie; stationed near Buffalo through 1813; stationed near Detroit, June 1814; off Mackinack Island in northern Michigan, August 1814, then back to Buffalo by September 1814.

A seminal document for the study of the War of 1812, and a well known as a major source on naval combat surgery. Includes draft letter to William Parsons, describing Battle of Lake Erie, 9/22/1813. Also mentions fall of Bonaparte (6/16/1814).

Also particularly interesting for descriptions of Native Americans. "Passed by the Oneida tribe of Indians consisting of about 2000 souls. The warriors have volunteered their services to assist us in prosecuting the war against Canada." Followed by a half-page description of Oneida clothing and culture. (10/7/1812). Frequent visits through 1813. "The chiefs of the Shawnese Wiadotes and Delaware Indians and 50 other Indians arrived in the evening." (8/19/1813)

Good descriptions of what was then the western frontier. Visited Niagara Falls 1/24/1813. Good descriptive passages while traveling up the Hudson, 10/1812. Long descriptions of Waterford, N.Y. (11/21/1813), and of Detroit (6/21/1814). "Cleveland is a small village called a city, has about 12 dwelling houses. The land is very new. Inhabitants are emigrants from Connecticut." (10/16/1814).

Folder 7:

Day book of practice, 1813-1819

Contents include:

"Description of wounds that fell under my care ... on Lake Erie Sept. 10 1813". 3 pages.

"Deaths on the Upper Lakes between July 1 1813 and December 1 1814". 1 page.

"Deaths on board the U.S. Frigate Java ... commencing May 1st 1815". 1 page.

"Daily record of the sick and hurt...commencing Sept. 7 1813" (through Sept. 12 1813). 2 pages.

"Daily record of sick and hurt onboard the U.S. Frigate Java ... commencing July 1st 1815" (through April 4 1817). 72 pages.

"Daily report of sick and hurt on board the U.S. Frigate Guerriere ... Boston July 1 1818" (through July 15 1819). 44 pages.

"Record of diseases that occurred on board the Lawrence" (August 10 1813 to September 19 1814) 7 pages.

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American Indians - New York - History

Arnold, E.R.

Collins, Charles

Diaries - 1812-1819

Guerriere (frigate)

Java (frigate)

Johnson, Richard M. (1780-1850)

King, David (1774-1836)

Lake Erie, Battle of, 1813

Lawrence (brig)

Louisburg, N.S. - History - Siege, 1745

Medicine - Practice

Mediterranean Region - Description and travel

Moore, George H.

Moore, Jacob B.

Mussey, Reuben D, (1780-1866)

Parsons, Charles W. (1823-1893)

Parsons, George

Parsons, William

Pepperell, William, 1696-1759

Surgeons - United States Navy

Taylor, William R. (1811-1889)

United States. Navy - Surgeons

United States - History - War of 1812 - Naval operations

Updike, Wilkins

Vigneron family

West (U.S.) - Description and travel

Williams, Roger (1604-1683)

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