1.   Historical note

2.   Scope and content

3.   Provenance

4.   Inventory

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 Rev. John Pitman Diaries

 Baptist minister, rope maker of Providence, R.I. and Seekonk, MA.

 Journals, 1776-1822.

 Size: 0.75 lin. ft.

 Catalog number: MSS 622

 Processed by: Robin Flynn, September 1999

©Rhode Island Historical Society

Manuscripts Division


Historical note:

            The Reverend John Pitman (1751-1822) was born in Boston, the son of John and Mary (Blower) Pitman. In his youth he was apprenticed to a ropemaker, a profession he was to practice later in his life along with that of ministry in the Baptist church. The Biographic Cyclopedia of Rhode Island states, "He seems to have lived a thoughtless life for several years, but in 1771 he passed through a radical change, becoming a hopeful Christian." Pitman moved to Philadelphia in 1774 for economic reasons, and in 1776 joined a volunteer military company which formed part of the First Battalion of Pennsylvania Militia under Colonel Dickinson.             Pitman may have begun preaching as early as 1777. He was a traveling minister until 1784, moving through New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and perhaps other nearby states. In the spring of 1784 he settled in Providence at the suggestion of his brother and the Reverend James Manning, founder of Brown University. He became a member of the First Baptist Church, and began preaching regularly at Pawtuxet. He became the pastor of the Baptist church in Warren in 1784 and remained there until July, 1790, when returned to Providence; however, he continued to preach at Warren for several months. From March of 1791 until approximately 1797, Pitman was the pastor of the Baptist church at Pawtuxet.

            In 1798, Pitman succeeded the Reverend John P. Jones as minister of the First Baptist Church of Seekonk (which for several years Pitman designates as Rehoboth), which had been organized in 1794. Leonard Bliss Jr., in his 1836 history of Rehoboth, remarks, "In 1801, the church enjoyed a revival of religion, and considerable additions were made to its numbers." Pitman remained with the Seekonk church, with a brief interruption from 1815 to 1816, until his death in 1822.

            Pitman's journals indicate he supported his family not only by preaching, but also by manufacturing rope and twine for local ship merchants, including Brown & Francis, Brown & Benson, Holroyd & Tillinghast, and Brown & Ives. He erected a ropewalk at Tockwotten in 1790, but was engaged in the business prior to this. In October, 1792, Pitman went into partnership with "Mr. Holroyd", presumably William Holroyd (1746-1826) of Holroyd & Tillinghast. He purchased a house on Tockwotten the same year. It appears Pitman also invested occasionally in the cargoes of seagoing vessels.

            Pitman took strong interest in new industries and inventions in New England and elsewhere, traveling often to see new factories and machines. According to his 1794 journal, he invented and patented a machine to make cordage, and in time used female labor on it to spin rope yarn. In 1795, he was threatened by his partner Holroyd with legal action over a right to the machine. Pitman immediately made a model of his invention, traveled to Boston to market it, and sold a right to a Mr. Davis there. In subsequent years, he sold at least one other right, and constructed, marketed, and sold his machines in New England, New York, and other states as distant as Louisiana for sums up to $350 per machine. He purchased "the cove mills" land at Rehoboth in 1800, and built a ropewalk there in 1801.

             In 1804 Pitman was appointed a director of the new Roger Williams Bank. By 1808, Pitman and Holroyd had converted their Rehoboth ropewalk to a cotton factory, which functioned under the partnership until about 1815. At this time, it appears Pitman's arrangement with Holroyd seriously deteriorated, and the partnership was dissolved with Pitman in financial ruin and all his possessions and property at Providence seized. Pitman's diary states he "...went upon trying to form some plan to accommodate Brown & Ives & to secure the Banks they were hard." By June of 1815, Pitman moved to Salem, Massachusetts to be near the support of his son John and daughter Eliza, preaching at places like Marblehead and South Reading. He attempted to set up another rope business at Medford, Massachusetts in October, but was threatened by rival ropemakers in the area and, by April, 1816, was forced to break up his factory. He moved back to Seekonk, reconciled all his business troubles in Providence with the help of his son and son-in-law Jacob Willard, and settled back into the routine of preaching at the Baptist church at Seekonk. He sold the Seekonk (Rehoboth) factory to Brown & Ives in 1818.

            Pitman was married twice, first to Rebecca Cox (d. 1792) of Upper Freehold (New Jersey?), whom he married on September 21, 1778, then to Mrs. Susannah (Vaughan?) Greene (b. 1752) of Providence. He had six children, five of whom, all by his first wife, were: John Pitman ( "Jacky", 1785-1863, U.S. District Judge), Mary ("Polly", 1779-1806); Sarah ("Sally", 1782-1794); Eliza ("Betsey"?, 1787-1840); and Rebecca ("Becky", 1789-1873). Pitman died on July 24, 1822, in Seekonk, and is buried, as are several of his children, in the North Burial Ground, Providence, Rhode Island.



RI Cemetery Database

Providence Gazette, Saturday, July 27, 1822 and July 31, 1822.

Biographic Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island (Providence, National Biographic Publishing Co., 1881), p. 146.

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Scope and content:

            Between 1784 and 1822, Pitman's journals give insight into both the Baptist ministry and industrial entrepreneurship in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. At times Pitman's dual occupations as clergyman and rope maker compete with each other for prevalence in his journals, with roughly a 50/50 division as to emphasis. Entries are daily, and though normally brief, describing the day's activities or encounters, Pitman does not always refrain from reflection, emotion, or detail. The diaries also give a general picture of social life for the period.

            The diaries may be extremely useful to genealogists, as they are laden with vital records including funerals and baptisms. Marriage and baptism records usually include the full names of the persons involved and their towns of origin; these records are duplicated, though not inclusively, in Pitman's subscription book. Death and funeral entries may also include genealogy, age, and cause of death. Additionally, Pitman mentions adults and children taken into his home for labor or education, along with their ages and dates of birth, and occasionally wages; he does not necessarily note race. Pitman also names social visitors to his home, and painstakingly lists persons with whom he dined or traveled.

            Religious content includes: where and what Bible passage Pitman preached; ministers whom Pitman heard preach locally and on his travels, including James Manning, Stephen Gano and "Mr. Backus"; disputes or debates within the church concerning policy or practice; sermons preached by non-Baptist ministers, and Pitman's opinion of same; visiting ministers of especial renown; persons of color preaching, preached to, or collected for; and occasional notation of Pitman's sermons for African-American meeting houses. When listing baptisms, Pitman sometimes gives statistics as to race and gender baptized at a given session; he also notes when a marriage or funeral is for people of color. Also noted are construction and destruction (by fire, storm, etc.) of local meeting houses.

            Secular content includes primarily Pitman's business activity. Here Pitman can be quite detailed about both his rope and cotton factories; their histories can easily be traced by careful reading of all diaries. The journals reveal that Pitman's labor force was "mutinous for higher wages" as early as 1811. (The longest entry of all the journals is in January, 1815, describing Pitman's difficult negotiations with his former business partner William Holroyd.) Pitman describes inventions (usually factory machines) and their creators that he encounters in his travels around the Northeast; starting in 1794 Pitman makes occasional comments about taking his children to see the "Cotton Machines & Mills" at "Pautucket". He makes special note of bridges between Providence and the Seekonk area.

            Throughout all the journals are entries concerning national, international, and local news and events, including: the ratification of the U.S. Constitution; a paper money crisis in 1786; conflict between the U.S. and England during the 1790s; the yellow fever epidemic in Providence in1797; three haunting entries from May, 1810, describing what appear to be serial murders of local children; and the War of 1812. There are regular entries on weather conditions, especially during winter months.

            Entries that may be of interest to maritime historians are those listing arrivals and departures of ships and ship captains from the Providence area from about 1785 (five years prior to the establishment of the United States Customs House) forward. Pitman also occasionally records losses of ships, sometimes including dollar values of cargoes and vessels, and names or numbers of crewmen lost.

            The orderly book (not proved to be kept by Pitman) includes an account book Pitman kept between 1779 and 1828, and records the activities of the Continental Line at Morristown, NJ, between April 25, 1777 and August 2, 1777. It is primarily for the First Pennsylvania Battalion of Militia, of which Pitman was a member, but also includes Rhode Island regiments. Some Rhode Island names mentioned include Col. Olney, Lt. Col. Olney, and General Varnum. It mainly contains accounts of courts martial and the efforts of officers to improve cleanliness and behavior in the camp.

              Pitman's subscription book includes marriages and baptisms from 1785 to 1822. Marriages are recorded for the towns of Cranston, Pawtucket, Pawtuxet, Providence, Seekonk, Warren, and Warwick. Baptisms from 1789 to 1820 are recorded for Attleboro, Rehoboth, Seekonk, Pawtucket, Pawtuxet, Providence, and Warren.

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            The combination account/orderly book was transferred from the John Carter Brown Library in 1909. The provenance of the diaries, subscription/vital records book, and loose papers is unknown.

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Box 1, folder 1. Bible transcriptions, no date.

Box 1, folder 2.

Books, John Pitman's library, 1787 and "Memmorandum of Sundries at Mrs Pitman's death, February 4, 1792."

Combination orderly book, 1st Battalion of Pennsylvania Militia, Morristown, New Jersey, 1777/4/25-1777/8/2; and account book, 1779/1/6-1785/9/24, 1828.

            Subscriptions, marriages, baptisms: Rhode Island and Massachusetts, 1875-1822.

Box 1, folder 3. Military journal, 1776/7/10-1776/8/21. Personal journal, 1777/4/15-1783/7/1.

Box 1, folder 4. Journals, 1783-1785.

Box 1, folder 5. Journals, 1786, 1788.

Box 1, folder 6. Journals, 1789-1791.

Box 1, folder 7. Journals, 1792-1794.

Box 1, folder 8. Journals, 1795-1797.

Box 1, folder 9. Journals, 1798-1800.

Box 1, folder 10. Journals, 1801-1803.

Box 1, folder 11. Journals, 1804-1806.

Box 1, folder 12. Journals, 1807-1809.

Box 2, folder 1. Journals, 1810-1812.

Box 2, folder 2. Journals, 1813-1815.

Box 2, folder 3. Journals, 1816-1818.

Box 2, folder 4. Journals, 1819-1822.

Box 2, folder 5. Loose papers, 1792-1820.

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African-Americans - Massachusetts

African-Americans - Rhode Island

Baptists - Massachusetts - Seekonk

Baptists - Rhode Island - Providence

Bowen, Jabez (Jr.?) (1774-1816)?

Breast - cancer

Brown & Benson

Brown & Francis

Cotton manufacture


Gano, Rev. Stephen (1762-1828)

Hallett, Benjamin Franklin

Holroyd, William (1746-1826)?

Holroyd & Tillinghast


Lafayette, Marquis de (1757-1834)

Malbone, Francis ( -1809)

Manning, Rev. James (1738-1791)

Maxcy, Rev. Jonathan (1768-1820)

Merchant marine (or the like) - arrivals and departures out of Providence area, 1785 ->

Registers of births, etc. - Massachusetts

Registers of births, etc. - Rhode Island


United States - Constitution

United States - History - War of 1812

Washington, George (1732-1799)

Waterhouse, Benjamin (1754-1846)


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