1.   Historical note

2.   Scope and content

3.   Provenance

4.   Processing note

5.   Inventory

6.   Subjects

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 William Henry Potter Papers

 Lawyer and R.I. Attorney General

 Papers, 1832-1909.

 Size: .5 lin. ft.

 Catalog number: MSS 629 SG 5

 Processed by: Robin Flynn, May1999

©Rhode Island Historical Society

Manuscripts Division


Historical note:

            William Henry Potter was the son of Elisha Reynolds Potter, Sr. and his second wife, Mary (Mawney) Potter. He was born in 1816 in the village of Kingston. Like his older brother Elisha Jr., William attended Kingston Academy and then Brown University, graduating in 1836. He studied law at Harvard for two years, then practiced in the law office of Albert C. Greene, who was Attorney General of Rhode Island from 1835 to 1843. In 1844, Potter was retained to assist Attorney General Joseph M. Blake in the prosecution of the Amasa Sprague murder, for which John Gordon was hanged in February, 1845.

            Potter's law career essentially ended in June, 1867, when he suffered a nervous collapse while preparing for a case to be tried at Newport. He retired to Kingston Hill and spent the remainder of his life there, attending to property, business, and research matters. After the death of his brother Elisha Jr., which took place in 1882, Potter found notes relating to his brother's book The Early History of Narragansett, which had originally been published in 1835. Potter assembled the notes and added them, as an appendix, to a second edition of that work that was published in 1886. (Elisha Potter Jr.'s annotated copy of Early History can be found in MSS 629, subgroup 3.)

            William Potter married, at Providence, the widow Sarah (Whipple) Swan, daughter of John Whipple. She died in February of 1895. There were no children by this marriage.


Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island (Chicago, J. H. Beers & Co., 1908), pp. 55-57.

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Scope and content:

            The papers include correspondence, appointments (mainly for the militia), personal memoranda, and a small amount of legal papers and receipts. The content of the correspondence relates primarily to William's profession as an attorney, but unfortunately there is nothing relating to his work on the Amasa Sprague case. Generally, the papers reveal little about William's personal life, nor are the letters very specific as to cases he handled, with occasional exceptions in correspondence dated before 1867.

            There are four letters from William's brother Thomas, a surgeon for the navy, dated between 1852 and 1855; two of them, from April, 1854, discuss the death of Christopher Grant Perry of Newport, and Thomas's request that William help Perry's wife with her affairs. A letter from Charles Randall of Warren, dated June 11, 1855, discusses the failure of railroad directors (probably the Providence, Warren, & Bristol Railroad) to restore the condition of local streets and sidewalks and asks Potter's advice: "In Market Street hundreds of loads of gravel and dirt have been carried off that cost the town hundreds of dollars to place there so as to raise the street for convenience of foot people & teams. We want the streets filled up as the directors have promised to do...and also that the sidewalks should be put in good order as when they dug them away."

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             The papers in this subgroup were probably part of a 1968 transfer from the University of Rhode Island Library to the RIHS, comprised of over 2000 documents from several Washington (King's) County families, the foremost of which are the Reynolds, Potter, Gardiner, Hagadorn, Wells, and Davis families. The papers had formerly been in the private collection of historian William Davis Miller, a descendant of the Davises, and were given through bequest to the university upon Miller's death in 1959.

            A smaller portion of Miller's collection was given directly to the Rhode Island Historical Society in 1959, but this portion is divided primarily between MSS 629, subgroups 2 and 3, the papers of Elisha Reynolds Potter and his son, Elisha Jr.

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Processing note:

            The documents in this collection had been mingled in chronological arrangement with the papers of other South Kingstown families in a collection known as the "Potter Papers", which was a merging of William Davis Miller's 1959 gift to the RIHS and the 1968 University of Rhode Island transfer, along with several other smaller gifts from various parties. In 1998, the Potter Papers were sorted into several family subgroups under a single collection number. The largest subgroups are numbers 2 and 3, the papers of Elisha Reynolds Potter Sr. and Jr., respectively.

            After separation from the rest of the collection, the William Henry Potter Papers were arranged by type, and re-housed in upright acid-free storage.

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Box 1 of 1.

Folder 1. Appointments, 1841-1863.

Oversized storage: appointment as Attorney of U. S. Supreme Court, 1863

Folder 2. Correspondence, 1833-1857.

Folder 3. Correspondence, 1858-1879.

Folder 4. Correspondence, 1883-1909 and undated.

Folder 5. Death record of WHP and letters re: his estate, 1908, 1909.

Folder 6. Receipts, 1832-1904 and undated.

Folder 7. Memoranda, various topics including Dorr Rebellion, 1843, 1895-1905 and undated.

Folder 8. Memoranda, probably for appendix to Early History of Narragansett, circa 1893-1896.

Folder 9. Newspaper clippings, 1847-1896.

Folder 10. Legal miscellaneous, 1855-1882.

Folder 11. Mary Ann Potter (wife of Asa Jr.), administration of estate, 1876.

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Lawyers - Rhode Island

Perry, Christopher Grant (1812-1854)

Potter, Thomas Mawney (1814-1890)

Potter, William Henry (1816-1908)

Providence, Warren, & Bristol Railroad

Railroads - Rhode Island - Warren

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