1.   Historical note

2.   Scope and content

3.   Provenance

4.   Processing note

5.   Inventory

6.   Subjects

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 James Brown Mason Potter Papers

 Manufacturer and U.S. Army Paymaster, Kingston, R.I.

 Papers, 1834-1904.

 Size: .25 lin. ft.

 Catalog number: MSS 629 SG 6

 Processed by: Robin Flynn, April 1999

©Rhode Island Historical Society

Manuscripts Division


Historical note:

            James Brown Mason Potter was born October 1, 1818 in Kingston, the son of Mary (Mawney) and Elisha Reynolds Potter, Sr. Like his brothers Elisha Jr., Thomas, and William, he attended Kingston Academy as a youth and then Brown University. He graduated in 1839 and went into the manufacturing business. In 1841, he entered into an unsuccessful partnership, Davis & Potter, with his cousin,William Dean Davis, for a woolen mill at Mumford Mills. Davis formed his own business in 1850. According to Representative Men and Old Families of Rhode Island, Potter was in the textile business at Usquepaug and South Ferry until he joined the army at the outbreak of the Civil War.

            Upon his father's death in 1835, Potter had inherited the South Ferry estate in South Kingstown. The ferry was leased to Benjamin Cottrell probably as early as 1830 and definitely until 1842, if not later. Potter preserved receipts for the ferry from 1838 to 1842. He mortgaged the ferry in late November, 1860 to two area banks. Due to the failure of his business, the banks sold the South Ferry property in June, 1865 to a private party, which continued to run the ferry.

            Politically, Potter was the Richmond delegate to the Constitutional (Landholders') Convention of 1842, selected for the standing committee concerned with amendments.

            He served as a paymaster during the Civil War, obtaining the position of additional paymaster on June 1, 1861 and being promoted in 1864 to major and paymaster. In 1865 the U.S. Senate conferred on him the brevet rank of lieutenant-colonel for faithful and meritorious service during the war. He remained in the army for the rest of his working life primarily in the capacity of paymaster, stationed at posts throughout the United States and finishing as a deputy paymaster-general. In interesting contrast to Potter's choice of career, see subgroup 10, the Hagadorn-Wells Papers, for a letter to Amos Wells from his mother Elizabeth Rhodes Wells, dated July 29, 1861, which states: "James B. M. is, I suppose in Washington. His last wishes, before leaving home, were strongly expressed for the success of the rebels - and denouncing the Administration in the severest language possible....Before the 4th of July, a remonstrance was sent to the proper authorities at W[ashington] acquainting them of the true sentiments of Mr. P."

            In 1882, Potter retired and returned to Kingston, where he died in November of 1900. Potter married his cousin, Eliza Palmer Potter, the daughter of Asa Potter Jr. They had two children, James Brown Mason Potter, Jr. (1850-1916) and Mary Le Moine Potter.



Chapin, A. A. and Charles V., A History of Rhode Island Ferries (Providence: The Oxford Press,             1925).

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

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Scope and content:

            There are approximately two dozen letters, mostly from James's brother Elisha, along with some loose accounts, deeds, and miscellaneous papers. Most of the letters are dated between 1842 and 1845, and concern local and national politics. A letter from Elisha dated January 30, 1845 is particularly expressive as to his political alignment and method of operation. There is one letter to James's wife Eliza dated 1865.

            The loose accounts include some specifically related to the South Ferry estate in South Kingstown, which James inherited from his father Elisha Reynolds Potter, Sr. These accounts are mentioned in the book A History of Rhode Island Ferries, 1640-1923, published in 1925 by Anna Augusta and Charles V. Chapin, which indicates that certain papers related to the South Ferry were in the collection of William Davis Miller.

            Also mentioned in the above book is ERP Sr.'s U. S. Supreme Court case regarding his 1819 purchase of the ferry. The brief Potter presented to the Court in 1831, as well as his notes on the case, can be found in Subgroup 3 (Elisha R. Potter Sr.), Series 3.


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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 his collection had gone to the Rhode Island Historical Society the same year; 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 James B. M. Potter Papers were arranged by type, and re-housed in upright acid-free storage.

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Box 1, folder 1. Agreements, leases for Davis & Potter (Mumford Mills property), 1841-1842

Box 1, folder 2. Agreements, deeds, leases, 1844-1855

Box 1, folder 3. Correspondence, 1834-1877

Box 1, folder 4. Loose accounts, 1836-1904

Box 1, folder 5. Loose accounts, South Ferry,1838-1842

Box 1, folder 6. Miscellaneous, 1836-1844 and undated:

            Yale College catalog of officers and students, 1836-1837

            Essay by JBMP, 1838

            Militia appointments, 1843 and 1844

            Act to incorporate the Narragansett, Conanicut, and Newport Steam Ferry Company, undated

            JBMP's copy of memorandum written by Mary Elizabeth Potter, undated

Box 1, folder 7. "Recollections of a Paymaster of the Army During the Civil War" by JBMP, 1896

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Davis & Potter

Ferries - R.I. - South Kingstown

King, Samuel Ward (1786-1851)

Potter, James Brown Mason (1818-1900)

Rhode Island - Politics and government - 1841-1845

South Ferry (South Kingstown, R.I.)

South Kingstown - Social life and customs

United States - Politics and government - 1841-1845

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