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Lee Family Papers

Lee Family Papers

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Processing and conservation of this collection was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 132 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-531-1516
Creator:Lee family
Title:Lee Family Papers
Quantity:1.5 linear feet (3 boxes)
Abstract:The Lee family papers reflect the activities of four generations of one of Salem's prominent maritime families.
Collection Number:MSS 129

Series List

SERIES I. Captain Joseph Lee (1744-1831) Papers
SERIES II. John Clarke Lee (1804-1877) Papers
SERIES III. Family Papers
SERIES IV. Miscellaneous Papers

Scope and Content Note

The Lee family papers reflect the activities of four generations of one of Salem's prominent maritime families. Included are merchant and shipbuilding papers of Captain Joseph Lee (1774-1831), personal and miscellaneous business papers of commission merchant John Clarke Lee (1804-1877), and business, personal, and estate papers of other Lee family members. While the collection does not contain the papers of Henry Lee (1782-1867), who was an important commission merchant, Calcutta agent, and West Indies merchant, the collection does contain information regarding some of Henry's joint shipping investments with this father (Joseph Lee). The collection has been divided into four series.

Series I. Captain Joseph Lee (1744-1831) Papers documents his business as a shipbuilder, covering the years 1796 until 1831. Located in this series is correspondence regarding orders for ships, legal agreements with clients and workmen, accounts and receipts for construction materials, memorandums of ship dimensions, and drawings of hulls and ship decorations. Joseph's correspondence also includes letters concerning farming and merchant correspondence, circa 1809 until 1810, which reflects Joseph's and his son, Henry Lee (1782-1867)'s, joint investments in Calcutta goods. Of interest are letters, circa 1811, in which Joseph states his distaste of Napoleon and the thought of war with Great Britain. It should be noted that this series does not contain papers of Joseph's important mercantile trade with the West Indies and Spain, papers of his ships, his distillery or his project to build the Essex Bridge.

Series II. John Clarke Lee (1804-1877) Papers contains correspondence, legal and financial papers, and photograph albums, which cover the years 1813 until 1865. Aside from personal letters received from his children, John's correspondence contains letters regarding his financial interests in manufacturing companies, banks, and railroads. There is also correspondence pertaining to gardening and orders for trees. Among the financial and legal papers can be found materials generated from John's trusteeship of Pickering Dodge's estate, including a copy of Dodge's will. The financial papers also contain a number of bills and receipts for Lee's home furnishings. There are two photograph albums which contain the occasional typewritten explanatory notes and photographs of John's residence at 14 Chestnut Street in Salem. These photographs include views of the house's interior and exterior, shots of the garden, and individual photographs of furniture, silver, glassware, ceramics, jewelry, and fans. This series does not contain the papers of the firm, Lee, Higginson and Company.

Series III. Family Papers consists of business, personal, and estate papers of numerous members of the Lee and Rose families (see Appendix III, Select Genealogy). Included are: the will and estate inventory of Nathaniel Cabot Lee (1772-1806); memorandum/diary books of farmer Joseph Lee (b. 1773); financial and estate papers of Harriet (Paine) Rose, whose business interests were often overseen by her son-in law, John Clarke Lee and Rachel W. Rose's estate papers, which were managed by executors Harriet Rose and John Clarke Lee. Also included are personal correspondence, financial papers and a photo reproduction portrait of Harriet (Rose) Lee; Civil War correspondence to William P. Lee (1833- ), who was an agent aboard the Union Army steamers Pembroke and Cambridge; and correspondence, legal, and financial papers of other Lee family members. The papers of miscellaneous family members include a small number of shipping papers of Boston merchant Joseph Lee (1770-1845), as well as a personal signed letter to Harriet Rose Lee (1831- ) from Theodore Roosevelt (1880), and one from Booker T. Washington (1914).

Series IV. Miscellaneous Papers consists of non-Lee family correspondence, legal, financial, and shipping papers ranging from 1680 until 1917. The bulk of the correspondence is of a personal nature including letters to Martha N. Very regarding her charity work in the 1860s, correspondence to Henry M. Brooks, and letters concerning genealogy. Among the legal papers is a 1780 deed for a share in the prizes of the privateer Phenex (Brigantine). Miscellaneous shipping papers contain a ship and cargo listing of "Exports of America, 1804," an undated extract from the journal of the Persia (Ship), and miscellaneous invoices and memorandums. Miscellaneous papers include memorandums and drawings for a house in Northfield, and passports of Edward C. Wilson.

Biographical Sketches

Joseph Lee was baptized on May 13, 1744, the son of Thomas and Lois (Orne) Lee. Thomas Lee was a Harvard graduate and prosperous merchant in Boston and Salem, Massachusetts. Joseph was a sea captain, and merchant in Boston, Beverly, and Salem, operating his own merchant business with his in-laws, the Cabots, at the firm Cabot and Lee. During this time, he maintained mercantile trade with the West Indies and Spain. He was a merchant on Long Wharf in Boston when he participated in the Boston Tea Party. Joseph was also a skilled naval architect, and during the Revolutionary War he built a fleet of ships, which he sent out as privateers during the War. It was during the Revolutionary War that Joseph achieved the rank of captain. As a shipbuilder, it was Joseph's responsibility, upon receiving a contract for a ship, to supervise the entire building process to choose plans and carpenters, and to make all purchases of construction materials, rigging, etc. He built at least nine vessels from 1813 to 1816 for such notable individuals and firms such as Thomas H. Perkins, and Ropes Pickman and Company (see Appendix II).

Joseph moved to Boston in 1807, and became a director of various banks and insurance companies. He designed, for free, the Essex Bridge, loved gardening, and donated $20,000 to Massachusetts General Hospital a year before he died. He was a member of the Massachusetts Lodge of Freemasons.

Joseph's first wife was Elizabeth Cabot, the daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth (Higginson) Cabot, whom he married June 9, 1769; they had twelve children together. Elizabeth Lee died in June 1783. Joseph married his second wife, Deborah (Higginson) Cabot, the daughter of Stephen and Elizabeth (Cabot) Higginson, on May 12, 1793. He died on February 6, 1831, and is buried at the Granary Burying Ground, tomb number 125, in Boston.

John Clarke Lee was born in Boston on April 9, 1804, to Nathaniel Cabot Lee, a merchant in Boston, and Mary Ann (Cabot) Lee. John Clarke Lee was Captain Joseph Lee (1744-1831)'s grandson. Both of John's parents died before he was six years old, and at the age of seven, he went to live with his aunt, Sarah (Pickering) Clarke, in Salem. When he was twelve years old, he went to live with the family of another relative, John Pickering.

After leaving Harvard College, John Clarke Lee studied law in the office of John Pickering, but later became a member of the wholesale dry goods firm, Merrick and Lee of Boston, from 1826 until 1830. In 1830, he was forced to leave the firm due to ill health, and returned to Salem. In 1848 he was one of the founders, along with George Higginson, of the firm Lee, Higginson, and Company, bankers and brokers of Boston. He was a director of many corporations, trustee of various funds, fellow and treasurer of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a prominent member of the Essex Country Natural Society, and chairman of the finance committee of the Essex Institute from the date of its organization in 1848, until his death. He also had an interest in gardening.

On July 29, 1826, John married Harriet Paine Rose, the daughter of William Paine. They had nine children who lived until adulthood. John died in Salem on November 19, 1877.

Index Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in Philcat. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons, or places should search the catalog using these headings.

Brooks, Henry M. (Henry Mason), 1822-1898
Dodge, Pickering
Downing, Andrew Jackson, 1815-1852
Greene, Charles W.
Hinckley, David, active 1833-1835
Lee, Harriet Rose
Lee, Henry, 1782-1867
Lee, John Clarke, 1804-1877
Lee, Joseph, 1744-1831
Lee, Joseph, 1770-1845
Lee, Joseph, 1773-
Lee, Nathaniel Cabot, 1772-1806
Lee, William P., b. 1833
Perkins, Thomas Handasyd, 1764-1854
Roosevelt, Theodore, 1858-1919
Rose family
Rose, Harriet Paine
Rose, Rachel W.
Very, Martha N.
Washington, Booker T., 1856-1915
Wilson, Edward C.
Abaelius (Brig)
Alexander (Brig)
Bocca Tigris (Brig)
Cambridge (Steamer)
Caroline Augusta (Brig)
Courier (Ship)
Lark (Brig)
London (Ship)
Pembroke (Steamer)
Persia (Ship)
Phenex (Brigantine)
Ropes, Pickman & Co. (Salem, Mass.)
Split Log (Schooner)
Texel (Brig)
Winslow Lewis Co.
Estates, administration of
Ship building
Salem (Mass.)--Streets--Chestnut Street
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
United States--History--War of 1812


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Administrative Information


Requests for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Preferred Citation

Lee Family Papers, MSS 129, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


The bulk of the collection is from an unknown source. However, donations include John Clarke Lee's photograph albums given by George C. Lee and Mrs. Francis H. Lee's 1914 gift of John Clarke Lee's index to gardening books. Removed from the collection are papers of Charles Ward, Joseph Orne, Philip English, E. Hersey Derby, and the Salem School Committee, as well as trade cards, advertisements and envelopes (see separation sheet for complete listing).

Processing Information

Collection processed by Sylvia B. Kennick, June 1984. Updated by Hilary Streifer, August 2014.

Related Material

Morse, Frances Rollins. Henry and Mary Lee Letters and Journals: With Other Family Letters, 1802-1860. Boston: Printed Privately, 1926.

Porter, Kenneth Wiggins, ed. The Jacksons and the Lees. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937.

Waters, Henry Fitz-Gilbert. The New England Historical and Genealogical Registrar: Vols. 37-52. The Society, 1922.

Willson, Rev. E. B. "Memorial of John Clarke Lee." Historical Collections of the Essex Institute 15 (1878): 35-62.

Francis Henry Lee Papers, MSS 128

Merrick Lee and Company Papers, MSS 127

Appendix I

Appendix II

Appendix III, Select Lee Family Genealogy

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