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William R. Gray (1750-1825) Papers

William R. Gray (1750-1825) Papers

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WILLIAM R. GRAY (1750-1825) PAPERS, 1781-1840

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:Gray, William, 1750-1825
Title:William R. Gray (1750-1825) Papers
Quantity:0.75 linear feet (1 box, 1 volume)
Abstract:The William R. Gray papers contain one box of correspondence, legal, financial, and shipping papers for the Salem, Massachusetts, and Boston merchant.
Collection Number:MSS 115

Series List

Scope and Content Note

The William R. Gray papers contain one box of correspondence, legal, financial, and shipping papers for the Salem, Massachusetts, and Boston merchant. The collection is only representative of Gray's prosperous career. Unfortunately the bulk of his papers were destroyed in the Boston fire of 1872. The collection which ranges from 1781 to 1840 does, however, touch on almost all the major activities of Gray's life, reflecting his prosperous mercantile business and his presidencies of the Essex Bank and the Essex Fire & Marine Insurance Company, both in Salem, and the Bank of the United States, Boston Branch.

The letters in the letterbook (1818-1830) are written to Gray's agents and various mercantile houses located on the east coast of the United States and in foreign ports all over the world. Major addresses of the correspondence include: Thomas Wright & Company of St. Petersburg; Goodhue & Company of new York; Captain David Starbuck of Nantucket; William (1779-1833) and Nathaniel (1773-1850) Silsbee of Salem; Thomas Dickason & Company of London; Captain George Barker of Marblehead, Massachusetts; Jacob B. Winchester of Salem; I. L. Mertens Mosselman & Company of Antwerp; Hope & Company of Amsterdam; and George W. Prescott of Charleston, South Carolina. These letters consist mainly of instructions from Gray for carrying out his business and inquiries by him about prices and trading opportunities at the various ports. Gray traded in a wide variety of goods including whale oil, duck cloth, sail cloth, fish oil, candle tallow, coffee, cotton, brandy, molasses, animal skins, and leather. A letter to Captain John Winn of Salem and a poem are inserted into the letterbook.

Included with William Gray's papers is correspondence for his children: William Rufus (1783-1831), John Chipman (1793-1881), and Horace Gray (1800-1873), and legal papers for his nephew and nieces: Samuel Calley, Mary Gray, and Catherine Gray.

Biographical Sketch

William Rufus Gray was a Massachusetts merchant and politician. Born on June 27, 1750 to Abraham and Lydia (Calley) Gray of Lynn, Massachusetts, he managed to build his own business and rise through the state's political ranks, becoming the richest man in New England.

When he was a ten years old, Gray's father, a shoemaker, moved to Salem, where Gray was apprenticed to Samuel Gardner, Later he entered the counting house of Richard Derby and at the age of 28, started business for himself. In 1775, as a member of the Salem militia, he made a forced march with his company to Lexington, arriving too late for the battle. On June 6, 1776 he was commissioned second lieutenant of the First Essex Regiment, but there is no record that he had any further Revolutionary service.

His business ventures proved to be highly profitable and he was the owner of a number of privateers during the Revolution. He was one of the first New England merchants to enter into trade with Russia, India, and China. When he moved to Boston in 1809, he was the owner of 15 ships, 7 barks, 13 brigs, and one schooner, and his estate was estimated at $3 million. In 1792 the Essex Bank was organized by Salem merchants with William Gray as its first president. In 1803 Gray bought a wharf in Charlestown and sent his eldest son William Rufus to Boston as his agent.

In 1807 Gray was chosen as a Federalist senator from Essex County and was reelected in the following year. In 1810 he ran for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket with Elbridge Gerry and was elected. He was reelected in 1811 but because of ill health declined a nomination 1812.

He married Elizabeth Chipman (1756-1823) of Marblehead in 1782. Elizabeth was a pioneer in philanthropy, volunteering a significant portion of her time to helping the poorest citizens of Boston. They had ten children, of whom six survived their parents.

In Boston he lived on Summer Street, in the mansion previously occupied by Governor Sullivan. He died on November 4, 1825 in Boston.

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.

Barker, George
Gray, Horace, 1800-1873
Gray, John Chipman, 1793-1881
Gray, Samuel Calley
Gray, William Rufus, 1783-1831
Kinsman, Nathaniel, 1775-1808
Mugford, William
Silsbee, Nathaniel, 1773-1850
Silsbee, William, 1779-1833
American Hero (Ship)
Antelope (Vessel)
Betsy (Vessel)
Caspian (Brig)
Charles (Brig)
Choral (Ship)
Commerce (Brig)
Commerce (Ship)
Delphos (Ship)
Eliza (Brigantine)
Enterprize (Vessel)
Essex Bank (Salem, Mass.)
Essex Fire & Marine Insurance Company (Salem, Mass.)
Fox (Brig)
Laurel (Ship)
Mentor (Brigantine)
Minerva (Vessel)
Polly (Schooner)
Salem (Brigantine)
Serpent (Ship)
Trent (Ship)
Ulysses (Ship)
Vengeance (Brig)
William (Ship)
Boston (Mass.)
Salem (Mass.)


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

William R. Gray (1750-1825) Papers, MSS 115, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


The William Gray Papers are an integration of miscellaneous manuscript folders the bulk of which are from an unknown source. However, the Aurelia and Concord account book was a 1916 gift of Mrs. C.A. Cooper and the William Rufus Gray letter book was a 1954 gift of Hope Gray. Three receipts and 1 power of attorney for William Shepard Gray were removed to the William Shepard Gray papers.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Prudence Backman, March 1984. Updated by Catherine Robertson, January 2015.

Related Material

Fairburn, William Armstrong. "William Gray, of Massachusetts, America's Greatest Shipowner-Merchant of His Day." Merchant Sail. Maine: Fairburn Marine Educational Foundation, 1945. p. 549.

Johnson, Allen et al., Dictionary of American Biography. Vol VII. Ed. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1931. p. 523.

Conneau, Theophile. A Slaver's Logbook: or 20 Year's Residence in Africa: the Original Manuscript. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976. p. 1-7.

Appendix I

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