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Honorable James H. Duncan (1793-1869) Papers

Honorable James H. Duncan (1793-1869) Papers

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HONORABLE JAMES H. DUNCAN (1793-1869) PAPERS, 1668-1910


Processing and conservation of this collection was funded in part by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

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:Duncan, James Henry, 1793-1869
Title:Honorable James H. Duncan (1793-1869) Papers
Quantity:5.5 linear feet (8 boxes)
Abstract:The Honorable James H. Duncan papers are comprised of materials relating to Duncan's personal affairs, legal affairs and business activities in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Collection Number:MH 8

Series List

SERIES I. Personal Papers
SERIES II. Professional and Business Papers
A. Political Papers
B. Legal and Business Papers
SERIES III. Duncan Family Papers
A. James Duncan Sr. and James Duncan Jr. Papers
B. James H. Duncan Family Papers

Scope and Content Note

The Honorable James H. Duncan papers are comprised of materials relating to Duncan's personal affairs, legal affairs and business activities in the first half of the nineteenth century. The bulk of the material is from 1668 to 1910. This collection has been divided into three series.

Series I. Personal Papers includes correspondence, estate papers, receipts, and printed matter. The personal correspondence consists of letters received from family members and friends. The civic and societal correspondence contains items concerning Duncan's activities as a member of the Brown University Board of Fellows, the American Baptist Missionary Union, and the Essex Agricultural Society.

Series II. Professional and Business Papers has been divided into two subseries. Subseries A. Political Papers is largely comprised of letters received from mentors John Varnum and Leverett Saltonstall. Many of the letters from 1819 and the early 1850s document the concerns of local residents on the issues of slavery and secession. The Whig Convention papers illustrate the election of delegates from twenty-one Essex County townships to a convention of National Republicans (Whigs) held in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1831. Subseries B. Legal and Business Papers document the close relationship between Duncan's legal work as a probate lawyer and Justice of the Peace and his real estate investments in eastern Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The correspondence contains information on Duncan's management of various real estate transactions, as well as material concerning the Boston and Maine railroad. The real estate transactions are largely deeds and agreements in which Duncan conducted business for himself or on behalf of clients. The papers of the Haverhill Bridge document the activities of the proprietors of the bridge and associated land transactions and disputes. The railroad corporation materials contain notes on the status of a number of railroads, including the Haverhill and Andover, Eastern, Western, and the Andover and Wilmington lines. The Eliphalet Webster account papers are financial statements for a store owned by Duncan and managed by Webster.

Series III. Duncan Family Papers includes papers from a number of Duncan's family members. This series has been divided into two subseries. Subseries A. James Duncan Sr. and James Duncan Jr. Papers contains mostly probate items concerning related land transactions. The Samuel White estate was managed by his son-in-law, James Duncan, Jr. These probate records are remarkably complete and involve a large number of real estate transactions. Subseries B. James H. Duncan Family Papers contain items associated with Duncan's wife, Mary (Willis) Duncan, her father Benjamin Willis, and three of Duncan's children; the majority of the papers are personal letters between family members. The Benjamin Willis correspondence is comprised of letters from his son William during a voyage on the schooner Union. Of particular interest are the papers of Mary (Duncan) Harris, who was interested in the work of Baptist missionaries in Japan and Turkey. Rebecca Duncan's autograph book contains notes and signatures from a number of nationally prominent individuals such as Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Johnson, Thaddeus Stevens, Winfield Scott, Millard Fillmore, and Daniel Webster.

Biographical Sketch

James Henry Duncan was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1793 to Rebekah (White) and James Duncan, Jr. His expeditious completion of the course of study at Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, enabled him to enter Harvard University at the age fourteen. Upon his graduation in 1812, he studied law, first with John Varnum in Haverhill, and later with Leverett Saltonstall in Salem. Duncan was elected Major of the Haverhill Light Infantry just before his admission to the Essex Bar in 1815. He soon opened his first practice in Haverhill.

On June 26, 1826, he married Mary Willis, the daughter of Boston merchant Benjamin Willis. Of the thirteen children born to them, three died in infancy and three died in early adulthood, leaving two sons and five daughters. Soon after his marriage Duncan began his political career with his election to the State House of Representatives in 1827. He was elected State Senator in 1837, was reelected in 1838, and in 1848 served the first of two consecutive terms as a United States Congressional Representative.

In 1835, Duncan became a member of the Board of Fellows at Brown University, a post he maintained until his death. In 1861, the University expressed its gratitude in conferring upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws. Duncan was a lifelong parishioner at the First Baptist Church of Haverhill and was also a member of the American Baptist Missionary Union. He served as President of the Essex County Agricultural Society from 1836 to 1838, and was active in local political and civic activities throughout his life. He died suddenly of pneumonia on February 8, 1869.

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.

Ayer, Joseph, 1793-1875
Duncan, James, 1726-1817
Duncan, James, 1756-1822
Duncan, Mary Willis, d. 1888
Duncan, Rebecca, d. 1870
Duncan, Rebekah White, 1754-1838
Harris, Mary Duncan, d. 1910
Saltonstall, Leverett, 1783-1845
Smith, Hezekiah
Smith, Jonathan Kimball
Varnum, John, 1778-1836
Webster, Eliphalet
White, Samuel
Whittier, Warner
Willis, Benjamin, 1768-1853
American Baptist Missionary Union
Andover and Haverhill Rail Road Corporation
Andover and Wilmington Rail-Road Corporation
Boston and Maine Railroad
Brown University
Eastern Railroad Company
Essex Agricultural Society (Mass.)
Haverhill Bridge
Union (Schooner)
Western Rail-Road Corporation
Whig Party (Mass.)
Administration of estates
Legislators--United States
National Republican Party
Political science--Massachusetts
Politics, Practical--Massachusetts
Probate law and practice
Slavery--United States
Salem (Mass.)
United States--History--1783-1865
United States--Politics and government--1815-1861


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

Honorable James H. Duncan (1793-1869) Papers, MH 8, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


This material is a reorganization of seven boxes of personal and professional documents, legal papers, land plans, diaries, accounts, and receipts removed from the Phillips Family Papers (MH 4), which was donated to the museum as part of the estate of Stephen Phillips (accession #19,823). The James H. Duncan Papers, MSS 0.219, was integrated into this collection. Its provenance is unknown.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Robert P. Spindler, May 1987. Updated by Hilary Streifer, May 2015.

Related Material

Chase, George Wingate. The History of Haverhill. Haverhill, MA: George Wingate Chase, 1861.

Duncan, James Jr. Journal Kept By James Duncan Jr. of Haverhill, Mass. On a Journey to Gilmanton, Warren, Haverhill and Lebanon, N. H. in November, 1806. Reprint from Essex Institute Historical Collection. Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1943.

Duncan, James Henry. A Treatise on Slavery in Which is Shown Forth the Evil of Slaveholding Both From the Light of Nature and Divine Revelation. NY: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1840.

Duncan, James Henry. "In Memoriam." [no imprint], 1869.

Duncan, James Henry. Speech of Hon. J. H. Duncan of Mass., on the California and Territorial Questions Delivered in the House of Representatives, June 7, 1850. Washington, D. C.: Congressional Globe Office, 1850.

Duncan, James Henry. "Untitled Address." Essex Agricultural Society Transactions. 1 (1830): 3-19.

Hurd, D. Hamilton. History of Essex County, Massachusetts with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Prominent Men. Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis and Company, 1888.

Phillips, James Duncan. "James Duncan of Haverhill, Pack Peddler, Store Keeper, and Merchant." Essex Institute Historical Collection. 88 (1952): 1-18.

Phillips, James Duncan. "James Duncan and Son, Merchants, Capitalists, and Chain Store Operators." Essex Institute Historical Collections. 89 (1953): 19-56.

Papers of Stephen Henry Phillips, 1846-1890. MSS 0.203.

Stephen Henry Phillips Papers, 1893-1950. E 4.

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