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Stearns and Sprague Family Papers

Stearns and Sprague Family Papers

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Processing and conservation of this collection were 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:Stearns family
Title:Stearns and Sprague Family Papers
Quantity:2 linear feet (3 boxes, 6 volumes)
Abstract:The Stearns and Sprague Family papers document the activities of Dr. William Stearns (1754-1819), a Salem apothecary and grocer, and his father-in-law, shipping merchant and distillery owner Joseph Sprague (1739-1808).
Collection Number:MSS 192

Series List

SERIES I. William Stearns (1754-1819) Papers
SERIES II. Joseph Sprague (1739-1808) Papers
SERIES III. Family and Miscellaneous Papers

Scope and Content Note

The Stearns and Sprague Family papers document the activities of Dr. William Stearns (1754-1819), a Salem apothecary and grocer, and his father-in-law, shipping merchant and distillery owner Joseph Sprague (1739-1808). The collection also contains records of other family members. The papers of the Stearns and Sprague families have been cataloged as one collection due to the overlap of the families in real estate and other business ventures. This overlap was the partial result of William Stearns' marriage to Sarah White Sprague. The papers are divided into three series.

Series I. William Stearns (1754-1819) Papers contains correspondence, account books, and financial and legal papers. The records document William's apothecary and grocery store, and the shipping ventures in which he had a minor interest. Of note in the correspondence are letters concerning the 1791-1793 court case which William brought against the United States government. William sought compensation for the damage done to his father's Charlestown farm by American troops during the Revolution. (The Business and Personal Accounts contain William's financial statements drawn up for the court case.) Also of interest is correspondence directed to William as director of the Salem Turnpike and Chelsea Bridge Corporation, letters regarding the lease of property in Charlestown, and a 1792 letter concerning William Stearns and Jonathan Waldo's construction of a building on Jeffrey's corner (Essex and Washington Streets) in Salem. The bulk of the legal papers consists of land deeds and permits to sell liquor.

Series II. Joseph Sprague (1739-1808) Papers includes correspondence, account books, and financial and legal papers which document Joseph's shipping, distillery, and personal activities from 1764 to 1806. The correspondence contains merchant and masters' correspondence, a 1774 letter regarding construction of the schooner Molly, and personal correspondence to his daughter, Sarah. The financial papers include government bond accounts (1791) and accounts of the schooners Molly, Sacarrissa, and Ann, ships Hector and Pickering, and the brigantine Mary. The legal papers contain bills of sale for the schooner Polly and shares in the privateers brigantine Cabot and ship Columbus. Also of interest are pew and land deeds, including land deeded to Sarah (Sprague) Stearns and bills of sale for lands confiscated from loyalist William Brown.

Series III. Family and Miscellaneous Papers documents six generations of the Stearns and Sprague families. The papers include: household and farm receipts of Dr. William Stearns' father Peleg (1720-1780); Sarah White (Sprague) Stearns' (1764-1844) personal correspondence, accounts land deeds, and an 1827 lease of land to the town of Salem for the Bickford Street School; pew deeds and household, apothecary and grocer's receipts of William Stearns Jr. (1788-1865); real estate account books of William S. Stearns of Malden, Massachusetts; personal correspondence from Richard and Carrie Stearns on their trip through Italy and France, and while living in England; and land deeds of Sarah (Sprague) Stearns' grandfather, James White of Haverhill and Atkinson, New Hampshire. The miscellaneous family papers contain personal and business correspondence, accounts, deeds, and obituaries of Joseph E. (1752-1852), Samuel, Joseph G., Elizabeth, and S. J. Sprague, and Elizabeth (Harris), James White, Richard, Harriet, Caroline, William B., Joshua B., William S., and Sarah E. Stearns. Of interest is the 1718/9 will of Peter Harris, the father of Elizabeth (Harris) Swineton Stearns, and a letter received by Joseph E. Sprague describing a shipwreck off the coast of Guadeloupe (1823).

The miscellaneous papers include business and personal receipts of Andrew Wallis, essays, and accounts of the Boston Treasury Office (1782).

Biographical Sketches

Dr. William Stearns was born in 1754 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the only child of Peleg (1720-1780) and Elizabeth (Harris) Swineton Stearns (d. 1789). Upon graduating from Harvard College in 1776, William studied medicine with Dr. Joshua Bracket of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. William started his first medical practice in Marblehead, in partnership with Dr. Hall Johnson. Due to his bad health, William left medicine and studied chemistry in Boston. Soon he moved to Salem where he established a prosperous apothecary and grocery store at 244 Essex Street. By 1792, William was wealthy enough to partially fund construction of a brick building on the corner of Essex and Washington Streets. William held a number of municipal offices, including Overseer of the Poor, and was director of the Salem Turnpike and Chelsea Bridge Corporation.

William married Sarah White Sprague (1764-1844), daughter of Joseph (1738-1808) and Elizabeth (White) Sprague. William and Sarah had ten children. He died in 1819.

Joseph Sprague was born in 1739 in Medford, Massachusetts. Upon moving to Salem, Joseph established a prosperous distillery, which he operated in partnership with John Page. He also engaged in West Indian shipping ventures. He married Elizabeth White, daughter of Col. James White of Atkinson, New Hampshire. Their daughter, Sarah White Sprague, married apothecary William Stearns. He died in 1808.

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.

Brown, William
Harris, Peter
Page, John
Sprague family
Sprague, Elizabeth
Sprague, Joseph E., 1782-1852
Sprague, Joseph G.
Sprague, Joseph, 1739-1808
Stearns, Caroline, 1798-1851
Stearns, Carrie
Stearns, Elizabeth Harris Swineton
Stearns, Harriet, b. 1800
Stearns, James White
Stearns, Joshua B.
Stearns, Peleg, 1720-1780
Stearns, Richard
Stearns, Sarah E.
Stearns, Sarah White Sprague, 1764-1844
Stearns, William B.
Stearns, William S.
Stearns, William, 1754-1819
Stearns, William, 1788-1865
Waldo, Jonathan
Wallis, Andrew
White, James
Ann (Schooner)
Cabot (Brigantine)
Columbus (Ship)
Hector (Ship)
Mary (Brigantine)
Molly (Schooner)
Pickering (Ship)
Polly (Schooner)
Sacarrissa (Schooner)
Salem Turnpike and Chelsea Bridge Corporation
Account books
American loyalists
Merchants--Salem (Mass.)
Real property
Voyages and travels
Atkinson (N.H.)
Charlestown (Boston, Mass.)
Great Britain--Description and travel
Haverhill (Mass.)
Malden (Mass.)
United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783


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

Stearns and Sprague Family Papers, MSS 192, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


Donations include: Dr. J. J. Mangan's 1907 gift of three Joseph Sprague daybooks and one William Stearns account book; Joseph Sprague's 1772-1775 distillery day book and William Stearns' apothecary sales books and entertainment account book donated by Harry C. Gauss in 1915; miscellaneous family receipts and deeds given in 1905 by Samuel Castner, Jr.; and William S. Stearns' real estate cashbook donated by Richard S. Stearns in 1927. A folder of Joseph Sprague receipts was added from the Tucker Family papers (MSS 165).

Processing Information

Collection processed by Sylvia B. Kennick, September 1985. Updated by Tamara Gaydos, February 2016.

Related Material

Tapley, Harriet Silvester. "Dr. William Stearns, Merchant and Apothecary with Some Account of the Sprague Family." Historical Collections of the Essex Institute 64 (1928): 1.

Van Wagenen, Avis Stearns. Genealogy and Memoirs of Isaac Stearns and His Descendants. Syracuse, N. Y.: Courier Printing, 1901.

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