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Crowninshield Family Papers

Crowninshield Family Papers

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Processing for 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:Crowninshield family
Title:Crowninshield Family Papers
Quantity:5 linear feet (10 boxes, 1 flat file)
Abstract:The Crowninshield Family Papers are comprised of business, political, and personal papers of the George Crowninshield family from 1789-1864.
Collection Number:MSS 4

Series List

SERIES I. Crowninshield Family Ships' Papers
SERIES II. George Crowninshield (1734-1815) Papers
A. Personal Papers
B. George Crowninshield, Jr. Papers
C. George Crowninshield and Sons
SERIES III. Jacob Crowninshield (1770-1808) Papers
A. Correspondence
B. Personal Papers
Series IV. John Crowninshield (1771-1842) Papers
A. Correspondence
B. Shipping and Business Papers
C. Personal Papers
D. Family Papers
Series V. Benjamin W. Crowninshield (1772-1851) Papers
A. Correspondence
B. Personal Papers
C. Family Papers
Series VI. Richard Crowninshield (1774-1844) Papers
Series VII. Miscellaneous Papers
A. Family Papers
B. Non-Family Papers

Scope and Content Note

The Crowninshield Family Papers are comprised of business, political, and personal papers of the George Crowninshield family from 1789-1864. The bulk of the papers concerns the prosperous years of the family enterprises, 1800-1815. Approximately five boxes are the papers collected, generated, and annotated by John Crowninshield. The collection is divided into seven series.

Other than the material included in the ships' papers, all correspondence between George, Sr., his sons, and their wives is filed with the recipient. This family correspondence contains information on the health of family members, the financial status of Richard Crowninshield, current mercantile affairs in the family shipping business, and political and social events in Salem. Additionally, the activities of family members other than the correspondents are often mentioned in these letters.

All non-family correspondence includes incoming and outgoing letters. This is largely correspondence from merchant houses, business associates, political figures, and friends of the family. Depending upon the addressee, they can relate to shipping affairs (John and Richard Crowninshield), political appointments (Jacob and Benjamin Crowninshield) or the health of family members. For additional details on the contents of correspondence in this collection, see the descriptions within each series below.

Series I. Crowninshield Family Ships' Papers consists of correspondence, accounts, receipts, drawings, insurance papers, legal papers, and crew lists associated with ships owned, mastered, captured, or chartered by George Crowninshield or his sons (see Appendix I). The majority of the ships' papers concern mercantile voyages from 1800-1820 to Europe and Asia. Because many of these vessels were commanded by family members, additional details of Crowninshield voyages may be extracted from the family correspondence received by the individual family members. Of particular interest are the papers of ship America, which document an 1801 pepper voyage from Sumatra and the subsequent export of the pepper from Salem to Bordeaux. The papers of brig Diomede contain extensive accounts from the construction of the vessel in 1809-1810. The papers of privateer schooner Diomede also document the construction of the vessel and include material on her captured prizes as well. Additional information on the Crowninshield's privateering efforts is located in Series II, Subseries C, and Series IV, Subseries B. Those interested in the voyage of brig Dido to Archangel should also consult the papers of brig Telemachus. The papers of ships Golden Age and Margaret, and brigs Telemachus and Hind all include spoliation claims negotiated in the 1830s. For spoliation claims of ship Margaret see also ship Golden Age. Correspondence concerning the financial difficulties of Richard Crowninshield is located among the papers of brig Sylph, as the vessel was sold to John on the eve of Richard's bankruptcy.

Series II. George Crowninshield (1734-1815) Papers extend from 1765-1822 and include the papers of his son George, Jr. (1766-1817) and the family shipping firm, George Crowninshield and Sons. George Crowninshield, Sr.'s papers contain family correspondence received from his sons that generally concerns the voyages of Crowninshield's vessels and mercantile finances. His papers include his own valuations of his estate in 1809 and 1814. The papers of his son George, Jr. also have a corpus of family correspondence concerning shipping activities. The papers of the family shipping firm George Crowninshield and Sons have official correspondence from family members on shipping and business affairs. Many of these are letters between Richard and merchant agents in America and abroad. The privateer memorandum books consist of instructions, agreements, and crew lists associated with the private armed vessels America, John, and Jefferson as well as lists of prizes and their cargoes and crews. The firm's account book is mostly concerned with shipping but also documents the division of the firm's assets and liabilities amongst the component family members.

Series III. Jacob Crowninshield (1770-1808) Papers cover the years 1785-1835. The family correspondence received by Jacob consists of letters from his father and brothers on business affairs and letters from his wife Sally on personal and local news after 1804. Non-family correspondence includes material related to local politics. However, there are a few items from nationally prominent individuals such as William Eustis, Albert Gallatin, and Joseph Story (see Appendix II).

Series IV. John Crowninshield (1771-1842) Papers extend from 1789-1897 and are divided into four subseries. Subseries A. Correspondence is almost entirely devoted to shipping and business affairs between John, his father, and his brothers. This section contains the largest body of correspondence from George Crowninshield, Sr. Letters from Jacob (November 1794, January 1796) describe his efforts to bring the first elephant to America. Letters from John's wife, Maria, provide more personal information after 1813. Correspondence from George, Jr.'s illegitimate daughter Sophia is also found in this section (1818-1821, 1829, 1842). The correspondence transcripts are mostly duplicates of the original John Crowninshield letters in previous folders. Miscellaneous transcripts are excerpts from the logbooks of ships Belisarius (1797-1798) and America (1801), and a letter of instructions for sloop Polly and Sally (1791).

Subseries B. Shipping and Business Papers are generally comprised of administrative materials related to Crowninshield shipping activities and papers that document John's efforts at diversification through real estate investments in Maine and other businesses in New Orleans. The accounts are primarily related to the crew of the Belisarius but also concern the cargo carried on that voyage. The New Orleans investment papers contain correspondence, bills, and accounts with the two agencies that handled the distillery and the saw mill. Correspondence from Benjamin (1782-1864) includes letters to John during the 1817 voyage of Cleopatra's Barge and material concerning the supervision of the New Orleans businesses.

Subseries C. Personal Papers includes estate papers, accounts, receipts, and legal papers concerning John Crowninshield's private affairs.

Subseries D. Family Papers are comprised of materials relative to John's wife and children. Maria Crowninshield's correspondence is comprised of personal letters she received from John and her sisters.

Series V. Benjamin Crowninshield (1772-1851) Papers extend from 1791-1881 and are divided into three subseries. Subseries A. Correspondence includes family correspondence from brothers-in-law Nathaniel Silsbee and John Rice. Letters dated before 1820 are primarily concerned with family shipping activities. Correspondence from his wife Mary provides more personal information, including discussions of inheritance problems and some detail on the voyages of Crowninshield vessels and their prizes after 1814. As the family shipping activities decreased after 1820 the family correspondence became more personal in nature. Non-family correspondence includes a number of letters from nationally prominent statesmen (see Appendix III). The material represents an important source on the history of the American Navy in the years following the War of 1812. A large corpus of correspondence with Benjamin Homans, an administrator in the Navy Department, provides detail on the management of ships, personnel, and material.

The estate account book in Subseries B. Personal Papers was kept by his son Francis B. Crowninshield and also contains material relating to a number of relations in Francis' generation.

Subseries C. Family Papers contain a series of letters received by Mary B. Crowninshield from Benjamin in Washington, D.C. initially describing Jacob's health before his death and discussing political and social affairs. Later correspondence is almost entirely devoted to social activities in Washington and personal matters. There are also a number of personal letters from Mary's brothers and sisters in this folder. Material after 1830 is dominated by letters from her children. Miscellaneous family correspondence is largely made up of correspondence with Mary Boardman (Mary B. Crowninshield's mother) and letters received by Benjamin's children.

Series VI. Richard Crowninshield (1774-1884) Papers extend from 1789-1832 and are mostly comprised of materials relating to his shipping activities and financial difficulties. The family correspondence is made up of letters from his brothers regarding the family shipping business. Non-family correspondence is also generally associated with shipping activities and accounts with various merchant houses. The Richard Crowninshield, Jr. papers contain correspondence from a Salem jail of questionable authenticity.

Series VII. Miscellaneous Papers run from 1697-1909 and are divided into two subseries. Subseries A. Family Papers includes materials associated with the family but not directly related to George Crowninshield or his sons. Subseries B. Non-Family Papers includes printed matter and correspondence.

Biographical Sketch

George Crowninshield (1734-1815) was the son of Captain John and Anstiss (Williams) Crowninshield. His grandfather, John Casper Richter von Kronensheldt, immigrated to Massachusetts from Germany in the 1680s. George began his sea career at an early age on the ships of Richard Derby, the founder of the Derby shipping empire. George married Richard's daughter, Mary, and became a strong competitor with his in-laws upon the establishment of George Crowninshield & Sons in 1790. His five sons were involved in this business, which became one of the leading shipping companies of nineteenth century Salem. Crowninshield ships sailed to India, the East and West Indies, Europe, and South America. In 1809, sons Richard and John withdrew from the family firm to seek their own fortunes. The reconstituted firm (with George Sr., George Jr., Jacob, and Benjamin Williams) prospered until the death of their father in 1815. During the years 1790-1815, the Crowninshield family held a prominent position in Salem society, both commercially and politically. In these years, they successfully diminished the influence of the Derby family. George and Mary (died 1813) had seven children: George Jr., Jacob, John, Richard, Mary, Sarah, and Benjamin Williams.

George Crowninshield, Jr. (1766-1817) began his sailing career on Derby ships. He went on to master the Crowninshield vessels Richard and Edward and Belisarius before returning to Salem where he joined his father in managing the Salem activities of George Crowninshield & Sons. Historically George, Jr. is noted for retrieving the bodies of Lawrence and Ludlow of the captured U.S.S Chesapeake in 1813. A man of wealth and leisure, George, Jr. built the first ocean going yacht Cleopatra's Barge. In it he toured Europe in 1817. Shortly after this voyage he died suddenly. Although he never married he left at least two illegitimate children, Clara and Sophia.

Jacob Crowninshield (1770-1808) entered the political arena in 1799 after many years of sailing both Derby and Crowninshield vessels. He ran as a Republican against the Federalist Derby candidates unsuccessfully for several years. In 1803 he was finally elected to a seat in the United States House of Representatives. President Jefferson offered him the post of Secretary of the Navy in 1804, but Jacob declined the position. He died of consumption during the 1808 session of Congress. Jacob and Sarah (Gardner) had four children: Jacob, Charles, Sarah, and Mary.

John Crowninshield (1771-1842) was the third son of George and Mary. Early in his career he sailed Crowninshield ships, but with the rapid increase of the shipping business, and the resultant expansion of the family firm, John was sent to France where he acted as their European agent (1803-1806). His time there was well spent travelling between Bordeaux and Paris. In 1809 John and Richard left the family firm to engage independently in shipping activities. John's ships travelled to Russia, North Africa, and the East Indies. Richard and John maintained a close business relationship until 1811, when Richard left the shipping business to become a wool manufacturer. As Richard encountered financial setbacks he turned to John for assistance. John could only pay a few of the debts and offer advice as he too was in some financial difficulty. His shipping business was affected by trade embargoes and ship seizures resulting from the war between France and England. In an attempt to redeem the capture of American ships and seamen, and to gain a quick profit, John captured a privateer. With his fortune nearly gone John built and mastered the privateer schooner Diomede. He succeeded in capturing nine foreign vessels before succumbing to the British in the spring of 1814. His ship was condemned and John was taken prisoner to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Upon his release at the end of the war he returned to Salem. Although he continued to own ships and ship cargoes until 1821, he turned his attention toward the west. His wife oversaw his shipping business while John travelled to New Orleans, where he established a rum distillery and a saw mill. Both investments failed to return any profit. His land investments in Montville, Maine, were also unsuccessful. In 1830, John obtained the post of Appraiser for the Port of Boston. He died in that city in 1842. He married his cousin Maria Crowninshield in 1814 after the death of his first fiancée Sara Rae. They had five children: Maria Louisa, Mary Williams, John Casper, Charles, and Ellen.

Benjamin Williams Crowninshield (1772-1851) was the only Crowninshield to succeed in passing on his shipping fortune to his children. The majority of his shipping career took place in Salem where he, Jacob and George supervised the Salem side of the business. In addition, he established, and served as president of the Merchants Bank of Salem. In 1812, he was elected state senator. President Madison offered him the post of Secretary of the Navy in 1814. Unlike his brother Jacob (who refused the office), Benjamin served as Secretary until 1818. He returned from Washington in 1823 to serve for eight years as a congressman from Massachusetts. He and his wife Mary (Boardman) had six children.

Richard Crowninshield (1774-1844) was the last Crowninshield son, and he was chosen to be the New York agent for the family firm. In New York he met and married Ann Sterling, widow of Captain O'Brien. When the firm divided in 1809, Richard continued his shipping business from New York. In 1811 he opened a wool manufacturing plant in New York. When his New York business went bankrupt, he opened a new wool mill in Connecticut. Shortly after the factory was completed it was destroyed by fire. He returned to Danvers, Massachusetts, to build another wool mill in 1816. This mill was also destroyed by fire. Richard's remaining years were spent trying to avoid his creditors. He died of typhoid fever in 1844.

Relatives of the Crowninshield Family Represented in the Crowninshield Family Papers

Armstrong, James: Married first Hannah and then Elizabeth (Boardman) Crowninshield, both sisters of Maria (b 1789)

Crowninshield, Benjamin (1758-1836): Sea captain and customs collector for Marblehead (1821-1830). A nephew of George, he sailed several Crowninshield vessels including America and Cleopatra's Barge. He married Mary Lambert in 1780. His children were Benjamin, Elizabeth, Hannah, Jacob, and Maria (who married John Crowninshield).

Crowninshield, Clifford (1699-1776): Sea captain, George, Sr.'s uncle Crowninshield, Clifford (1762-1809): Sea captain and merchant; he was the son of John and Mary (Ives) and grandson of Clifford (1699-1776).

Crowninshield, Jacob (1732-1774): Brother of George, Sr. and father of Benjamin (1758-1836), "Aunt" Hannah, and John. His wife Hannah (Carlton) was landlady to William Bentley.

Crowninshield, Jacob (1801-1857): Son of Jacob (1770-1808) and Sally (Gardner); he assisted his uncle John with spoliation and insurance claims on captured ships.

Crowninshield, Sarah (1781-1847): Daughter of George, Sr.; she married John Rice in 1816. She is referred to as sister Rice.

Crowninshield, Sophia: An illegitimate daughter of George, Jr. by Ravell of Salem. She moved to New York and married James Platts and later, Johnson.

Silsbee, Nathaniel (1773-1850): Merchant and business associate of George Crowninshield and Sons. He married Mary Crowninshield (1778-1835) in 1802. He also handled John's business while he was absent from Salem.

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.

Crowninshield, Benjamin W., 1773-1851
Crowninshield, Benjamin, 1782-1864
Crowninshield, Clifford, 1762-1809
Crowninshield, Edward A., 1817-1859
Crowninshield, Francis B., 1809-1877
Crowninshield, George, 1734-1815
Crowninshield, George, Jr., 1766-1817
Crowninshield, Jacob, 1770-1808
Crowninshield, John, 1771-1842
Crowninshield, Maria, 1789-
Crowninshield, Mary Boardman, 1778?-1840
Crowninshield, Richard, 1774-1844
Crowninshield, Richard, Jr., 1804-1830
Crowninshield, William
Eustis, William, 1753-1825
Everett, Edward, 1794-1865
Gallatin, Albert, 1761-1849
Gerry, Elbridge, 1744-1814
Gore, Charles
Graham, John, 1774-182
Hammet, Alex
Homans, Benjamin, 1765-1823
Hull, Isaac, 1773-1843
Maxey, Virgi
Silsbee, Nathaniel, 1748-179
Story, Joseph, 1779-1845
Alfred (Ship)
America (Ship : 1795-1815)
Camel (Bark)
Dido (Brig)
Diomede (Brig)
Diomede (Schooner)
Elizabeth (Brig)
Eunice (Brig)
Fame (Ship)
George Crowninshield & Sons (Salem, Mass.)
Golden Age (Ship)
Harriot (Brig)
Henry (Brig)
Hind (Bark)
Hope (Schooner)
Jefferson (Sloop)
John (Ship : 1795-1813)
Margaret (Ship)
Minerva (Ship : 1800-1816)
Neptune (Brig)
Polly (Sloop)
Telemachus (Brig)
Traveller (Ship)
Wild Goose (Brig)
Account books
Capture at sea
Guardian and ward
Prisoners of war--Nova Scotia--Halifax
Textile fabrics
Montville (Me. : Town)
New Orleans (La.)
Salem (Mass.)
United States. Congress
United States. Navy--History
United States--Foreign relations--19th century
United States--History--Spoliation Claims
United States--Politics and government
United States--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

Crowninshield Family Papers, MSS 4, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


The collection constitutes a reorganization and integration of seven boxes and several miscellaneous folders of manuscripts. The majority of the manuscripts are from an unknown source; however, one folder of estate papers was the gift of William Ward on July 6, 1938.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Prudence K. Backman, November 1980. Updated by Catherine Robertson, October 2014.

Related Material

Bentley, William. The Diary of William Bentley, D.D., Pastor of the East Church, Salem, Massachusetts, April 1784-Dec. 1819. Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1905.

Crowninshield, Francis Boardman, ed. Letters of Mary Boardman Crowninshield, 1815-1816. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1905.

Ferguson, David L. Cleopatra's Barge: The Crowninshield Story. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1976.

Benjamin Crowninshield Family Papers, 1727-1934, undated, MH 16

Clifford Crowninshield Papers, 1692-1861, MSS 97, MH 17

Crowninshield Family Papers, 1697-1909, MH 15

Francis Boardman Crowninshield Family Papers, 1801-1948, MSS 402

Papers of Benjamin Crowninshield, 1812-1838, undated, MSS 0.037

Thomas G. Thornton Papers, 1813-1816, Fam. MSS. 1006

William Crowninshield Endicott Papers, 1817-1934, MH 92

Appendix I

Appendix II

Appendix III

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