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Crowninshield Family Papers

Crowninshield Family Papers

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Processing and conservation of this collection was funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 161 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-948-6012
Creator:Crowninshield family
Title:Crowninshield Family Papers
Quantity:10 linear feet (20 boxes)
Abstract:The Crowninshield Family Papers are comprised of business, political, and personal papers of the George Crowninshield family from 1697-1909. The bulk of the papers are those of John Crowninshield which concern family shipping affairs from 1795-1815.
Collection Number:MH 15

Series List

SERIES I. Crowninshield Family Ships' Papers
SERIES II. George Crowninshield (1734-1815) PapersSERIES III. Jacob Crowninshield (1770-1808) PapersSeries IV. John Crowninshield (1771-1842) PapersSeries V. Benjamin W. Crowninshield (1772-1851) PapersSeries VI. Richard Crowninshield (1774-1844) Papers
Series VII. Miscellaneous Papers

Scope and Content Note

The Crowninshield Family Papers are comprised of business, political, and personal papers of the George Crowninshield family from 1697-1909. The bulk of the papers are those of John Crowninshield which concern family shipping affairs from 1795-1815. 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 Cleopatra's Barge include a reproduction of the original crew list and letterbooks with copies of letters of introduction from various American officials on behalf of George Crowninshield, Jr. The "Historic Material" folder contains printed announcements of the sale of the vessel (1817), correspondence relating to the vessel, notes, newspaper clippings, and labels from a 1916 Peabody Museum of Salem exhibit mounted on the centennial of the ship's construction. The papers of brig Diomede contain extensive accounts from the construction of the vessel in 1809-1810. Additional information on the Crowninshield's privateering efforts is located in Series' II and IV. For more information on the voyage of the brig Dido to Archangel, consult the brig Telemachus papers. 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 contain 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, crew lists associated with the private armed vessels America, John, and Jefferson, 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. Subseries A. Correspondence consists of letters from his father and brothers on business affairs and letters from his wife, Sally, on personal and local news after 1804. Of particular interest are Sally's letters of February 1805 which influenced Jacob's decision to refuse President Jefferson's appointment as Secretary of the Navy. A large portion of the non-family correspondence is made up of transcripts of Jacob's letters copied by William C. Endicott in 1889 from the Jefferson papers then held at the United States Department of State. This material is largely concerned with foreign and domestic political affairs. The William Bentley correspondence is almost entirely comprised of transcripts of letters to Bentley. These letters provide personal perspectives on national political issues including the Louisiana Purchase. Bentley's replies are scarce and express his opinions of local and national issues. The Nathanial Silsbee correspondence is made up of transcripts of correspondence from Jacob to Silsbee. This is largely personal and business correspondence that provides information on other family members and their shipping activities.

Subseries B. Personal Papers includes a copy of Jacob's commission as Secretary of the Navy, estate, guardianship, and various legal papers. Subseries C. Family Papers include material related to the William Crowninshield estate and a Jacob Crowninshield Rogers biography

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. A series of original bound letters (letterbooks) include both incoming and outgoing correspondence. Some of these letterbooks were assembled by John's son John Casper Crowninshield (1820-1878) and were used as sources for his family history.

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 account book/letterbook contains further correspondence regarding the voyages of ship Belisarius to India and ship America to Mauritius and Sumatra. The accounts are primarily related to the crew of the Belisarius but also concern the cargo carried on that voyage.

Subseries C. Personal Papers includes Crowninshield's manuscripts "Salem to Pittsburg, "and "Vindication of the Seaman's Character," two navigation lesson books, accounts and receipts, and printed material.

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. Maria Louisa Crowninshield's journal describes her summer vacation spent at Danvers and a number of day trips to other localities including Andover and Gloucester. There are embroidery letters sketched by Louisa Crowninshield Bacon (born 1842), and a photograph album. John Casper Crowninshield's papers are almost entirely made up of historical research on the family based upon his father's papers. "The Buried Treasure Found" is a novel depicting the discovery of treasure on an unknown island in the Pacific Ocean in 1784. Charles B. Crowninshield's papers include an essay on military fortifications and a scrapbook of orders, correspondence, and accounts from Company E, 1st Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers during the Mexican-American War.

Series V. Benjamin Crowninshield (1772-1851) Papers cover 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. As the family shipping activities decreased after 1820 the family correspondence became more personal in nature. Mary's letters to Benjamin in the spring of 1830 document the hysteria in Salem after the murder of Captain Joseph White and the progress of the trial of Richard and George Crowninshield. Non-family correspondence includes a number of letters from nationally prominent statesmen (see Appendix II). 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. Correspondence from Susan Decatur concerns her efforts to receive a pension from the Navy for the work of her husband Stephen Decatur.

Subseries B. Personal Papers includes estate papers, accounts, receipts, legal papers, certificates, and printed matter related to Crowninshield's private life.

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 1815 broadside is entitled "Death of Crowninshield, the Salem Murderer" and contains a poem about the accused murderer's suicide.

Series VII. Miscellaneous Papers run from 1697-1909 and are divided into two subseries. Subseries A. Family Papers include the Crowninshield (alias India) Wharf papers, which document the sale of the property and an agreement between Joseph G. Waters and Stephen C. Phillips to repair the wharf by popular subscription. Francis B. Crowninshield (1809-1877) assisted in securing the title to the property. The Derby/Crowninshield ancestral tablets were probably compiled by William C. Endicott. The 1697 deed concerns a land purchase of Elizabeth Allen (later Mrs. John C.R. von Kronensheldt). Miscellaneous family papers are materials associated with the family but not directly related to George Crowninshield or his sons. The unidentified items are believed to be from family members, but cannot positively be associated with an individual.

Subseries B. Non-Family Papers include correspondence between John Hathorne, Jr. and Isaac Mitchell of Poughkeepsie, New York regarding the vacant editorial post at the Salem Register.

Biographical Sketches

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), 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.

Adams, John Q., 1767-1848
Bacon, Louisa Crowninshield, b. 1842
Bainbridge, William, 1774-1833
Bentley, William, 1759-1819
Boardman, Mary
Calhoun, John C., 1782-1850
Clay, Henry, 1777-1852
Crowninshield family
Crowninshield, Benjamin W., 1773-1851
Crowninshield, Benjamin, 1758-1836
Crowninshield, Benjamin, 1782-1864
Crowninshield, Charles B., 1824-
Crowninshield, Francis B., 1809-1877
Crowninshield, George C.
Crowninshield, George, 1734-1815
Crowninshield, George, Jr., 1766-1817
Crowninshield, Jacob, 1770-1808
Crowninshield, John C., 1820-1878
Crowninshield, John, 1771-1842
Crowninshield, Maria Louisa, 1816-1834
Crowninshield, Maria, 1789-
Crowninshield, Mary Boardman, 1778?-1840
Crowninshield, Richard, 1774-1844
Crowninshield, Richard, Jr., 1804-1830
Crowninshield, Sarah Gardner, 1773-1807
Crowninshield, William
Dallas, Alexander James, 1759-1817
Dearborn, H. A. S. , 1783-1851
Decatur, Stephen, 1779-1820
Decatur, Susan Wheeler
Derby Family
Endicott, William Crowninshield, 1860-1936
Eustis, William, 1753-1825
Everett, Edward, 1794-1865
Gallatin, Albert, 1761-1849
Gerry, Elbridge, 1744-1814
Gore, Charles
Graham, John, 1774-1820
Hathorne, John, 1749-1834
Homans, Benjamin, 1765-1823
Hull, Isaac, 1773-1843
Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826
Madison, James, 1751-1836
McLean, John, 1785-1861
Mitchell, Isaac, 1780-1863
Monroe, James, 1758-1831
Newton, Thomas, 1704-1782
Phillips, Stephen C., 1801-1857
Quincy, Josiah, 1772-1864
Rice, John P.
Rogers, Jacob Crowninshield
Rush, Richard, 1780-1859
Silsbee, Nathaniel, 1748-1791
Story, Joseph, 1779-184
von Kronensheldt, Elizabeth Allen
von Kronensheldt, John Casper, 1644-1711
Waters, Joseph G. (Joseph Gilbert), 1796-1878
Webster, Daniel, 1782-1852
Alligator (Brig)
Amanda (Schooner)
America (Ship)
Ann (Ship)
Becket (Brig)
Belisaurius (Ship)
Cavalier (Bark)
Charming Sally (Schooner)
Cleopatra's Barge (Brig)
Dart (Brig)
Dido (Brig)
Diomede (Brig)
Diomede (Schooner)
Emeline (Brig)
Eunice (Brig)
Fame (Ship)
George Crowninshield & Sons (Salem, Mass.)
Golden Age (Ship)
Haxall (Schooner)
Henry (Ship)
Hind (Bark)
Hypsia and Jane (Brigantine)
John (Ship)
London Packet (Ship)
Margaret (Vessel)
Mary (Brig)
Merchant (Ship)
Minerva (Ship)
Ocean (Ship)
Pocohantas (Ship)
Polly & Sally (Schooner)
Register Press (Salem, Mass.)
Rhoda and Betsey (Schooner)
Telemachus (Brig)
Thetis (Brig)
Traveller (Ship)
United States Land Company
Account books
Capture at sea
Crew lists
Guardian and ward
Navigation--Study and teaching
Prisoners of war--Nova Scotia--Halifax
Prizes (Property captured at sea)
Textile fabric
Mattapoisett (Mass.)
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, MH 15, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


The Crowninshield Family Papers are a reorganization of 26 boxes of manuscripts, letterbooks, and account books received from a number of sources. 9 boxes of Crowninshield family material were the gift of Mrs. Francis B. Crowninshield (acc #14,313). 2 boxes of materials concerning Cleopatra's Barge were received from Francis B. Crowninshield (acc #6,114). One box of Richard Crowninshield papers and 5 boxes of Jacob Crowninshield papers were donated by William C. Endicott (acc #9,589). 9 boxes of John Crowninshield papers were the gift of S.K and F.B. Lothrop (acc #14,312). 2 scrapbooks of John Crowninshield papers (since disassembled), one folder of ship America papers, 2 Maria Crowninshield letters, and the Maria Louisa Crowninshield journal were the gift of C.A. deGersdorff (acc #10,890). One box of Jacob Crowninshield letters came from an unidentified source. A number of individual items were received under the following accession numbers: #12,574; #14,392; #14,694; and #22,419A. The Louisa Crowninshield Bacon photograph album was purchased in 2010 (acc #2010.031). Three letters to John Crowninshield (B4, F10) were purchased in October 2018 (acc #2018.017).

Processing Information

Collection processed by Robert P. Spindler, November 1987. Updated by Catherine Robertson, October 2014, and Tamara Gaydos, October 2018.

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.

Related Collections

Crowninshield Family Papers, 1697-1909, MSS 4

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

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

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

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

Clarissa Crowninshield Papers, 1818-1908, MH 67

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

William Crowninshield Endicott Papers, 1817-1934, MH 92

Appendix I

Appendix II

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