Skip to main content

Low Family Papers

Low Family Papers

1 of 2
Open Finding Aid
small (250x250 max)
medium (500x500 max)
Extra Large
large ( > 500x500)
Full Resolution

LOW FAMILY PAPERS, 1812-1853, 1883-1884, 1995


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 161 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-948-6012
Creator:Low family
Title:Low Family Papers
Dates:1812/1853, 1883/1884, 1995
Quantity:1 linear foot (2 boxes, 1 volume)
Abstract:The Low Family papers document the merchant activities of two generations of the Low family of Salem, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn, New York.
Collection Number:MSS 193

Series List

Series I. Seth Low (1782-1853)
Series II. Abiel Abbot Low (1811-1893) and Edward Allen Low (1817-1898)Series III. Other
Series IV. Photocopied Correspondence

Scope and Content Note

The Low Family papers document the merchant activities of two generations of the Low family of Salem, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn, New York. This collection has been divided into four series. For a family tree, please see appendix 1.

Series I. Seth Low (1782-1853) contains a daybook and accounts reflecting Seth Low’s (1782-1853) Salem apothecary, household, and shipping venture. Also included are merchant correspondence and shipping accounts of Seth Low& Company, the prosperous shipping firm which Seth established upon moving to New York in 1829. This correspondence contains letters from such Salem merchants as D. L. Pickman, Elijah Porter, and Robert Brookhouse.

Series II. Abiel Abbot Low (1811-1893) and Edward Allen Low (1817-1898) contains shipping correspondence and accounts of A. A. Low and Brothers, Abiel Abbot Low’s (1811-1893) notable firm which specialized in the China trade. This series has been divided into two subseries. Subseries A. Shipping Accounts contains accounts, bills of landing, and correspondence regarding specific ships. A number of the bills of lading were made by Edward Allen Low (1817-1898), Abiel’s brother who worked for the firm Russell and Co. in Canton, to A. A. Low and Brothers. Of interest are accounts of Abiel Abbot Low’s famous ship Hoqua and his merchant correspondence to his brother, Edward Allen Low. The folder labeled “Miscellaneous accounts” contains a statement of tonnage shipped from China to the United States, the original is located at the Library of Congress. The materials in this subseries are arranged alphabetically by ship name. Suberies B. Correspondence contains correspondence between the two brothers and their firms.

Series III. Other contains correspondence and miscellaneous materials relating to the Low family. Some of the correspondence in this series is made up of photocopies; the location of the originals is written on some of the photocopies. The correspondence discussed both business and personal matters. A large portion of the correspondence is to John Hillard (1813-1859).

Series IV. Photocopied Correspondence contains the photocopied and transcribed correspondence of Harriett Low and her husband John Hillard, which was donated in 2016. This material has been kept in its own series, as it is known where these copies originated from. At the front of each folder, except for the box 2 folder 1, is an index of what is in the folder, along with some biographical notes.

Biographical Sketches

Seth Low was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on March 29, 1782 to David and Hannah (Haskell) Low. He was educated at Harvard College and graduated in 1804. He joined the Salem Light Infantry in 1805 and ran an apothecary in Salem for some time. In 1807 he married Mary Porter (1786-1872) and they had 12 children, eight sons and four daughters.

In 1829 the entire family moved to Brooklyn, New York. There, Low's pharmaceutical business flourished, importing drugs and India goods. Low became a developer and built two blocks of houses on Concord and Washington Streets and added a "classical school" behind them. He was president of the Board of Trustees of the Village of Brooklyn and among the incorporators of the City of Brooklyn in 1834, serving as an alderman. He was the first president of the Board of Education, a supporter and board member of the Brooklyn Institute, Packer Collegiate Institute, and of other organizations. In 1843 he founded the Brooklyn Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, which sought moral uplift and teaching the value of thrift, sobriety and hard work. He was also among the founders in 1844 of the First Unitarian Church of the Saviour on Monroe Place and Pierrepont Street, beginning a long tradition of the Low and White family involvement there. He died in Brooklyn in 1853.

Abiel Abbot Low was born on February 7, 1811 in Salem, the son of Seth and Mary Low. Abiel grew up attending public schools, and became a clerk in the house of Joseph Howard & Company, a company engaged in the South American trade, and moved to New York with his family in 1829. In 1833, Low sailed to Canton, China, and started working as a clerk for the mercantile house of Russell & Company, the largest American firm in China and also the leading American opium trading and smuggling enterprise in China, founded by Samuel Russell, and of which Low's uncle, William Henry Low, had been head for some years. In 1837, after four years of learning the intricacies of trading in China, Low became a partner in the firm. In 1840, he launched his own business in a joint venture with Wu Bingjian, also known as Howqua, a mentor for young Americans in China, a very important Hong merchant, head of the Canton Cohong and one of the richest men in China. The company, A. A. Low & Brother named for both him and his brother, Josiah Orne Low, rapidly became one of the leading China and Japan silks and teas trading company.

Low launched his own fleet of clippers, among which were the Houqua, the first streamlined ship, named after his Chinese business partner who had died in 1843, and the Samuel Russell, named after the founder of the mercantile company in which Low had worked as a clerk. Two other of Low's clippers, the Contest and the Jacob Bell, were subsequently destroyed by Confederate privateers during the Civil War.

He is also known for his philanthropy activities. In 1858, he became president of the Brooklyn Female Academy, later the Packer Collegiate Institute, and remained on the Packer board until his death in 1893. He was known to give bonuses to teachers and anonymous scholarships to deserving students. He also contributed to the development of the Brooklyn Library, the City hospital and many other cultural, educational, social and religious enterprises.

Low married Ellen Almira, daughter of Josiah Dow of Brooklyn on March 16, 1841, and had two sons and two daughters from this marriage: Harriette Low (1842-1884), Abbot Augustus Low (1844-1912), inventor (notably of the paper shredder), businessman and industrialist, Ellen Low (1846-1884), and Seth Low (1850-1916) who later became mayor of New York and president of Columbia University. Upon the death of his wife in 1850, Low married Anne Davison Low, widow of Low's brother William Henry Low. He died in Brooklyn on January 7, 1893.

William Henry Low was born to Seth (1782-1853) and Mary Porter Low (1786-1872) in 1816. He formed the firm Low and Berry in New York with a friend, but later went to Canton to work as a clerk, at his brother Abiel’s suggestion, in order to improve his financial situation. When he arrived at Canton in September 1839, the Opium War had just started; he left in the fall of 1841, after Canton was set on fire by the British, forcing trade to come to a stop. William returned to Brooklyn and married Ann Davidson Bedell (1819-1890), he died in 1845.

Edward Allen Low was born to Seth (1782-1853) and Mary Porter Low (1786-1872) in 1817. He went to Canton in 1841, where he worked for Russel and Company and became partner at the firm in 1848 (“More Canton Letters” 7). He became a partner in his brother Abiel Abbot’s firm A. A. Low and Brothers in New York. In 1854 he married Lucy Elizabeth Haskell, a distant cousin. Edward died in 1898 (Loines 11-12).

Harriet Low was born to Seth (1782-1853) and Mary Porter Low (1786-1872) in 1809. At a young age she accompanied her aunt and uncle, Abigail and William Henry Low (1795-1834), to China for five years. William went to Canton to head the firm Russell and Company, while Abigail and Harriet went to Macao. Two years after returning from China, Harriet married John Hillard. Hillard had been born to English parents in Richmond, Virginia in 1813. After John and Harriet were married they moved to London. The Hillards remained in London until 1848, when John’s bank, Coates and Company, failed. The couple and their five daughters returned to Brooklyn, New York. John died in 1859, and Harriet died in 1877 (Loines 17-18).

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.

Hillard, Frank
Hillard, Harriet Low, 1809-1877
Hillard, John, 1813-1859
Low, Abiel Abbot, 1811-1893
Low, Edward Allen, 1817-1898
Low, Josiah Orne, 1821-1895
Low, Seth, 1782-1853
Low, William Henry, 1816-1845
A.A. Low & Bros.
Acadia (Ship)
Agnes (Ship)
Akbar (Ship)
Amity (Ship)
Angelo (Ship)
Areatus (Ship)
Ariel (Ship)
Bazar (Ship)
Belvidere (Ship)
Candace (Bark)
Childe Harold (Ship)
China (Ship)
Claredon (Ship)
Convoy (Bark)
Coquette (Ship)
Delhi (Ship)
Eliza Ann (Ship)
G.D. Russell & Company
Geneva (Ship)
Glide (Brig)
Grafton (Ship)
Houqua (Ship)
Jessore (Ship)
John G. Coster (Ship)
John Q. Adams (Ship)
Joshua Bates (Ship)
Loo Choo (Ship)
Lowell (Ship)
Mary Bannatyne (Ship)
Montauk (Ship)
Paul Jones (Ship)
Raduga (Ship)
Samuel Russell(Ship)
Sappho (Bark)
Seth Low & Co.
Thomas W. Sears (Ship)
Tonquin (Ship)
Valparaiso (Ship)
Virginian (Ship)
Zenobia (Ship)
Account books
Merchants--New York
Merchants--Salem (Mass.)
Brooklyn (New York, NY)
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

Low Family Papers, MSS 193, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


This collection is a reintegration and reorganization of one account book, two envelopes of manuscript material, one folder of financial papers removed from the Stearns and Sprague Family Papers (MSS 192), the Edward Allen Low Papers (MH 149), and the Low and Hillard Papers (MH 150). Gifts to the collection include: Seth Low’s daybook, donated by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Vietor of New York in 1976, and nine letters and accounts, given by Elma Loines in 1947. The Edward Allen Low Papers were donated by Elma Loines to the Peabody Museum on March 25, 1949 (accession #12,083). The Low and Hillard Papers were also donated by Elma Loines to the Peabody Museum on October 17, 1972 (accession #19,978). Eighteen letters were purchased on April 28, 1988 (accession #1998.014), and added to Box 1, Folder 2. A letter from a G. G. Newhall to Seth Low and Co., dated March 18, 1830, was donated by the Special Collections at the University of Houston on May 26, 2016 (accession #2016.014).

Photocopies and transcriptions of family correspondence of Harriett Low and her husband John Hillard were donated by Nan P. Hodges in July 2016 (accession #2016.017). Ms. Hodges made the photocopies from the original letters which she obtained access to from Harriet Low’s great-granddaughter in 1995. The letters had been collected by Elma Loines. The remainder of the collection is from an unknown source.

Processing Information

Collection processed by Sylvia B. Kennick, September 1985. Updated by Tamara Gaydos, February 2016, Hilary Streifer, June 2016, December 2016 and by Tatiyana Bastet, July 2019.

Related Material

Furman, Robert. "Heights History: The Two Seth Lows." Brooklyn Heights Association. Brooklyn Heights Blog, 17 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

Holloway, Laura C. Famous American Fortunes and the Men Who Have Made Them. A Series of Sketches of Many of the Notable Merchants, Manufacturers, Capitalists, Railroad Presidents, Bonanza and Cattle Kings of the Country. New York: J.A. Hill, 1889.

Loines, Elma. The China Trade Post-bag of the Seth Low Family of Salem and New York, 1829- 1873. Manchester, ME: Falmouth House, 1953.

"Canton letters, 1839-1841, of William Henry Low, and Edward Allen Low (1837-1844)," Introd. by James D. Phillips. Historical Collections of the Essex Institute 84 (1948): 197-222, 304- 330.

"More Canton letters of Abiel Abbot Low, William Henry Low, and Edward Allen Low (1837- 1844)," introd. by Elma Loines. Historical Collections of the Essex Institute 85 (1949): 215- 244.

Related Collections

Delhi (Ship) Logbook, 1841-1842. Log 484

Delhi (Ship) Logbook, 1842-1843. Log 1451

Delhi (Ship) Logbook, 1845-1846. Log 1146

Harriet Low Papers, 1829-1834, MH 151

you wish to report:

Select the collections to add or remove from your search