Slave Trader Samuel Brown (Boston) to William Vernon (Newport)
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[SLAVE TRADE.] SAMUEL BROWN.
Autograph Letter Signed, Boston, Mass., April 9, 1788, to William Vernon of Newport, R.I. 1 p.
Boston 9 April 1788 --
The enclosed Papers [no longer present] I received from William Tudor at whose request they are now forwarded.
We received a Letter last week from Gray [-] he informed us therein that he had disposed of all his Slaves but four & should leave the Island by the Middle of March.
I have not yet disposed of your Notes however do not believe they will fall, have been frequently offered 10/3 but have held them at 10/4 which hope to obtain.
I am with respect,
Your most humb. Servt.
N.B. The Letter from Gray was dated the 27 Febry.
Addressed on verso: “William Vernon Esq / Mercht. / Newport / favourd by Capt. Gardner”
Samuel Brown was a prominent Boston merchant who was quite active in the slave trade before, during and after the American Revolution. He provided investment capital and insurance for ships involved in the slave trade, and he was a close associate of William Vernon (to whom this letter is addressed).
Brown was also a shareholder in the voyages (1788-1790) of the two ships which opened up a lucrative trade with China, trading for pelts along the northwest coast of North America and then taking them directly to China (a venture modeled after that recently engaged in by British Captain James Cook. Both of these vessels, the Columbia and the Lady Washington, had official letters from Congress and passports from the state of Massachusetts for this voyage.)
William Vernon and his brother Samuel were business partners and prominent Newport, Rhode Island merchants whose maritime ventures included the slave trade and privateering. Both men were fervent patriots (Samuel was one of the leaders in the 1765 Stamp Act Riots, and during the Revolutionary War, William was forced to flee when the British occupied Newport).
William Vernon became President of the “Eastern Navy Board” in 1777 and was in charge of building and equipping ships for the Continental Navy during the American Revolution. As a result, he is sometimes referred to as the United States’s “First Secretary of the Navy.” Vernon’s home served as Rochambeau’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War, and it was there that Rochambeau met with Washington and Lafayette to plan the Yorktown Campaign.
The Vernon brothers were among the most prominent of the Newport slave traders, having first become involved in the slave trade in 1737. They continued the practice well after Rhode Island passed her anti-slave trade law in 1787.
Captain Robert Gray, mentioned also in this letter, was in command of the ship Columbia during the first voyage to the Northwest coast ever undertaken by citizens of the United States. Gray was a noted American sea captain and explorer, whose name is attached to landmarks along the Northwest coast, and the name of the ship he commanded is attached to his discovery, the Columbia River, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia. Gray’s voyages greatly strengthened the United States’ claim to the Northwest Territory.
William Tudor was a wealthy lawyer and leading citizen of Boston, whose eldest son and namesake became a major literary figure. After graduating form Harvard College in 1769, Tudor studied law under John Adams, was admitted to the Massachusetts Bay Colony Bar in 1772, and soon was a leader in his profession. During the American Revolution, he provided legal advice to George Washington and served as Judge Advocate General of the Continental Army. At the time this letter was written, Tudor represented Boston in the Massachusetts General Court.
Captain Caleb Gardner had retired from seafaring and began to engage in mercantile endeavors before the American Revolution began. He was a lieutenant colonel in Colonel William Richmond’s regiment, later serving in the Rhode Island State Government. In 1778, when Count d’Estaing’s French squadron was blockaded in Newport by the British fleet, Gardner rowed in the French under cover of darkness and fog, and piloting the flagship, led the French ships to safety through a channel which he knew well. The French king rewarded Gardner with enough money to buy an estate near Newport. Throughout the war, Gardner was a trusted advisor and friend to George Washington.