The Benjamin Bussey collection contains 198 letters, 38 financial records, and one biographical note. These primarily concern Bussey's shipping interests, loans and philanthropy, land holdings in Massachusetts and Maine, and his estate in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The papers document Bussey’s business dealings throughout New England, as well as in New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Philadelphia, Barbados, Jamaica, London, Rotterdam, Naples, and Madeira. The collection reveals little about Bussey's personal life but much about his diverse business interests, his far-reaching network of friends and colleagues, and philanthropy in the first half of the 19th century.
The bulk of the collection consists of letters written to Bussey concerning shipping and commerce and other business matters. Bussey's firm traded salt, pepper, sugar, cotton, cocoa, tobacco, flour, fish, saffron, and wine with various European nations. Many of the letters describe the state of trade with Europe and the challenges of shipping operations in the early 19th century, as well as the locations of the best markets for certain goods and the methods of making the most money off a shipment. For example, Bussey’s associate Jonathan Arnold described the volatility of the markets in New Orleans, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, and recounted many of the difficulties encountered in moving goods between these ports (June 2, 1796). In a letter from 1832, George Kuhn, his friend and partner in the Dedham Worsted Company, discussed the price of clothes (as well as Andrew Jackson's electoral prospects in Pennsylvania). Letters from March 22, 1806, and December 17, 1806, concern attempts to salvage barrels of wine from the wreck of the ship Hercules after it was damaged near Kingston, Jamaica.
The political climate concerning international commerce is also often discussed. A letter from September 20, 1810, is representative of how American traders saw the strained relationship between the United States and Europe. Napoleonic Wars were mentioned in several letters dated between 1807 and 1815, as they pertain to commercial interests, primarily the difficulty of American ships safely reaching European ports. Of particular interest are discussions of the British practice of boarding American ships, imprisoning passengers, and impounding cargoes. In a letter dated London, June 9, 1808, Fred Gebhardt described a British ship that seized and impressed non-American citizens aboard the Tyger , on which he was sailing. He was not impressed, because he held a passport, but he was detained for two weeks. He wrote, "Even private individuals can no longer travel or pass the seas without exposing their personal freedom and safety. In England they have become as arbitrary as on the continent." He also discussed Napoleon's violent invasion of Spain and the impending War of the Fifth Coalition. In another letter, he mentioned a particularly unfortunate confrontation in Spanish waters, where a ship was captured, the crew put in irons, and the captain had to stand for trial before the court of Spanish Admiralty (April 21, 1807). The incident resulted in Bussey and his partner Boardman losing $150,000 worth of goods. Along with the many business letters in the collection are receipts, accounts, inventories, and records of Bussey's business dealings, which list prices and destinations for goods. An 1804 note, for instance, contains information on the value of a shipment of coffee and sugar on board the Sampson .
The collection also represents Bussey's non-shipping interests. These include information on wool and sheep for his wool manufacturing facility in Dedham, Massachusetts (May 21, 1812), and details on the prosperity of the Middlesex Canal, which ran from the Merrimack River to Boston Harbor (January 20, 1816). Other items address Bussey’s interests in public office. In a letter, presumably to Bussey, ,dated January 27, 1841, B. Pierce mentions a meeting with John Quincy Adams regarding a petition to the Committee on Indian Affairs, an upcoming visit of "Tipicanoe and Tyler Too," and notes that he will only send the letter "if he can get Congress to pay for it…it isn't worth his own money for postage ."
The collection holds a number of letters from acquaintances, organizations, and even strangers asking Bussey for loans and charity. Bussey belonged to the Unitarian Church in Roxbury but believed that other religious institutions also deserved his support. He donated to the Boston Baptist Church, the Summer Street Methodist Church, the First Church of Belfast, Maine, the First Church of Christ, Bangor's Theological Seminary, and to the Frankfort Village Religious Association. Bussey was not targeted for charity only by religious institutions. He received requests to support the Winslow Blues, a local light infantry unit (June 7, 1817); to give to the Massachusetts General Hospital (April 5, 1814); to fund educational institutions, such as a school under the Synod of New York and New Jersey that trained African American men become schoolmasters in America and in Africa (December 31, 1819); and to invest in Sarah Hale’s “Ladies Magazine” (September 26, 1837). He also gave land to the Congregational Female Academy in Augusta, Maine (June 28, 1827).
Bussey received loan and charity requests from individuals as well. Lucy Knox, widow of General Henry Knox, lobbied Bussey to supply books and money for her son's medical education (December 26, 1813 and January 20, 1822). Edward Robbins also asked for financial assistance for his son who was just starting out in life. Bussey was requested to support the arts by an Italian musician from Naples named Norberto Hadrava, who asked for a $100 loan to support his musical endeavors, such as printing and performing his opera The Island of Capri (March 6, 1812). Bussey was a supporter of multiple societies including the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association (1818), Prison Discipline Society (1830), the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians, Massachusetts Charitable Meetings Association, and was the vice president of the Massachusetts Society for the Encouragement of American Manufacturing.
The collection contains only a few personal letters to Bussey and his family. Five are from Bussey's son-in-law Charles Davis, husband of Bussey's daughter, Eliza. In letters from August 2 and 13, 1816, for example, he gives Bussey an update on the construction progress of his Roxbury estate. The collection contains one lengthy letter from Eliza (married to Enos Stewart), dated September 27, 1837, in which she described her time in Florence, Italy, and mentioned current events in Europe. An letter from September 15, 1823, contains a report from Catherine Putnam about the health of Bussey's sick wife, and after Bussey's death, Josiah Quincy, president of Harvard, wrote a letter to Judith inquiring about the Gilbert Stuart portraits owned by the Bussey family. The collection also holds a few letters from Bussey's friends and acquaintances, including letters of introductions and a letter from Commodore William Bainbridge accepting an invitation for a social call to Bussey's estate (November 1819).
The collection contains many letters concerning prominent Boston citizens: many of Bussey's Roxbury neighbors such as General William Sumner (1780-1861), son of the prominent Roxbury merchant Increase Sumner and grandson of William Hyslop, a prosperous Boston merchant; lawyer philanthropist John Lowell; businessman Ebenezer Thatcher and his brother Samuel Thatcher, congressman from Massachusetts; secretary of war and Massachusetts congressman Henry A. S. Dearborn; and Harvard President Josiah Quincy. Other prominent people represented in the collection include Philadelphia lawyer and author William Rawle (November 5, 1831) and Joshua Bates, President of Middlebury College. While some letters from these men directly concern Bussey, many are only tangentially related in discussions regarding topics such as Boston shipping matters or Roxbury events and development. One notable item is from John Brooks, Governor of Massachusetts, to William Sumner about establishing military defenses stationed on Noddle's Island, Massachusetts (April 17, 1813).
The Benjamin Bussey papers contain a few miscellaneous items including notes for a biography or obituary for Roxbury lawyer, John Lowell, and an invitation to an annual visit for donors to "the African School."