Gibbs family papers  1635-1846
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Biography

From the early colonial period through the earliest Republic, there was always a Henry Gibbs associated with Harvard College. The first Gibbs in Massachusetts, Robert, emigrated from England during the Great Migration and through his commercial endeavors rose rapidly to lofty social heights and great wealth. By the time that Robert's grandson, Henry (1668-1723), attended Harvard, he could feel confident and at ease as a member of the elite of Massachusetts society, a peer of Provincial governors and powerful clergymen. Receiving his AB in 1685, Henry Gibbs was installed in the east parish at Watertown in 1697, just over the boundary line from his beloved Cambridge. Rev. Gibbs was considered to be a fine preacher and was selected to deliver the Artillery Sermon of 1704. Considered to be broad minded by the standards of his day, Gibbs' influence is credited with preventing the spread of witchcraft persecutions to Watertown in 1692-93. Throughout his ministry, Gibbs maintained his connection with Harvard, serving as a fellow from 1700-1707.

The life of Rev. Gibbs' son, Henry (1709-1759), followed a very different course. At age seven, Henry lost his mother and seven years later, while a sophomore at Harvard, he lost his father as well. As the only surviving son (he also had two sisters), Henry came into a considerable inheritance from both sides of the family and was able to live comfortably, if not lavishly. Henry graduated with the class of 1726, but remained at college as a resident graduate, earning a second degree in 1729 and serving as college librarian from 1730 to 1734. Leaving Harvard and Boston behind, he sold off his property in the city and relocated to Salem to begin a career as a merchant, never attaining the success of the previous generations of Gibbs. In 1737, he met and began to court Margaret Fitch, daughter of Rev. Jabez Fitch of Portsmouth, a niece of his brother-in-law. The couple wed on January 31, 1739, but the marriage was not to last. Margaret died suddenly only three years later, leaving two daughters, one of whom shortly followed her mother in death.

Henry remarried in 1747, selecting the much younger Katherine Willard, daughter of the Provincial Secretary, for his second wife. This marriage further cemented the prominent place of the Gibbs in Salem society but brought comparatively little lucre, and only the fortunate bequest of £500 from a friend, William Lynde, helped the Gibbs maintain their lifestyle and social obligations. A theological liberal and political supporter of the power of the crown and broad colonial obligations, Gibbs held several important local and provincial offices during the next several years, including justice of the peace (appt. 1753), judge, delegate in the House of Representatives (three terms, beginning in 1753), and Clerk of the House (1755-1759). In February, 1759, at what should have been the peak of his career, he contracted measles, leaving five children and an insolvent estate with a meager 10s allotted to each child.

The third Henry Gibbs (1749-1794) inevitably followed his father to Harvard. His education was financed by the pooled resources of his recently impoverished family with some additional assistance from the college and from scholarships. Henry received his degree in 1766 after a strong academic career and went on to teach school at Rowley, Newcastle, N.H., and Lynn, before returning to Salem as a merchant. A moderate Loyalist, Gibbs survived the most radical period of the Revolution with his affairs intact and married Mercy Prescott in 1781. Henry died in 1794, Mercy in 1809, leaving a legacy of children to Yale College, rather than Harvard. Josiah Willard Gibbs graduated from Yale in 1809 and went on to become librarian (1824-1843) and Professor of Sacred Literature (1826-1861) at Yale. The next in the long line of Henry Gibbs also graduated from Yale (1814), and his third son, William "of Lexington" (b. 1785), though not a Yale man, became an important member of the Massachusetts Historical Society.