Benjamin Bussey collection (1767-1872, bulk 1800-1847)

Collection processed and finding aid created by Philip Heslip, January 2010
Manuscripts Division, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Summary Information

Title: Benjamin Bussey collection
Creator: Bussey, Benjamin, 1757-1842
Inclusive dates: 1767-1872
Bulk dates: 1800-1847
Extent: 0.5 linear feet
The Benjamin Bussey collection contains letters and financial records related to Bussey's shipping endeavors, loans and philanthropy, land holdings in Massachusetts and Maine, and his estate in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Though the collection reveals little about Bussey's personal life, it is a great source of information on his diverse business interests and his far-reaching network of friends and colleagues such as Henry A. S. Dearborn, Josiah Quincy, William H. Sumner, and Samuel Thatcher.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use

Acquisition Information

1990, 1999. M-1016, M-2533, M-4223.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation

Benjamin Bussey Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


This collection is arranged chronologically with undated and miscellaneous material in at the end.


Benjamin Bussey was a successful Massachusetts merchant who amassed the bulk of his assets in the decades after the American Revolution. Born in Canton, Massachusetts, in 1757 to Benjamin Bussey, Sr. (1734-1808), a ship captain and merchant, and Ruth Hartwell (1738-1776), he enlisted in the military at age 18 and fought in the Revolutionary war as a private and quartermaster. He saw action at Ticonderoga and Saratoga and was present at General Burgoyne's 1777 surrender. After the war, Bussey established a silversmith business in Dedham, Massachusetts. Shortly after, in 1780, he married Judith Gay; they had two children: Benjamin Bussey, Jr., and Eliza Bussey.

In 1790, Bussey left the silversmith trade and established a merchant business with his brother Jaazaniah. He moved to Boston in 1792, while his brother traveled to Europe to expand their shipping interests into France, England, and Holland. After his brother’s death in 1796, Bussey established a new partnership with brother-in-law Daniel Ingalls. By 1806, Bussey had amassed a great fortune and had become one of the wealthiest men in New England, owning large plots of land in Dixmont, Augusta, Newburg, Frankfurt, and Bangor, Maine, as well as factories in Massachusetts, including the Norfolk Cotton Company (purchased in 1819) and the Dedham Worsted Company (purchased in 1824). Poor health caused him to scale back his business activities, though he was involved with trading through at least 1813 and remained active in land and manufacturing dealings throughout his life. Bussey retired to Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he built an estate and a farm on a two-hundred-acre plot of land called Woodland Hills. Bussey spent his retired life as a philanthropist and a prominent member of Roxbury and Boston elite society. He entertained American dignitaries, such as the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, President Andrew Jackson, Vice President Martin Van Buren, and Governor William Eustis. During these years, Bussey also became interested in promoting the education of practical agriculture, and he bequeathed his Roxbury property to Harvard, which would later become the Arnold Arboretum. Bussey died on his estate in Roxbury in 1842.

Collection Scope and Content Note

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."

Subject Terms

  • Augusta (Me.)
  • Belfast (Me.)
  • Boston (Mass.)--Commerce--History--19th century.
  • Commerce--Political aspects.
  • Dixmont (Me.)
  • England--Commerce--Massachusetts--Boston.
  • Florence (Italy)--Description and travel.
  • France--Commerce--Massachusetts--Boston.
  • France--Commerce--United States.
  • Great Britain--Commerce--United States.
  • Impressment.
  • International trade.
  • Jamaica Plain (Boston, Mass.)
  • Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association.
  • Massachusetts Charitable Meetings Association.
  • Massachusetts Society for the Encouragement of American Manufactures.
  • Merchants--Massachusetts--Boston.
  • Middlesex Canal (Mass.)
  • Music patronage--United States.
  • Napoleonic Wars, 1800-1815--Economic aspects--United States.
  • Philanthropy.
  • Prison Discipline Society (Boston, Mass.)
  • Real property--Maine.
  • Real property--Massachusetts.
  • Roxbury (Boston, Mass.)
  • Shipping.
  • Ships--Cargo.
  • Shipwrecks--Caribbean Area.
  • Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians and Others in North America.
  • Thomaston (Me.)
  • United States--Commerce--France.
  • United States--Commerce--Great Britain.
  • United States--Politics and government--1783-1865.
  • Wool industry--Massachusetts.
  • Bainbridge, William, 1774-1833.
  • Bates, Joshua, 1776-1854.
  • Dearborn, H. A. S. (Henry Alexander Scammell), 1783-1851.
  • Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell, 1788-1879.
  • Hadrava, Norberto.
  • Hyslop, William.
  • Knox, Lucy Flucker.
  • Lowell, John, 1743-1802.
  • Putnam, Oliver, 1777-1826.
  • Quincy, Josiah, 1772-1864.
  • Rawle, William, 1759-1836.
  • Sumner, William H. (William Hyslop), 1780-1861.
  • Thatcher, Ebenezer.
  • Thatcher, Samuel.
  • Witherspoon, John, 1723-1794.
Genre Terms:
  • Biographical notes.
  • Finanacial records.
  • Letters (correspondence)
  • Recepits (financial records)

Contents List (Request Materials)

Request materials for use in the Clements Library
Container / Location Title
Correspondence [series]
Box   1 Folder   1
 December 12, 1767-June 20, 1796
Folder   2  
 January 24, 1797-April 30, 1801
Folder   3  
 July 11, 1801-August 4, 1802
Folder   4  
 May 6, 1803-March 22, 1806
Folder   5  
 May 15, 1806-February 2, 1807
Folder   6  
 March 30-July 28, 1807
Folder   7  
 September 7, 1807-April 14, 1808
Folder   8  
 May 6-June 15, 1808
Folder   9  
 July 1, 1808-November 23, 1809
Folder   10  
 January 2-October 3, 1810
Folder   11  
 March 29, 1811-April 22, 1812
Folder   12  
 May 1-October 30, 1812
Folder   13  
 November 23, 1812-July 6, 1813
Folder   14  
 July 29, 1813-February 6, 1814
Folder   15  
 February 14, 1814-July 30, 1815
Folder   16  
 August 15, 1815-May 13, 1816
Folder   17  
 May 14-October 26, 1816
Folder   18  
 March 1-September 3, 1817
Folder   19  
 December 24, 1817-May 7, 1819
Folder   20  
 July 6, 1819-December 28, 1820
Folder   21  
  January 18, 1821-October 14, 1822
Folder   22  
 March 21, 1823-November 16, 1824
Folder   23  
 December 1, 1824-April 21, 1826
Folder   24  
 July 28, 1826-April 19, 1828
Folder   25  
 June 1, 1828-October 17, 1829
Folder   26  
 May 10, 1830-November 5, 1831
Folder   27  
 May 2, 1832-November 18, 1833
Folder   28  
 November 4, 1834-June 30, 1836
Folder   29  
 September 22, 1836-September 6, 1837
Folder   30  
 September 26, 1837-March 27, 1839
Folder   31  
 June 17, 1839-January 27, 1841
Folder   32  
 June 16, 1841-January 7, 1846
Folder   33  
 March 24, 1846-September 14, 1855
Folder   34  
 December 29, 1857-August 13, 1872
Folder   35  
 Undated items

Additional Descriptive Data

Alternate Locations

Thornton, T. Plakins. Cultivating Gentlemen: the Meaning of Country Life among the Boston Elite, 1785-1860. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Related Materials

Benjamin Bussey Thatcher was the son of Samuel Thatcher, and a nephew of Ebenezer Thatcher, both colleagues of Bussey. The Clements holds five historical monographs written by Thatcher.

The Archives of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University has a Benjamin Bussey Collection.

The Massachusetts Historical Society also has a small collection of Bussey letters: Letters received by Benjamin Bussey,1797-1864; bulk: 1797-1830.


Hunt, Freedman. "Sketches of Distinguished Merchants No. 4--Benjamin Bussey." The Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review. Vol. 42. New York: F. Hunt, 1842.

Wilson, Mary Jane McClintock. Master of Woodland Hill :Benjamin Bussey of Boston (1757-1842). Lansing, Michigan: the author, 2006.