John Atkinson papers (1742-1876, bulk 1812-1840)

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

Summary Information

Title: John Atkinson papers
Creator: Atkinson, John, 1742-1823, Atkinson, George, and Atkinson family
Inclusive dates: 1742-1876
Bulk dates: 1812-1840
Extent: 265 items
This collection contains business and personal papers of John Atkinson and his family, with the bulk of the items documenting their postwar business ventures in commercial trade, land speculation, and investments in the Bellows Falls Canal Company. The letters also describe contemporary reactions of British merchants before, during, and after the Revolution; events in New York City during the War of 1812; and domestic and social situations of a prosperous nineteenth-century family.
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

1958. M-1077.

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

John Atkinson Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


The collection is organized into five series:
  • Correspondence
  • Letterbooks
  • Documents and deeds
  • Printed documents
  • Miscellaneous


John Atkinson (1742-1823), a British merchant active in colonial trade since 1768, arrived in Boston in 1770, where he partnered with an established English merchant, Richard Smith. In 1773 he married Elizabeth (Betsy) Storer, daughter of Ebenezer Storer, a respected Boston merchant and treasurer of Harvard College. During the years immediately before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Atkinson invested heavily in land in western Virginia, Ohio, New York, and Vermont. A Loyalist, Atkinson emigrated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his wife and young son, John, when the British evacuated Boston in March, 1776. They moved to England in September 1776, and from 1778-1780, Atkinson fought for the British in New York with Abijad Willard’s company of Massachusetts Volunteers. Over the next decade, he and his family made several trips between New York and London until 1791, when the family's American citizenship was restored and they settled in New York City.

Atkinson, with his father-in-law, Ebenezer Storer, and brothers, Francis and Hodgson, founded 'A Company for Rendering the Connecticut River Navigable past Bellows Falls, Vermont,' which built a canal that enabled flat-bottom boats to travel the river. The canal's construction started in 1792 and was completed in 1802, by which time it had costs the partners $105,338.13. Atkinson also invested in the Green Mountain Turnpike in 1799, which ran from Clarendon to Bellows Falls and owned a saw mill in the area.

After two decades of living in New York and spending summers in Bellows Falls, Atkinson moved to Vermont permanently in 1819. Shortly before his death on August 11, 1823, he was forced to sell his canal stock and land. Many of these properties were bought by his brothers and in 1829, Atkinson’s nephews, Thomas and Francis Atkinson, gained control of the Bellows Falls Canal and much of John Atkinson’s land. In 1840, management of the canal and land was transferred to his nephew, George Atkinson. The popularity of railroads, built during the 1850s, led to reduced canal traffic and in 1866 ownership of the canal passed out the hands of the Atkinson family.

Collection Scope and Content Note

This collection contains business and personal papers of John Atkinson and his family, with the bulk of the items documenting their postwar business ventures in commercial trade, land speculation, and investments in the Bellows Falls Canal Company. Since Atkinson lived in New York City until 1819, the collection contains many detailed reports on the financing and operations of the canal company.

Business correspondence (includes letters to and from):
  • Alexander Fleming (1790-1867), husband to Atkinson’s daughter, Emma Seton
  • Francis Green, husband to Caroline Francis, cousin to Elizabeth Atkinson, and business partner with Alexander Fleming
  • Isaac and Richard Smith, business associates of John Atkinson
  • Charles Storer, Elizabeth's brother, who managed many of Atkinson's interests in Vermont and was the clerk of the canal corporation between 1804-1814
  • Joshua Wentworth, Atkinson's shipping agent stationed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Family letters (include personal and business correspondence to and from):
  • Betsy, John’s wife
  • John's brothers, Francis and Hodgson Atkinson
  • Daughters Mary Ann, Eliza, Emma, Caroline Francis
  • Sons John Jr., George, and William
  • George Atkinson, nephew of John

Beyond letters documenting Atkinson's business activities, this collection also accounts contemporary reactions of British merchants before, during, and after the Revolution. Letters from Joshua Wentworth, Atkinson's agent in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, describe difficulties procuring ships and transporting goods, before the war. John Atkinson, Jr. wrote several letters from New York City in the spring of 1813, in which he mentions events in the War of 1812, including the city's reception for the crew of the frigate United States , the blockading of the Atlantic coast, and seizure of coasters by the British. Many letters also contain domestic and social information written by Atkinson family women.

The Letter Books series contains three volumes of carbon copy letters concerning the management of George Atkinson’s property in America, including the canal company. They describe the toll that railroad traffic took on Bellows Falls Canal use. The first and second books, (October 10, 1836-September 17, 1840 and November 3, 1840-February 27, 1847, respectively) have alphabetical indexes of names mentioned in the books, while the third volume (March 12, 1847-September 15, 1849) has no index and is only ¼ full. The diary pages are extremely fragile and the texts are typically impressions from carbon paper copying except for the page numbers, which are in ink or pencil. The second and third volumes were kept by a J.L. Stackpole.

The Documents and Deeds series consists of various contracts, bills, inheritance documents, and land transfers. Included in this series are thirteen oversized items, all of which document the sale of land. Atkinson purchased land along the Delaware River in New York State; in Middle Island Creek in Ohio County, Virginia; in Ulysses, Pennsylvania; along the Cacapon River in Hampshire County, Western Virginia; and in Columbia Territory, Maryland. He sold land in Ontario, New York, and Bellows Falls, Vermont, to his son-in-law Alexander Fleming. The 1830 item is a deed recording the sale of Bellows Falls land by Fleming to his business partner Henry Green. These items not only document the transaction, but often describe the land's dimensions, characteristics, and previous ownership.

The Printed Items series consists of four newspaper clippings.

The Miscellaneous series holds one item: a detached book front cover with J. Atkinson's name printed on the inside.

Subject Terms

  • American loyalists--Massachusetts.
  • Bellows Falls (Vt.)
  • Bellows Falls Canal Company.
  • Business enterprises.
  • Canals--Vermont.
  • Merchants--England.
  • Merchants--Massachusetts.
  • Merchants--New York (State)--New York.
  • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783.
  • United States--History--War of 1812.
  • Women--New England--Correspondence.
  • Atkinson, Elizabeth Storer.
  • Atkinson, Emma.
  • Atkinson, Francis.
  • Atkinson, George.
  • Atkinson, John Jr.
  • Atkinson, Mary Ann.
  • Fleming, Alexander, 1790-1867.
  • Green, Caroline Atkinson.
  • Smith, Isaac, 1749-182?.
  • Storer, Charles.
  • Storer, Ebenezer.
  • Wentworth, Joshua, 1742-1813.
Genre Terms:
  • Deeds.
  • Floor plans.
  • Legal documents.
  • Letters (correspondence)
  • Letter books.

Contents List (Request Materials)

Request materials for use in the Clements Library
Container / Location Title
Box   1 Folders   1-33
Correspondence [series]
Letter Books [series]
Volume   1  
 October 1836-September 1840
Volume   2  
 November 30, 1840-February 2, 1847
Volume   3  
 March 12, 1847-September 15, 1849
Documents and Deeds [series]
Box   1 Folders   34-35
Documents and Deeds
Folder   1: Oversize Manuscripts  
Oversize Documents and Deeds,  1785-1794
Folder   2: Oversize Manuscripts  
Oversize Documents and Deeds,  1796-1830
Box   1 Folder   36
Printed Items [series]
Box   1 Folder   37
Miscellaneous [series]

Additional Descriptive Data


Hayes, Lyman Simpson. History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont . Bellows Falls VT: The Town, 1907. pp. 582-583.

Hayes, Lyman Simpson. The Connecticut River Valley in Southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches . Rutland, VT: The Tuttle Company, [c1929].

Jones, E. Alfred. The Loyalists of Massachusetts . London: The Saint Catherine Press, 1930. p.12.