DescriptionRhode Island Vernon Family Archive of more than 150 letters, documents, and manuscripts spanning the 18th and 19th Centuries. The archive is mainly comprised of correspondences within the family and is equally divided between family news and business content. Being a wealthy and influential merchant family based in Newport, the Vernon family fortunes were closely tied with the founding of America. Patriarch William Vernon served as President of the Eastern Navy Board during the Revolution, and was a close friend and associate of Declaration Signer William Ellery. Vernon's experience with the merchant trade and the business of outfitting ships made him an invaluable source for Ellery as he worked to build the Continental Navy.
The archive includes letters as early as 1715 and as late as the 1880s, but the overwhelming majority cover the years 1800-1820s, and give evidence of the origin of a unified banking system and creation of customs houses and duties.
The earliest letter is written from London, dated July 22, 1715, and is addressed to Daniel Vernon, Boston. With some separations and paper loss, the letter is accompanied by a transcript made in the late 19th Century. The transcription reads in part: "... I am sorry to Understand yr Lott is cast in so uncomfortable a place butt I hope you are a Lott in Sodom whose Righteous Soul is vex'd att the Bad Conversation of the Wicked." Daniel Vernon died later that year in October, and also included is Vernon's signed last testament, a prayer written in another hand made in preparation for his death, signed "Daniel Vernon".
William Vernon Sr. was a proficient letter writer, and the archive includes many retained drafts of letters. In a letter draft addressed to his son William H. Vernon, (likely circa 1775-1777) a student at Princeton College, the father explains the value of letter draft: "I rec'd yours of the 6th Inst by Mr. Mason... I should be glad my Dear, you woud [sic] be more correct in writing your Letters were you to write a rough draft, review & examine them well..."
Another retained draft addressed to Vernon, Jr. (now in Paris) dated September 12, 1791 is clearly a letter from a vexed father to a wayward son who refuses to come home: "Has not, what the good Doc. [Benjamin] Franklin predicted, in the letter he wrote you, before he left Paris (of which I have a copy) been fully and completely verified; how many mean shifts & deceitful artifices have you been drove to..." Vernon, Jr. had repeatedly broken promises to return home. Vernon, Sr. continues: "You are, & I verily believe, resolved, it is your determination never to see my face again - be it so then. I forever abandon, disown & renounce you as a Son..." (See lot 34024 for additional information about this discord between father and son.)
Although William H. Vernon, Jr. returns to America and joins the family business, the primary responsibility is carried by his brother, Samuel. Samuel's many letters to his sons and brother share family news, but focus primarily on business. The outlawing of the slave trade (see lot 34013) forced the Vernons to find other goods to trade; and Samuel's letters contain great information about fluctuating values of goods, as well as the effects of the imposition of customs, and the prospects of foreign trade.
In an early letter dated "Newport 22 March 1802" to his brother William H., Samuel writes: "I have thought of Smyrna where fine Indigo has been sold well. The North of Europe was still glutted with that article... Indigo was still unsold at Amsterdam. There is a difficulty thrown in the way of commerce which ought to be remedied immediately provided it be general. W. Ellery [then serving as customs collector in Newport] objects to clearing out a Vessel for any foreign Port that arrives and is consigned to any person in this District unless she be unloaded and the Duties Bonded for and then exported for the benefits of drawbacks... this appears at once so arbitrary and oppressive..." Expecting a vessel commanded by "Captn Perry", Samuel proposes "offering to reward any person who will deliver Captn Perry a letter in which he shall be directed to give a Manifest to the officer saying his cargo is consigned to W. Crawford of Amsterdam." Light toning, mail folds, else very good.
A letter addressed to his son (also named William) dated "Newport 27 April 1811", Samuel writes gives detailed information on the price of Tea and Coffee and the state of credit: "People who were in the habits of endorsing for each other are now loath to lend their name. They think they could obtain 85 or no for the Tea on single notes... Coffee seems to invite purchases from the low price but I find there is a great quantity in Liverpool England & no sale at 50 to 70 Sterl. The rise of this article will depend upon an opening to Holland & France." Two and a quarter pages in length, excellent content throughout. Usual mail folds, with some paper loss (not affecting any text) resulting from the opening of the wax seal.
In another letter (also to son William) dated August 26, 1811, Samuel advises that "there is great difficulty in collecting Debts, two of the sugar notes due this month are laying over... Sales of goods must be very dull until some alteration takes place in our foreign relations and it seems England has a Hostile appearance but I do not think war will be the consequence. If it should, Coffee and Teas would be very bad articles for some time. Molasses would rise. I have this day recd a letter from France from which it would seem that Bonapart intended to renew the intercourse." Small bit of paper loss where seal has been opened, otherwise near fine.
Samuel's sons William and Edwin share their father's aptitude for business, and their letters have equally good content regarding the family business. On the other hand, William H. Vernon, Jr.'s concerns are seldom on business. A letter to his nephew William (March 16m 1827) goes into great detail as to why he cannot make the "sacrifice to cede four vols. of Buffon's ornithology to any one even if your friend, at $120, which is not one half the cost of a magnificent work..."
William H.'s love of art is best reflected in a letter from Thomas R. Hazard: "Paris Dec. 20 1838... We have been about four weeks in this city & among other sources of amusement have spent some time in looking at the vast quantity of paintings... at the Louvre... My particular object in writing to you at this time is to say that among the finest portraits is one exactly corresponding with your nun by Leonardo da Vinci born 1452 founded a school at Milan 1482 & died 1519. One of the finest Italian Artists. From my recollection of your picture it cannot be a copy, but they are both by the same hand. It is not a portrait of a nun but of a celebrated beauty wife of Francisco del Gioconda a Florentine Gentleman..." During his time in Paris, William H. Vernon was friends with many of the nobility, and it has been speculated that he received his portrait of the "nun" from Marie Antoinette. The painting remained in the family, and the artist and date of origin of the Vernon "nun" has never been resolved.
Other documents of note include:
Minutes of a meeting of the Managers of the Second Congregational Church Lottery. October 28, 1791. Listed as present are: Thomas Rumcill, William Hammond, Walter Channing, William Ellery, Jr., and Thomas Pitman. One and one quarter pages, 7" x 12".
Deed of Sale, for "a certain lot of land with a dwelling house thereon standing situate in said Newport..." One large folio page, 12" x 17", April 18, 1798. Document records the sale of a house and land by William Vernon to William H. Vernon, Jr. for the sum of one dollar. Gently toned, with blind embossed seal intact.
Rhode Island Bridge Company, two pages, 8" x 13", October 16, 1798. Document surrendering the rights of the proprietors of the Rhode Island Bridge Company of the bridge "over the East River... between Rhode Island and Tiverton, commonly called Howland's Ferry." Heavy wear, minor paper loss at separations. Signed by thirteen members of said company, including Samuel Vernon, Jr.
Manuscript: "The Liberty Tree". A partial manuscript, single page, likely in the hand of William H. Vernon, Jr. of an address delivered on the occassion of commemorating the planting of a "Liberty Tree" in Newport. In part: "Two years previous to to that patriotic ceremony in 1766, a superb tree was devoted to the sacred cause of liberty in the town of Newport & we think it probalbe that this was the first instance in which a tree was adopted as an emblem of liberty..."
Edward Vernon ALS, Newport, June 11, 1811. 4 pages addressed to "My Beloved Brother" [William]. Containing family news, but primarily focused on business. In part: "I am so much disappointed as to the sale of the Sugar, that it grieves me to speak of them. It has been my endeavours to sell them at $11 cash, or I will give 60 Days, but I fear a purchaser will not appear even at that. A Box of it went yesterday @ $11.50. 60 d[ays] to Mr. Reid. I shall probably be able on this way once or twice a month to sella Box. You will benefit yourselves to stop ships this way. Newport for business is as dull as possible to conceive of. The Wine sent C & J will not sell it is so weak. The Grocer say its not worth a cent. Father saw it & gave the same opinion. It is some of Wards Cider. What did it cost you?"
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