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Trading on the Waterfront in Early America: The Manuscript Division Acquires Business Records of Two Quaker Merchants

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Leather account book with closed metal clasp
Manuscript account book, 1684-1699, probably belonging to Philadelphia merchant Humphrey Morrey (d.1716), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In summer 2020, while many Manuscript Division staff were sequestered at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the division continued to acquire new collections. Among these were two, small, leather-bound volumes containing business records kept by two early American Quaker merchants. Separated by a century, created by their owners in the daily course of business, today the contents of these volumes provide snapshots of life in Philadelphia and New York at critical moments in their early histories.

The earlier volume has a leather cover folded like a wallet, which closes with a brass clasp. Its 63 pages contain a merchant’s business transactions from 1684 to 1699. While the owner of this volume failed to record his name on it, the transactions point to Quaker merchant Humphrey Morrey, a New Yorker who was attracted to William Penn’s Quaker experiment and resettled in Philadelphia. By the mid-1680s, he was living between Chestnut and Walnut streets on the Delaware River, where he owned a large house, a warehouse, and a wharf. Even though Philadelphia was growing into a busy trading port, one could still keep a flock of sheep there, as Morrey did. He held several public offices, including justice of the peace and judge. In 1691, Penn appointed him mayor of Philadelphia. Morrey’s birthdate is unknown, but he died in 1716.[1]

The first pages of this book, written in a hand that would have been familiar to William Shakespeare, date from a time when William Penn was still in Pennsylvania, just two years after founding the colony. Most pages document the buying and selling of goods, including imported wine and local “Indian corn from the mill.”  Contributions toward the construction of two Quaker meeting houses are recorded. So are expenses associated with the repair of the Chestnut Street wharf, which Morrey owned, the building of a counting house and other buildings, and the construction of a ship. There is also a recipe for a cordial, probably a byproduct of Morrey’s wine importing business.

Four pages are devoted to a vocabulary of the language of the local Lenape Indians. The Lenape were among the people who lived in the area claimed by William Penn for at least ten thousand years before he arrived in 1682. As a trader, Morrey engaged with nearby Indian tribes. In 1697 he was one of a group of Philadelphia merchants who wrote Penn about a plan to organize a settlement on the Susquehanna River in order to benefit from the fur trade carried on by the Lenape Indians there.[2] This vocabulary focuses on trade, including translations into English of numbers one through ten, and phrases, including: “what hast got” and “I will give so much.”

The second, later volume belonged to another merchant, James Parsons, who came from a Quaker community in Flushing, now in the New York City borough of Queens. This volume, also leather-bound, contains signed receipts, 1783-1793. These document Parsons’s importing business on Hanover Square near Manhattan’s waterfront in the decade following the Revolutionary War. By this time English handwriting had become more modern, making this volume easier to read. There are 184 pages (with a few, extra, loose pages), each of which holds two or three signed receipts.

Not much information about James Parsons’s personal life survives, but the Parsons family was related by marriage to a prominent Quaker family in Flushing, the Bownes. Today the Bowne House, where members of the Parsons and Bowne families lived, is a museum, and there is a collection of Parsons Family Miscellaneous Personal and Business Papers at the Queens Borough Public Library.

This volume is a record of New York’s recovery after the ravages of the Revolutionary War. The first receipt is dated December 23, 1783, just one month after British soldiers evacuated the city following an occupation that lasted seven years. Many of the receipts in the first part of the book are for the purchase of building supplies: brick, plank, shingles, gutters, “dock board,” “sash timber,” and labor. Like other New Yorkers, Parsons was rebuilding his home and business.

As the city revived, Parsons settled in. He paid taxes and received rents on his properties. He began purchasing sets of “journals of the state of New York,” recording the new state’s laws. He also resumed business. The receipts show Parsons paying for ship repairs, freight charges, and “pilotage,” necessary to guide ships into New York harbor. He traded in goods such as flaxseed, ginseng, spermaceti candles, barrel staves, Windsor chairs, beer, butter, beeswax, sugar, soap, books, and, now that the war was over, tea.

Newspaper ad with small image of ship
“For Charter to Great Britain, France, Spain, or Portugal, the Ship Jupiter.” Daily Advertiser (New York), June 15, 1786.

The business transactions recorded in the receipts can be traced in the shipping columns of newspapers. For example, a series of advertisements from June 1786 in the Daily Advertiser shows Parsons offering space for rent on the ship Jupiter, while selling salt on board. Receipts in this volume document his purchases of bushels of salt (June 28, 1786) and meat for the Jupiter’s voyage (August 17, 1786). The Jupiter was a British ship, and Parsons’s investments in it shows the resumption of American trade with Britain, which had been interrupted since the era of boycotts before the war. Parsons also traded to American ports closer to home and to places much farther afield. In June 1788 he traded in goods from the ship Columbia, just arrived from Canton, China, after more than five months at sea.

The people with whom Parsons did business, as documented in the receipts, included Alexander Hamilton; Nicholas Low, merchant and delegate to New York’s convention to ratify the federal Constitution; and financier Robert Morris, all of whose papers are in the Manuscript Division. Others who appear include Micajah, Obed, and Tristram Coffin of Nantucket, Benjamin Haviland, Robert Pleasants, merchants Comfort and Joshua Sands, and Sarah Sears (possibly the wife of merchant and Son of Liberty Isaac Sears).

The business records kept by Morrey and Parsons lack the narrative or emotional weight of letters and diaries, but by tracking everyday transactions as they happened, they bring us into direct contact with the past.[3]

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[1] For Morrey’s life and career see: Josiah Granville Leach, “Colonial Mayors of Philadelphia: Humphrey Morrey, First Mayor, 1691-1692” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 18 (1894): 419-428; Gary Nash, “The Free Society of Traders and the Early Politics of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 89 (April 1965):147-173; and Samuel W. Pennypacker, “The First Mayor of Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 15 (1891): 344-345.

[2] Gary Nash, “The Quest for the Susquehanna Valley: New York, Pennsylvania, and the Seventeenth-Century Fur Trade,” New York History 48 (January 1967) 22-23, 27 n73.

[3] To learn more about receipts as historical documents, see “Ordinary Lives in George Washington’s Papers,” a Library of Congress crowdsourcing project.

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