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Diary of Boston Merchant James Rowe 1764-1779



John Rowe (1715–1787) Courtesy of Massachusetts Historical Society


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John Rowe is featured in my blog post Diary Tips Genealogybank



John Rowe (November 16, 1715-February 17, 1787) was born in Exeter, England the oldest of eleven children of Joseph and Mary (Hawker) Rowe. He emigrated to Boston about 1736. When he was twenty-one years of age, he married Hannah Speakman (August 4, 1725-July 9, 1805) of Marlborough, Massachusetts in 1743. Rowe bought in 1764 the estate on the north side of Pond Lane (now Bedford Street). The year after his purchase he pulled down the house he found standing there and built a new one into which he moved on October 16, 1766, and occupied until his death. The house and grounds, measuring nearly three acres, were known as “Rowe’s Pasture,” and extended from Bedford Street to Essex Street, with Washington (then Newbury) and Kingston streets as the western and eastern limits. On this simple tract, he raised crops of hay and vegetables and pastured sheep and cattle. He also owned houses and lots on the south side of Essex Street as well as in other parts of the town; and at the end of the nineteenth century one of the wharves still bore his name. He owned property in a number of other towns –Dighton, Plymouth, Malden, Medford, Gloucester, Milton, Hardwick, Stoughton, Grafton, Shelburne and Deerfield; and in Connecticut, land in Hartford and Woodstock.


John Adams in his diary named him among the very rich men with whom he had been acquainted in the way of business, placing him among those who have “acquired their Wealth by their own industry.” His ships traversed the ocean, and ran along the eastern seaboard. One of them carried Josiah Quincy Jr. to Charleston, South Carolina in February 1773. His whaling sloops brought in barrels of oil. His imported merchandise was miscellaneous, meeting the wants of the people of that day—silk stockings, ribbons, silk from Spain and taffeta from England, wine from Madeira, but he dealt largely in salt. He was one of the proprietors of Long Wharf, and also one of Point Shirley. When he died in Boston in 1787 the Massachusetts Centinel called him “an eminent merchant of this place.”


Rowe is also famous today because of his diary, kept between September 1764 and July 1779, which was owned by his grandniece and edited and published by “her only descendant,” Mrs. Anne Rowe Cunningham, in 1903. While Mr. and Mrs. John Rowe were childless, the house was continually filled with young people, particularly nephews and nieces. The Rowes adopted her niece Sarah Inman (1754-1792), who married Captain John Linzee, then commanding the British warship Beaver; she produced nine children and died at the age of thirty-nine. Then they adopted his nephew at the age of seven and namesake John (“Jack”) Rowe (1765-1812), Harvard 1783, the son of John Rowe’s brother Jacob, who emigrated to Quebec, Canada, around 1741. Young John Rowe was a classmate of Harrison Gray Otis and William Prescott; he married in Gloucester in 1792, and lived in Quincy “very near the Milton line,” where he died in 1812. Mrs. Payson and Mrs. Cunningham were the daughter and granddaughter of this John Rowe, and they lived on the Milton estate of Governor Jonathan Belcher (1681/2-1757), which passed from the Belchers into the hands of the senior John Rowe, the Boston merchant. It seems reasonable to us that the Boston bombé chest of drawers would have been owned through the nineteenth century by the mother and daughter, Payson and Cunningham. The Boston house of John Rowe was sold by his heirs in 1817 to Judge William Prescott, and here he and his son the historian, William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859) lived. The house was then demolished in 1845.


Because of his wealth, John Rowe was conservative in his political stance—what might be called a “reluctant rebel." When portions of Rowe’s diary were published late in the nineteenth century, a historian wrote then that “Rowe’s sentiments in relation to the controversy with Great Britain were those of a moderate, holding in this respect the same position as that of his relatives, intimate friends, and the mass of his fellow merchants.” He opposed to trade restrictions imposed on the colonies by the mother country; he served on committees appointed by the town or the merchants to set forth grievances of the Bay Colony.



John Rowe served on a committee (Samuel Adams, chairman) in December 1765 to protest the closing of the courts; on committees from November 1767 to June 1768, to instruct the representatives’ on a committee in October to prevent importations of English goods and to encourage domestic produce and manufactures; on a large committee to wait on Governor Bernard with a petition for the redress of grievances; and he signed an address in September 1768, as one of the town’s selectmen, protesting against Bernard’s dissolving the General Court and against taxes levied by Parliament. Rowe, however, while considering the conduct of the British government as impolitic and harsh, was indisposed to carry opposition beyond argument, appeal, and protest; at no time did he favor measures as radical as riots, resistance, and independence. And he did not join the patriotic exodus when the British siege of Boston began, preferring to remain in order to protect his property.


Rowe was a member of Trinity Church in Boston, was chosen a vestryman in 1760 and continued to serve until his death. He served as treasurer of the Charitable Society, from 1750 until his death. He was a member of the Masonic fraternity, holding high offices in his lodge, and in 1768, he became Grand Master of the order in North America. He was elected town selectman and served as the overseer of the poor. After several unsuccessful attempts, Rowe was elected a Representative of the House, 1780-1784, and was involved in the adoption of John Adams' new state constitution in 1780 and as a Representative moved in March 1784 the restoration of the sacred “Cod Fish” to its former place in the State House as symbol of an important Bay Colony industry.



In March 1781, during the darkest period of the War of Independence, the rebellious states, after four years of quarreling and maneuvering, finally succeeded in completing ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States. The time span from 1781 until the adoption of our second and present federal Constitution in 1789 is known in American history as the Confederation period, or Critical period, or more recently as the era of the New Nation.


The economic problems in Massachusetts between 1781 and 1787 (the year John Rowe died) were complex and serious. They revolved around the need to adjust from the war to peace and from colonization to economic independence in a highly vulnerable nation. The government of the commonwealth found itself confronted with a large war debt, inadequate revenue, and an overly ambitious and regressive tax program which favored merchants and financiers at the expense of small farmers—resulting in a popular protest by farmers in the central and western part of the state, known as Shays’ Rebellion, against the conservative policies of Governor James Bowdoin.


The fact of independence had presented Massachusetts with both the need and the opportunity to create a broad range of incorporated institutions, and it was with enthusiasm and self-conscious pride that her citizens, well-to-do merchants like John Rowe, threw themselves into the task. Between 1780 and 1785, while the commonwealth was in the grip of a depression, citizens of Massachusetts founded new scientific, charitable, and medical societies, a much needed new bank, a number of academies, and a corporation to construct the first bridge across the Charles River from Boston to Charlestown. But before commerce and the shipbuilding and the fishing industries in Massachusetts, and their success could improve conditions in agriculture and manufacturing as well in the age of the New Republic , John Rowe was dead at the age of seventy-one in February 1787.


References Cunningham, Anne Rowe, ed., Letters and Diary of John Rowe, Boston Merchant (Boston, 1903). Drake, Francis S., Tea Leaves, Being a Collection of Letters and Documents Relating To the Shipment of Tea of the East India Tea Company (Boston, 1884). Foote, Henry Wilder, Robert Feke, Colonial Portrait Painter (Cambridge, 1930). Pierce, Edward L., “Extracts from the Diary of John Rowe, A Boston Merchant,”Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, Second series, vol. 10, 1895-1896 (Boston, 1897). Ticknor, George, Life of William Hickling Prescott (Boston, 1964).

-Wendell Garrett

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