J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 09, 2019

”Given to me about 50. years ago by William Burnet Brown”

Here’s a postscript to the Otis-Robinson coffee-house brawl involving William Burnet Brown, the Salem native who threw himself into the fight.

Boston’s Whig magistrates brought charges against Brown because they couldn’t locate John Robinson and wanted to blame someone for the violence. But it looks like those charges were later quietly dropped. Brown returned to his wife and new home in Virginia.

As I detailed back here, Brown had bought his slave-labor plantation from Carter Braxton, future signer of the Declaration of Independence. Decades later, one of Brown’s daughters married a nephew of George Washington. And he crossed paths with at least one more prominent American Revolutionary.

Sometime soon after he came to Virginia in the mid-1760s, Brown gave a historic manuscript that he had inherited from colonial governor William Burnet to a Virginia planter he thought would appreciate it: Thomas Jefferson.

In 1814, the recently founded American Antiquarian Society voted to make Jefferson a member. He responded with a letter expressing his gratitude, paying dues, and enclosing the manuscript that Brown had given him. Jefferson wrote:
I avail myself of this occasion of placing a paper, which has long been in my possession, in a deposit where, if it has any value, it may at sometime be called into use. it is a compilation of historical facts relating, some of them to other states, but the most to Massachusets, and especially to the Indian affairs of that quarter, during the first century of our settlement. this being the department of our history in which materials are most defective, it may perhaps offer something not elsewhere preserved. it seems to have been the work of a careful hand, and manifests an exactitude which commands confidence.

it was given to me about 50. years ago by William Burnet Brown who removed to Virginia, from Massachusets I believe. he told me he had found it among the archives of his family. I understood he was a descendant of your Governor Burnet, son of the bishop of that name.

the writer speaks of himself in one place only (pa. 11. column 1.) and I should have conjectured him to have been Governor Burnet himself but that in pa. 7. col. 3. the Govr is spoken of in the 3d person. all this however is much more within the scope of your conjecture, & I pray you to accept the paper for the use of the society, & to be assured of the sentiments of my high respect and consideration.
The secretary of the society, Samuel M. Burnside, wrote back to the former President:
The Gentleman, from whom you received it, Mr. Wm. Burnet Brown, did remove, as You suppose, from this Commonwealth and was a native of Salem.—He was of a very respectable family, but not descended, I believe, from Gov. Burnet, who left no children, as I am told.—His mother, however, was an adopted daughter of Gov. Burnet.—
Genealogically, Burnside was mistaken. Gov. Burnet had children by both his wives, and William Burnet Brown was a grandson.

In 1982 Daniel K. Richter analyzed that manuscript and published an article about it in the society’s Proceedings series: “Rediscovered Links in the Covenant Chain: Previously Unpublished Transcripts of New York Indian Treaty Minutes, 1677–1691” (P.D.F. download). The manuscript was a briefing document for Gov. Burnet which preserved details of treaty negotiations in the late seventeenth century between officials of the New York colony and the Iroquois and Mohican nations.

(The picture above is an engraving done after the portrait of Jefferson that Bass Otis painted in 1816. Jefferson’s family hated this depiction.)

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