Wednesday, October 27, 2010

William Greene Papers Finding Aid

The Swain Report, Number 17

The William Greene Papers 

by David Swain


William Greene (1743-1826) was a member of the large and prominent Greene family of Rhode Island—and only a distant relative to General Nathanael Greene (1742-1786) of Revolutionary War fame. Still, William’s father was named Nathaniel Greene (1707-1768), and William signed his name “William Greene, son of Nathaniel.”

He had reason to do so because both he and another almost contemporaneous Colonel William Greene (1764-1829) were both merchants in East Greenwich, RI. This other William served during the Revolutionary War as commander of the Kentish Guards, an independent company of volunteer militia in East Greenwich. From the sparse information available, it appears that Colonel William did not see direct action during the Revolution, nor did his military career cross paths with that of General Nathanael—or that of yet another Greene, Colonel Christopher Greene (1737-1781), who did play an active military role with the First Rhode Island Regiment.

The original papers of all four of these Greenes reside at the Rhode Island Historical Society library. The David Library has microfilmed copies of three of these—the papers of Nathanael Greene, Christopher Greene, and the William Greene who did not serve in the military at all, whose papers are the subject of this report.

“Our” William Greene lived his entire life in Rhode Island and devoted his adult, life-long-bachelor energies to a successful merchant business. The papers provide glimpses into his business but very little about his life. More broadly, the papers reveal bits and pieces about the international trade shipping being conducted out of Rhode Island ports, as well as other New England ports, during the Revolutionary War period and beyond into the 19th Century.

For a detailed content listing, see the RIHS finding aid for this manuscript collection at

Microfilmed documents

The David Library’s copy of the RIHS microfilmed William Greene papers contains the following generalized contents:

-- A cash accounting book (1775-1779) containing 98 double pages of closely written entries, which include references to a large number of ships on which William Greene shipped goods.

-- Loose accounts (1776-1830), mostly receipts, lists, and calculations on separate pieces of paper, often small scraps and fragments.

-- Loose accounts for a nephew William P. Greene (1800-1814).

-- Account books containing also lists of deaths and ages of relatives and other people known by William Greene (1811-1822), including two account books, the first 1811-1818 (56 pages) and the second 1821-22 (36 pages).

-- Articles of agreement (partial) for the privateer General Greene (undated but from the Revolutionary War years).

-- Cargo books for the brig Louisa and brig Maida (1815-1818), including two books of 25 and 28 pages respectively. These contain clues about the cargoes and destinations of trade—in one direction largely sugar, coffee, and tobacco brought to New England from the West Indies; in the other direction bread, pork, beef, cooking oil, and empty containers shipped to places like New York and Bermuda.

-- Correspondence (1812-1825), including only a few letters, some personal.

-- An accounting journal (1806-1809) similar to the other account books.

-- Multiple copies of William Greene’s last will and testaments, (1808-1819).

-- A memoranda book (1813-1821) containing mostly accounting entries and more lists of people’s deaths and ages.

-- Memos (early 1790s and 1812-1818), mostly family and personal papers.

-- A ship account book for several ships (1761-1770), containing 90 pages, of which pp. 35-63 are blank.

A useful generalization about these papers is that they are difficult for a researcher to “decipher” and understand. Since almost none of the collection is correspondence and much of it consists of financial and other business records, understanding the context of the details is difficult. Beyond that, most of the documents were handwritten by William Greene himself, thus requiring the research to contend with his scribbly, scrawly, cramped handwriting, as well as his proclivity to draw Xs and lines through entries presumably resolved or obsolete. Many of the documents look like pages of rough notes waiting to be organized and rewritten in final form.

In addition, for a scholar of the Revolutionary period (approximately 1750 to 1800), these papers are of limited value since most of the documents date from after 1800.

Nevertheless, the scope of the business documents in this collection may reward detailed research with some important insights into the conduct of Rhode Island merchant shipping during the period from the 1770s to the 1820s. In addition, the collection contains several items of potential interest, on which the remainder of this report focuses:

-- Two insurance policies (in the loose accounts) covering voyages by the sloop General Greene, owned by William Greene. One is dated September 21, 1798 (for $1,300) and the other February 24, 1798 (for $1,200). Both voyages were to ports in the West Indies. See below for the General Greene’s earlier life as a privateer vessel.

-- A rental agreement (in the loose accounts) dated December 3, 1810 for William Greene to rent “two good and comfortable rooms” in East Greenwich @ $2.50 per month.

-- A document of sale by William Greene to Albert C. Greene (undoubtedly a relative), dated April 8, 1814, for a one-eighth share of a wharf, consisting of approximately 30 rods of land, for $125.

-- Entries of “vital statistics” of elderly people scattered through the two account books (1811-1821). Among cash accounts and other financial entries, William Greene entered brief listings of the deaths, presumably of people he had known. Most entries are of very elderly people. One example, picked somewhat at random, reads “Samuel Pierce livd untill he was 98 years old departed this life 1816 on prudence.” Other listings on this page include people 104, 92, 97, “a hundred,” and 99 years old. These entries seem anomalous among the financial records, which themselves are sometimes unusual. For instance, the very last “accounting” entry in the first account book, for 1818, reads as follows: “drawd molasses February 21th drawd molasses 11th March 2 gallons 2 gallons drawd Aprill 4th 1 gallon of molasses drawd.”

-- Articles of Agreement for the Privateer General Greene (partial and undated). This interesting document is worth quoting and paraphrasing in some detail:

• The General Greene is identified as a sloop of about 30 tons.

• The agreement states “that the said owners shall fit the said Vessel to the sea in a Warlike Manner….for a cruise against the Enemies of the United Colonies in America and such as shall in a Piratical or Hostile Manner infest, invade, or anoy these Plantations, disturb or molestt them in the Peaceable Enjoyment of their Just Rightrs and Liberties…and in a Special Manner to seize and take all British Property on the seas….”

• The value of prizes seized was to be split half and half between the owners and the “company.” The company was the “commander, officers, & men.” The company’s half was to be distributed in shares as follows: captain 7, first lieutenant 4, second lieutenant 3, higher officers 2 each, lower officers 1½ each, privates 1 each, boys ½ each.

• Conduct at sea was to be “politely directed” by the captain.

• “Five Dead Shares to be given to the most deserving men, to be adjudged by the committee.” The committee included the captain and two lieutenants.

• Anyone losing an arm or a leg would receive $300 “out of the effects taken.”

• Anyone engaging in mutiny, disturbance, stealing/embezzlement, disobeying a command, desertion, absence without leave for more than 24 hours, or “use of any female prisoner indecently” would forfeit his share and be subject to appropriate corporal punishment, as decided by the committee.

At this point, the document is cut off, with the loss of the remaining contents, including any signatures and a date. The best clue to the date is the reference to “United Colonies in America,” which would put the date before 1776 but probably not by much.

-- Last will and testaments (1808-1818): William Greene seems to have become preoccupied with writing—and rewriting—his will, well before his death. Sixteen versions of his will are included in the microfilmed documents. The first is undated and roughly drawn. The others are all formally dated (from July 15, 1808 to October 28, 1818), signed, and witnessed. Several of these were subsequently marked up with sections changed or deleted. For the earliest five dated wills, the signature was carefully torn out. After ten years of will writing, William apparently discontinued his rewriting practice. He did not die for another eight years, in 1826.

-- The ship account book (1761-1770) contains interesting information, mostly about voyages of four of William Greene’s ships, the sloop Seaflower (1761-1762), ship Merry Gould (or Merry Gold, 1762-1764), brig Victory (1765-1768), and sloop Polly (1767-1770). Mostly these ships seem to have been involved in the West Indies trade, although the Polly sailed as a whaler, and the Seaflower made voyages to South Carolina. Several Greenes are listed as having interests in these ships, including a Rufus Greene, Abram Greene, and Russell Greene. Cargoes included rice (from South Carolina) and molasses.

For pages numbered 64 through 90, the microfilming is “upside down,” and the dates of voyages run backwards from 1770 to 1761. This probably reflects the writing in the original books. Note that the page numbers were added later by an editor or archivist.

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at

No comments:

Post a Comment