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New England Merchants, the China Trade, and the Origins of California

Michael Block project investigates how American involvement in the China trade influenced the 1846 United States invasion and subsequent conquest of California.

September 18, 2008


I arrived in New York with lists of archival collections held in New York archives that I compiled using web-based library catalogs and published bibliographies. The bibliographies, compiled in the early twentieth century, included collections not listed online, and the online catalogs listed collections that had been in private hands until after the bibliographies were published. I expected to find about twenty collections at the New York Public Library and another seven or so at the New-York Historical Society, based mostly on the old bibliographies (the online catalogs suggested far fewer sources would be available). On the subway ride to my first research day at the New York Public Library, I worried that a month might be more time than I needed to spend in the New York archives, and that I would need to cancel part of my hotel reservation and move to another city.

Happily, this apprehension proved short-lived. After obtaining credentials to use the manuscript collection (and then getting lost in the library building due to bad directions to the archival reading room), I met with a research librarian who was very excited to hear that I am researching early American trade with China. She suggested that after consulting the card catalog, I begin work on the Constable-Pierrepont Collection (which had not appeared on my list), as the library planned to remove the collection for reprocessing as soon as possible. This may mean that I have had access to a collection that will be unavailable to other researchers for the near future. The card catalog proved almost as exciting as this "exclusive" research opportunity, as it contained many more collections than had appeared in the bibliographies. It appeared that the bibliographers had been less than exhaustive in their work, as they included only the manuscript collections listed under the subject heading "China." Between collections donated after the bibliographies were written (such as the Constable-Pierepont Collection) and collections not listed under "China" (but listed under "tea trade," for instance), my list of archival collections at the New York Public Library swelled to between forty and fifty items.

The Constable-Pierrepont Collection, which does not seem to be used often, contains roughly forty-four boxes of loose papers and more than eighty bound volumes of manuscript material (mostly account books). The Collection contains manuscripts from most members of an extended family of merchants who traded with China from the end of the eighteenth century (beginning just after the American Revolution) until the early nineteenth century. Members of the family had been loyalists during the Revolution, and attempted to use their connections with England to gain advantages over other American merchants trading with China. Their efforts included sending a family member to take work as a crewmember on an East India Company voyage to China in order to learn how the Company conducted its trading business. Other family members were involved in a failed venture to carry goods between Manila and Acapulco (I have never seen mention of this voyage). I can only wonder what might have happened on the Pacific coast of North America had the venture proved profitable. The extended family also included William Bell, who worked as supercargo in charge of cargoes bound to China owned by notables such as John Jacob Astor. Astor famously ordered his papers burned when he died, so the transcriptions Bell saved in his journal offer a rare glimpse of Astor’s views of China. The Constable-Pierrepont Collection proved so large and so full of important information (including letters from Gouverneur and Robert Morris, best known for their involvement in the American Revolution but also involved in the China trade) that I never moved on to other collections at the Public Library and transcribed more than 500 single-spaced pages of notes from the papers of William Bell, William Constable, and Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont. Between the information I learned from the Constable-Pierrepont Collection and the knowledge I gained of the library’s holdings not available online, I should now be in a good position to apply for research grants to return to the New York Public Library.

Astor was on my mind at the New-York Historical Society as well, as their online catalog included a ninety-box set of Astor family papers. These proved to have nothing to do with the China trade, but many other collections were relevant for my research. The Historical Society’s card catalog revealed more collections than the five in the old bibliographies and the two mentioned online. Unlike the Public Library, the Historical Society allowed me to take digital photographs of their collections (for a rather steep $15 per day fee, which I had not known to include in my budget). Taking photographs allowed me to cover much more ground than I could have by typing notes, and I was able to photograph every collection that the archivists and I could find that seemed to relate to the China trade. I am still working through the nearly 5,000 digital photographs that I took of their collections. Because the New-York Historical Society opened earlier than the New York Public Library, and the latter institution closed later than the former, I was able to split some of my days between the two institutions to maximize my time in the archives. I skipped lunch every day I was in New York in order to ensure that I was spending every possible moment in the collections. At the Historical Society, I worked with the following collections: misc. John Jacob Astor mss., Beekman Family papers, Bruen account book Butler-Laing Collection (journal of Caroline H. Butler), Porter R. Chandler Papers, Misc. China Trade Mss, Isaac Clason mss, Titus Muson Coan papers, DePeyster Papers, Mahlon Dickerson Papers, Stephen Gerard mss, Eliza Gracie (ship), Experiment (sloop), Edmund Fanning mss, Fonda Family Papers, Misc. Fur Trade Mss., Goodrich Papers, Heartman Collection, Helena (ship), Isaac Iselin transcriptions, Thomas Ap Catesby Jones mss, Stephen Watts Kearny mss, Lowe Family Papers, Maria (ship), Mary Lord (ship), Meigs Astoria journal, Robert Morris mss, Thomas Pattison journals, Logbooks of US Brig Porpoise and USS Relief, John Frederick Schroeder papers, Thomas Smith daybook, Superior (ship), Teaplant (ship), Van Ness-Philips Collection, Verplanck Papers, and the Walker-Rockwell Papers.

I also visited the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where I took photographs of their single collection relevant to the China trade: the Isaac Bell Papers. I had hoped that my experience at Columbia would be similar to my experiences at the other libraries, and I would discover other collections not catalogued online (the published bibliographies made no mention of Columbia). Unfortunately, a librarian confirmed that Columbia only held the lone collection I had identified. Conveniently, Columbia’s library was open on Mondays, while both the New-York Historical Society and the New York Public Library were closed on Mondays. I was also able to eliminate the Insurance Society Library (now part of the Davis Library at St. John’s University) as an archive of interest. Although one of the old bibliographies had mentioned it as a possible source, the archivists there did not think they still held any relevant materials in their collections (and were unsure why the bibliographer had included their library). New York University also had nothing relevant in their collections, though I had not expected them to have anything old enough to be of use.

I would like to thank the US-China Institute for making my successful trip possible. I have already integrated some of the things I found into a paper that I presented at the recent meeting of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, and expect to make much more use of it in the future as funding applications come due (and as my own work progresses).

Michael Block is a PhD student in the USC Department of History.