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Papers of John Codman III (1755-1803)


The scope of John Codman's collection is extensive. His correspondence includes letters received from Christopher Gore, later Governor of Massachusetts from 1809 to 1810, while the latter resided in London. The financial series constitutes a majority of the collection. It spans twenty years of John's mercantile pursuits, from 1780-1800, and includes representative documents of most aspects of eighteenth century business. William Bond, whose name appears on an account book, supplied building materials for the federalization of the Lincoln estate. In the account of sales, the names D'Allarde and LeCouteulx frequently appear. These were two Parisian firms who represented John Codman in France. The general accounts settled include representative purchases and goods carried by Codman’s ships and items purchased for and by him. The items most commonly traded by him were Russian duck (sailcloth), cordage, "hoops" (for barrels), codfish, linseed oil, Russian iron, soap, tallow, liquor (particularly brandy, rum and wine), gold, silver, furs, women's clothing, coffee, and food (such as oranges, lemons, raisins, currants, salt, sugar, and beef). A number of accounts settled for the year 1788 include John Codman’s personal clothing. Isaac Goodenough, whose name also appears in this subseries, managed Codman’s farm in Lincoln. John and Richard Codman owned and operated several shops where hemp was twisted and made into rope for ships, explaining the large purchases of hemp, tar, and tallow. The bills of lading show the diverse countries with which Codman traded. Estimates for ships were appraisals of the contents for payment of port duties; John Chapman did all of this work for Codman. The bills paid contain many personal bills incurred by brothers Stephen and Richard Codman. Bills paid for the year 1793 comprise numerous references to improvements made to the Lincoln estate. There are a number of foreign letters received which are from ship captains discussing voyages or requests for goods. These letters reflect many of the problems with which John Codman had to cope in his international trade. Demands and prices for goods often changed between the time a ship left Boston and arrived at its destination. Occasionally, the condition of a cargo might change during a trip, thereby commanding a lesser price than expected. The Napoleonic Wars at the end of the eighteenth century created a great demand for American goods. Europeans were willing to pay almost any price for tobacco, cotton, coffee, and sugar. High inflation in Europe increased American mercantile profits even more. Sea captains would send Codman price lists from Europe, and although these were originally attached to their correspondence, they were detached by John Codman and kept separately for referral. "Payment orders for cash" was the term used by John Codman for what we would now call checks. "Payment orders for goods" are similar to these except the creditor receives payment in the form of merchandise. Sometimes John Codman acted as a third party, distributing his own goods but changing them to another's account at that person's request. Most of the financial papers in John Codman's collection use the English pound sterling as a medium for trade. The American dollar did not come into popular usage until the year 1797, and in that year the exchange rate was roughly three to one.

The legal series contains mostly documents related to business. In the affidavits, an employee of John Codman swears to John and Richard's partnership and attests to an attempt by John to retrieve his ship Elizabeth which was seized by the British after leaving Bordeaux in 1799. Of special interest in the Custom House papers is an indenture agreement of 1787. Shipping regulations refer to requirements of European ports of entry for mercantile cargo. "Observations" in the literary series contains a speech given by John Codman in which he cites his objections to the building of the second Charlestown Bridge in 1786. Among the scrapbooks of Ogden Codman, Jr. are a number of typescripts of his great grandfather's letters to his wife Catherine Amory Codman. The Manuscripts and Archives Division of the Baker Library at Harvard University contains two letter books of the Codman and Smith partnership dating from 1780 to 1785. Typescripts of selected bills paid and statistical tables relating to John Codman's involvement in the Lincoln estate can be found in R. Curtis Chapin, The Federalization of the Codman House, Goddard College thesis, Plainfield, Vermont, 1973.

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Collection Name
Codman family papers
Collection Code
1732-1803, undated
Collection Type
Description Level
Reference Code

Historical/Biographical Note

John Codman III was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on 17 January 1755. His parents were John Codman II and Abigail Ashbury. He attended the Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. In 1781, he married Margaret Russell, daughter of the Hon. James and Katherine Graves Russell. They had two children: John IV, born in 1782, and Charles Russell Codman, born in 1784. Margaret died in 1789. In 1791, Codman married Catherine Amory of Boston, daughter of John and Catherine Greene Amory. She bore him six more children: George (1792), Catherine Margaret (1793), William Amory (1795), Francis (1797), Elizabeth, and Mary Anne (1802). A devoted husband and father, Codman was a highly successful merchant and a conservative Boston aristocrat. John Codman’s merchant career began at an early age when he was apprenticed to Deacon Isaac Smith of Boston. In 1781, he began a business with Smith's son, William, under the name Codman and Smith. They owned a number of ships. Internationally, they traded with Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, the French West Indies, and possibly England. Domestically, Codman and Smith conducted business in most large American ports. In 1784, the house of Codman and Smith formed a liaison with Lane, Son and Fraser, a London firm which went bankrupt in 1793. The closing of the British West Indies to Americans after 1783 forced Codman and Smith to increase their trade with the French West Indies.

In the decade between 1782 and 1792, the firm maintained trade with Balboa, Cadiz, Lisbon, and Madeira. Codman's boats sailed from Boston or Salem mostly loaded with codfish. They sold their cargo in the South or in a number of European ports. If an intermediate stop was made in the South, often other products would be purchased which could be sold abroad. These included rye, corn, wheat, barrels, and boxes. They were exchanged in Europe for Madeira wine, capers, and currants. The ships most frequently named were: Commerce Saltonstall, Margaret, Minerva, and the brig Hope. Codman’s agents in Lisbon were Meyers, Depenau and Meyers. In 1786, Codman and Smith increased their trade domestically and internationally. Commerce with Amsterdam was augmented with the exportation of oil and Honduras logwood. Their agents in Holland were John Cathcart, Ingraham and Bromfield, David Cromelin and Sons, Nicholas and Jacob Van Staphorst and Hubbard. Domestically, Codman began to trade in New York, Philadelphia, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Maine. Agents or representatives included Jacob Mordecai in New York, Crocker and Sturgis in Charleston, South Carolina, Thomas Fitzsimmons in Virginia, and Hewes and Anthony in Philadelphia. By the end of the 1780s, Codman and Smith had extended their trade as far as Scandinavia and Russia. Their agents in Russia were the Brothers Blandow.

In 1790, John Codman’s partnership with William Smith was terminated. In 1791, he formed a new partnership with his brother, Richard, and together they purchased an old ropewalk and began producing cordage for a large number of sailing ships. Their ships included the Catherine for the St. Petersburg trade and the President Washington and the Governor Bowdoin for the Canton trade. Their brother, William Codman, became captain of the Catherine and their other brother, Stephen, was involved with Codman interests in Maine. The large amounts of money John invested in United States bonds between 1791 and 1793 made him as successful in investment as in trade. Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policies quickly increased the value of these bonds many times over. Richard's commercial as well as social indiscretions in France, however, caused John Codman nothing but anguish, and he was forced to go there in order to straighten out Richard's high living at his brother's expense. John wrote to his wife: "Here again I wished for you, for it was too serious to me who am paying the fiddler to enjoy the sport." Fortunately, Codman had interests other than foreign trade to which he could devote his energies. His involvement with the family estate in Lincoln, Massachusetts, began with the death of his brother-in-law, Chambers Russell II, in the spring of 1790. Codman had been appointed co-executor of Russell's estate along with Dr. Samuel Dexter, Jr., to serve the interests of the intended beneficiaries, chief among them being his own son Charles Russell Codman.

John Codman managed the estate's affairs prudently and largely alone. Improvements to the Lincoln property were made in 1791 and 1792 with expenses charged to the Russell estate. But in 1794, Codman undertook at his own expense several major improvements including the erection of a farmhouse, the establishment of a working farm with cattle and swine, and the hiring of a full-time farm manager. In 1795, Codman, whose city mansion was on Hanover Street in Boston, moved his family to Lincoln. In that year he also began to personally assume annuities payments under the terms of his brother-in-law's will until Chambers Russell's estate was finally settled in 1801. He steadfastly resisted the urgings of Dr. Dexter to sell the Lincoln property. The sale, he argued, would pain the Russells, who wished the estate to remain in their family. It seems clear, however, that Codman wished to create for himself and as an inheritance for his children a country seat complete with a mansion and working farm, and his role as Russell's executor provided an unequaled opportunity for doing so. From March 1797 to August 1798, John Codman invested more than $15,000 to federalize the mansion house, alterations attributed to Charles Bulfinch, in an attempt to imitate an English country estate. Codman altered the landscape to complement his magnificent mansion house by adding a large pleasure pond and planting long avenues of elms along the estate's driveway. John Codman was a charter member of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture (1792), the Society for the Information and Advice of Immigrants (1793), and the Boston Chamber of Commerce (1794). It was his service in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1796 to 1798 and in the Senate from 1800 to 1803 which earned him the title "the Honorable John Codman." He was building a house at the corner of Pearl and High streets in Boston in 1803 when, at the age of 48, he died in his house on Hanover Street and was later buried on the Boston Common.


The series is arranged in six subseries.

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