Professional papers of Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848)

Collection Type

  • Manuscripts


1658-1893, undated, predominant 1746-1893

Location Note

HGO-02-105-A-E-206; HGO-02-105-A-E-106; HGO-02-105-A-E-105



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Series I, Professional papers of Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848), 1658-1893, undated (bulk, 1746-1893) (#1.1-4.2, 6.1-6.8, OB.1.2, OB.1.7, OB.3.6, OB.5.1-OB.5.7), contains an account book; agreements and contracts; bills and receipts; clippings; conveyances; personal and professional correspondence; court case documents; deeds and deed extracts; depositions; indentures; leases; shareholder lists; memoranda; notices; petitions; powers of attorney; real estate records; rent rolls; site plans; statements; tax assessments; warrants; wills; writs; etc.; relating to the business dealings of Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) and the Mount Vernon Proprietors regarding the disputed sale of Copley Pasture and the development of Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts. The series also includes legal documents relating to Otis family legal matters; a property dispute between David Sears and Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848); the property holdings of Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848); and papers relating to the Mill Creek property. Individuals such as Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), architect; John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), artist and owner of Copley Pasture; Josiah Quincy, III (1772-1864), mayor of Boston; Samuel Cabot, agent for John Singleton Copley (1738-1815); Captain Scott, agent for Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848); Susanna Cunningham, claimant; the Overseers of the Poor; and others are represented within the papers. The series is arranged in seven subseries.


Descriptive Terms

professional papers

Physical Description

Professional papers (5 file boxes, 10 oversize folders)

Collection Code


Collection Name

Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848) professional papers

Date of Acquisition


Reference Code


Credit Line

Gift of Samuel Eliot Morison, ca.1960

Record Details

Material Type

professional papers

Description Level


Location Note

HGO-02-105-A-E-206; HGO-02-105-A-E-106; HGO-02-105-A-E-105

Historical/Biographical Note

Historical/Biographical Note

Samuel Allyne Otis, father of Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848), was born on November 24, 1740, in Barnstable, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1759 and worked as a merchant in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1776, he served as a member of the state house of representatives and from 1784 to 1787 (speaker, 1784). He was a member of the Massachusetts constitutional convention, the Continental Congress, and served as Secretary of the United States Senate from 1789 until his death in 1814. Samuel's wife, Elizabeth (Gray) Otis (1747-1779), was the daughter of Harrison Gray (1711-1794). Gray served as treasurer and receiver-general of the province of Massachusetts Bay. During the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Gray supported the Loyalists and was later forced to settle in England and to suffer the loss of most of his property in the United States.

On October 8, 1765, Harrison Gray Otis was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard College, graduating in 1783. He read law with Judge John Lowell and was admitted to the bar in 1786. In 1790, he married Sally Foster (1770-1836), with whom he had eleven children. Otis and his family lived in three different Charles Bulfinch-designed Boston, Massachusetts houses: the first, at what is now 141 Cambridge Street (Harrison Gray Otis House), was built during 1795 to 1796 and sold in 1800; the second, larger house, located at 85 Mt. Vernon Street, was built in 1800 and sold in 1805; the third house, at 45 Beacon Street, was built in 1806. Otis lived at the last address until his death on October 28, 1848.

Otis was an active member of the Federalist Party. In 1796, George Washington (1732-1799) appointed him U.S. district attorney for Massachusetts. Otis resigned the office in the same year to enter Congress, in which he served from 1797 to 1801. After leaving Congress, Otis returned to Boston and served in the Massachusetts legislature between 1802 and 1817. He returned to federal government as a United States Senator between 1818-1822 and later served as Mayor of Boston between 1829 and 1831.

In 1795, he was a member of a committee to acquire a site for building a new Massachusetts state house. The site chosen, purchased from Governor John Hancock's heirs, was located near the middle summit of Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts. Otis saw the potential for residential development on Beacon Hill; together with Jonathan Mason, Benjamin Joy, William Sullivan, William Scollay, Joseph Woodward, Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), and others, Otis formed the Mount Vernon Proprietors (one of the first organized real estate syndicates) in order to purchase land on Beacon Hill. The major portion of the land, which the Proprietors sought to purchase, was owned by artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), who had been living in England since 1774. Copley designated Samuel Cabot as his agent to sell the property, and in February 1796, Cabot finalized the sale of the property to the Proprietors. The Proprietors paid the equivalent of $14,000 for Copley's 18 ½ acres, for which he had originally paid $3,000. Upon hearing of the plans for the new state house, Copley repented of the sale, disavowed the deal made by Cabot, and leased the land to William Hull. Copley sent his son, John Singleton Copley, Jr. (1772-1863), to Boston, Massachusetts, to break the contract with the Proprietors. However, the contract with the Proprietors was declared binding and Copley had to abide by the sale. Copley's title to the property could not be found in the Suffolk Registry of Deeds, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, so other claimants to the property came forward during the next 40 years.