Letter Books : 1769 - 1800.

Call Number: HIL-MICL FC LFR .V3W5L4
Category: Family
Creator: Vassall, William, 1715-1800.
Description: 1 microfilm textual records (2 volumes) ; 35 mm
            William Vassall was born in Jamaica, West Indies, but when he was still a small child, he moved with his family to Philadelphia and then to Boston. He studied at Harvard College, receiving a BA in 1733 and his MA in 1743. In the same year as his graduation, his father, Leonard Vassall (1678-1743) died, and William inherited his Jamaican estates, which produced sugar and rum. He lived for a time in Jamaica and later in Boston, but after his first wife, Ann Davis, died, he moved to Bristol, Rhode Island, where he married Margaret, the daughter of Judge Nathaniel Hubbard. Several years later he purchased the Hubbard estate.

In 1774, while living in Bristol, he was attacked for his Loyalist sympathies and the family moved back to Boston. After the Battle of Lexington, the Vassalls fled from Boston, where he had lived for over 30 years, staying at Nantucket until 12 August 1775 when communication with his estate in Jamaica was cut off. He sailed for England, arriving 16 September 1775. He was proscribed and banished from Massachusetts and his estate was forfeited.  In England, William Vassall bought a large house in Battersea, London, and lived there for the remainder of his life. He spent many years arguing in America for compensation for what he deemed the illegal confiscation of his properties in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Two of his sons, William Jr. and Leonard, studied law in England and were admitted to the bar at Lincoln's Inn. A third son Nathaniel, joined the Royal Navy, attained the rank of captain, and was wounded while serving with Nelson at the Battle of the Nile.            
            The first letter book includes the periods from 27 November 1769 until 24 July 1786, and from 1 January 1798 until 21 March 1800. The dates of the second letter book are from 4 July 1786 until 1 January 1798. They contain letters from Boston and Nantucket in Massachusetts, Bristol, Rhode Island, and London, England. Letters from the pre-revolutionary period are chiefly concerned with William Vassall's sugar plantations in Jamaica, the export of rum and sugar to England, the forwarding of goods to Boston for his personal use, and the provision of goods for his Jamaican estates. Much of the correspondence is with James and John Wedderburn who managed his Jamaican plantations. His correspondents at London included Beeston Long of the firm Long, Drake and Long, which was involved in the Jamaica trade. After he moved to London, the correspondence with John Wedderburn continues, but there are also many letters to Boston and to Bristol, Rhode Island, concerning the confiscation and sale of his estates after the war, which he felt was a great injustice.  Main topics of interest pertaining to Jamaica include slavery and Black history, Caribbean, merchants and mercantilism, commerce and trade, agriculture, planters, food technology, and natural history and disasters. The American loyalist experience is also covered.

Other members of the large Vassall family are found in the books; such as, Florentinus Vassall (d.1778), William Vassall Jr. (1753-1843), Henry Vassall (b. 1755), Nathaniel Vassall (1768-1832), John Vassall (1713-1747), Samuel Borland (nephew), and Anna Knight (sister).

Detailed Content

Perusing the letter books from 1790 to early 1792, the following subject matters are found pertaining to Jamaica: enslaved people (purchasing, population concerns, health and afflictions, accommodations, diet), sugar (methods for boiling sugar, ratooning sugar, table of weights), rum and sugar (shipping, shipments, prices), plantation oversight and management (overseers, abuse, land improvement, food security, state of crops and stock and effects on by weather). Relating to America, the discussion is mostly concerning Vassall's fight with the American courts and states for what he calls the unjust and illegal seizing and selling of his property in Massachusetts and Rhode Island during the American Revolution. In doing so, his letter books show he communicated with Dr. James Lloyd and John Lowell Jr. for help with this effort. He also wrote directly to Oliver Wendell, agent for the Supreme Judicial Court, and to whom he places some of the blame for his predicament, to Col. William S. Smith, Marshal of the New York District, and Edmund Randolph, Attorney General to the United States of America. At a more minimal level, there are communications with and about family affairs. Topics cover Vassall's health and his personal finances and income from American properties, his lands on the Kennebec River, and his house in Boston which appears to be rented by Patrick Jeffrey. April 1792 mentions his grandson, William Syme, has gone to work for Vassall's Jamaican plantation - Green River Plantation.            
Originals: The original records are held by the Sheffield City Library.
Archival Ref. No.: Sheffield City Libraries. M.D. 2047 (1), 2047 (2).
Finding Aids:
            Electronic: Summaries for letters dated 1790 to April 1792 are available; see Electronic Finding Aid section.

A finding aid containing a brief statement of provenance, a biographical note concerning William Vassall, a general description of the letter books, and a bibliography, has been microfilmed at the beginning of the reel.            
Electronic Finding Aid Record: Content List 1790 - 1792 April 3.pdf

The Vassall Letter Books, 1769-1800, is one of several titles in the series, British Records Relating to America in Microform, which was published under the auspices of the British Association for American Studies by Microform Limited.

Related external website: Legacies of British Slave Ownership in which is found information on slave owner William Vassall and his plantation or estate in Jamaica.

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