The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Letters of Rev. John Higginson’s Merchant Sons

“Dear Brother Nathaniel. It is now sixteen years since you left England, from whence, while you were there, I had often refreshing letters from you,” wrote Salem merchant John Higginson to his brother Nathaniel Higginson on 16 April 1699, in a letter contained in the Higginson Family Papers held by the MHS. John Higginson and Nathaniel Higginson were both sons of Rev. John Higginson of Salem. While Nathaniel Higginson ventured off to England after graduating from Harvard College in 1670, John Higginson remained in Salem to become a merchant and member of the Governor’s council. The elder brother continued his letter, echoing sentiments that occur with repetition in the family letters:

But now, what climate have you got into that makes you forget your Father’s house? I have not received one line from you since you left England, though you have had so many opportunities by England, Holland, Barbadoes. What is it that we have offended you in, that you will not afford one line in so many years? Have the honours, profits, &c., of the world quite swallowed you up?

What climate did Nathaniel Higginson find himself in? After his education at Harvard, the young New Englander traveled to England in 1674 where he acted as  steward and tutor to Lord Wharton’s children for seven years. This departure from New England happened just before King Philip’s War, when troubled relations between the Native Americans and colonists perhaps factored into the young man’s decision to visit his relatives in England. Higginson was later employed under Lord Wharton in the mint of the Tower of London. In 1683 he left England and sailed to India. In his early thirties at the time, he established himself as a merchant at Fort St. George in Madras, eventually becoming the colonial governor of Madras. He was handed the keys to the garrison and city of Madras by Elihu Yale, the namesake of Yale College, on 23 October 1692.

Nathaniel Higginson never returned to New England, despite his brother John’s pleading to come home. On 20 June 1697, John clearly demostrates his wish to see his brother again, writing to Nathaniel:

Dear Brother,
I request you to give me a particular account of your circumstances; and I hope you do not intend to spend all your days in India, but will return into England, and so into New England. We want such men; and now you have gotten you an estate, the business is to contrive how to lay it out for the glory of God and the good of yourself and yours; which, I conceive, may be done as well in New England as any where.

The nomadic brother did make some effort to return to New England. In 1700, he sailed with his wife and five children from India to England to settle his affairs with plans to sail to Salem or Boston. However, Nathaniel Higginson died in London on 31 October 1708, in the same year as his father Reverend John Higginson died in Salem.

Of Reverend John Higginson’s other sons, Thomas Higginson became a goldsmith in England and later left for Africa, after which he was never heard of again. Francis Higginson went to England, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and died of small pox in London in his mid-twenties. Henry Higginson became a merchant in Barbados and died of small pox in 1685. Reverend John Higginson’s eldest son, the letter writer John, was the only son to remain in New England. He lived until 1720 to the age of 73, flourishing in Salem as an East Indies trader.

Interested in the Higginson family or East Indies trade?  Visit the library at Massachusetts Historical Society to check out the Higginson family papers. If you are not located within the Boston area, the Hathi Trust has provided a digital edition of the transcription of these letters from the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd series, Volume 7 (1838).

permalink | Published: Friday, 2 August, 2013, 1:00 AM


Aug 9, 2013, 11:34 pm

Hari Vishwanadha

Andrea, thanks for this timely note. The letters give important insight into the experiences of young men trying to find financial security in a time of war and families trying to preserve the social unit during an era of global trade and migrant labor. The Higginson Family papers and these letters provide a valuable link in the continuing story of Yankees in India. And I will be sure to study them on my next visit to the MHS.

Commenting has closed for this post. Thank you for participating.