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Wright family papers

1785-1902, bulk 1809-1876
 Collection
Identifier: 1665

Abstract

Samuel Gardiner Wright (1781-1845) was a West Jersey Quaker merchant and ironmaster who conducted a wide-ranging mercantile business based in Philadelphia, iron furnaces in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and in southern Delaware and maintained a country house and farm in Monmouth County, N.J. The papers document his varied business interests, especially iron manufacture and sales. There are smaller quantities of papers from his wife, sons and grandson.

Dates

  • 1785-1902, bulk 1809-1876

Creator

Extent

16.67 Linear Feet

Historical Note

Samuel Gardiner Wright was born on November 18, 1781, the great-great-grandson of Joshua Wright, one of three brothers who emigrated from Yorkshire, England, to the Burlington, New Jersey, area in 1677-1679. They were part of the larger movement of Quakers from the north of England to the Delaware Valley. Samuel's immediate line remained within the Society of Friends. His great-grandfather, John Wright, was the founder of Wrightstown, New Jersey. His father, Caleb, moved to the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania with a younger son, Joseph (1785-1855) and purchased a farm in Union Township, two miles above Shickshinny. Around 1811, Caleb returned to New Jersey, where he became a storekeeper at Juliustown. He was active in Quaker affairs, particularly the anti-slavery movement of the 1830s. Joseph remained in Pennsylvania, founding a separate line of the Wright family at Plymouth.

Samuel Wright married his distant cousin, Sarah G. Wright, in 1805, and through her came to possess a 300-acre farm at Cox's Corner in Upper Freehold Township. Monmouth County, a location later known as Wrightsville. The property had been purchased by Sarah's grandfather, David Wright, in 1770 and included a frame dwelling built by Robert Lawrence around 1735. Samuel demolished the newer frame dwelling built by David Wright and erected a handsome brick mansion in 1810 which he named Merino Hill. The name commemorated a flock of merino sheep which Wright imported in company with E. I. du Pont of Wilmington and other gentlemen farmers. Wright's flock had grown to about 200 by 1822, when he began selling them and devoting more time to other ventures. Besides breeding sheep and selling lambs and wool, Wright produced apples for distillation into cider and applejack, as well as other typical crops and livestock.

Around 1815, Wright began to diversify his operations. With several sets of partners. he engaged in two ventures to supply fuel to the newly-perfected steamboats operating in New York Harbor. The first, called the Arrarat Company, cut wood on Arrarat Creek near South Amboy under the supervision of James Applegate. The second, a partnership with C. and J. Foulks and others, operated near Toms River. Due to shortages of capital, bickering with partners, and the problem of supervising work at a distance, neither of these companies lasted more than three years, and the Arrarat Company ended in litiga-tion. Wright also invested in unsuccessful attempts by David Thacker to establish salt works at Tuckerton. New Jersey, and Lewes, Delaware.

By 1817, Wright had established himself as a general merchant in Philadelphia, initially in partnership with David Cooke. Initially dealing in New Jersey agricultural products, he was soon trading along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. From 1820 to 1822, he conducted a trade with David Brearley, then Indian Agent at Dardanelle, Arkansas Territory, exchanging eastern manufactures for furs.

Around 1820, Wright decided to expand into the iron trade. He agreed to supply David C. Wood's Millville Furnace with ore and market its output. In 1822, he took a full one-year lease of Millville Furnace and also acquired from William D. Waples a lease on the Delaware Furnace near Millsboro in southern Delaware, placing Derrick Barnard in charge. At the same time, he purchased the rights to bog ore beds along the Nanticoke River that had formerly belonged to the Deep Creek and Pine Grove Furnaces. Ore from the Delaware beds was shipped across Delaware Bay to Millville and other furnaces in southern New Jersey. Wright purchased another ore bed on the Ivanhoe Branch of Crosswicks Creek near Prospertown in 1824. About this time, he bought a fractional interest in the East Jersey Proprietorship, which entitled him to a share of unseated lands. He began to assemble enormous land holdings in a broad swath between Imlaystown and Toms River. The core of these holdings was a tract of 26,000 acres around present-day Lakehurst, which included the derelict Federal Furnace and Forge. Wright restored Federal Furnace and renamed it Dover Furnace in 1826. Wright apparently operated the associated Phoenix Forge for a short time but possibly lost it in a title dispute. He also briefly held a partial interest with Samuel J. Read in the nearby unrelated Dover Forge.

Charcoal was manufactured at Dover Furnace and (until 1830) on the nearby Greenwood Forest Tract through rights leased from the Newbold family. As bog ore deposits in South Jersey became exhausted, Wright helped found the Mt. Hope Mining Company in Morris County in 1831. Wright remained an important ironmaster for seven years. He manufactured pig iron, stoves, wagon-wheel boxes, sash boxes, and large quantities of pipe for the new urban gas and water systems throughout the Northeast. He appears to have made or tried to make strap rail and castings for some of the earliest United States railroads. Wright appears to have had a close relationship with architect John Haviland, providing iron architectural elements for the fence around Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and doors and fittings for several of his famous prisons. Delaware Furnace turned out the majority of Wright's stoves and also specialized in the manufacture of cast iron plowshares.

Wright was also heavily involved in real-estate speculation outside New Jersey. Through his father and brother Joseph, he inherited land in the Wyoming Valley at Plymouth and Pittston, much of it containing coal deposits. During the period from 1810 through 1820. Wright owned land at Milford, Otsego County, New York, and lots in Philadelphia. Beginning in the 1830s, he acquired lots in New York City and joined in the rush to speculate in western lands. Wright's purchases were in the central part of Illinois and also near Quincy, and were undertaken in conjunction with a number of friends and associates from the Trenton area under the name of the Trenton Illinois Company. Wright also made land purchases in Missouri. He made numerous trips along the Ohio-Mississippi Valley, both attending to his mercantile business and looking after his real estate.

Wright was a local leader of the Adams faction of the Democratic-Republican and Whig parties in the realignments of the 1830s. He was elected to a term in the Legislative Council (State Senate) in 1830-1831.

Wright began to withdraw from some of his enterprises in the early 1830s. He sent his eldest son Gardiner Harrison Wright (1806-1886) to take charge of Delaware Furnace in 1832. After 1832, the American iron industry suffered from the destabilizing effects of the Bank War and from reduced tariffs on imported iron. Wright sold the Dover Furnace property to another ironmaster, Benjamin B. Howell, in 1833 but retained a mortgage to secure the purchase price. Howell sold the property to his two sons, and they in turn sold it in 1836 to a group of New York land speculators, the Monmouth Purchase Company. The Panic of 1837 and its aftermath delayed the settlement with Wright and led to very strained relations with both Howell and the Monmouth Purchase Company. Wright's mortgage was not paid off until 1840.

The financial convulsions of 1837-1843 played havoc with Wright's other ventures as well. Delaware Furnace shut down in 1834, reopened briefly in 1836, and closed for good in 1837. Dover Furnace also shut down around 1837, as did Wright's Philadelphia store. Wright no doubt suffered from the collapse of western land values after 1839. Wright apparently spent these years at Merino Hill trying to salvage his western investments. He also engaged in the importation of Missouri mules. Wright took part in the political campaign of 1840, and in 1844 he was elected to the House of Representatives. Wright died of dropsy on July 30, 1845, before he could take his seat.

Wright's career provides an excellent example of the American businessman just before the transition from "merchant capitalism" to "industrial capitalism." While they were important in their own day, none of his enterprises left direct successors, and the trades and techniques they represented were rendered obsolete soon after his death. Although not ranked among the "great" Philadelphia merchants, Wright was part of that much larger second tier whose activities produced the first stages of industrialization in the United States.

Wright's widow survived him for another forty years. Gardiner H. Wright remained at Millsboro, Delaware. In 1834, he had married Cassandra, the daughter of Colonel William D. Waples. After the abandonment of Delaware Furnace, he continued to operate the foundry and remelting or cupola furnace adjoining it, manufacturing plows and other iron implements. This operation lasted until 1879. The family moved to Georgetown, Delaware, around 1862 where Gardiner became President of the Georgetown branch of the Farmers State Bank. He was also deeply involved in local politics and served as State Treasurer in the 1850s. The second son, Harrison Gardiner Wright (1810-1885) inherited Merino Hill and passed it on to his descendants. The third son, Samuel G. Wright, Jr. (1819-1897) had apparently caused his father some difficulties in his youth, running away to join the Navy. The elder Wright was obliged to use his connections to have him released from the service. Samuel, Jr., returned to New Jersey and, like his father, became a commercial farmer. While subsequent generations achieved some status in the learned professions (Harrison's grandson, Walter Livingston Wright, Jr., was President of Lincoln University), none equalled Samuel G. Wright's status in the business community.

Scope and Content

The papers of Samuel G. Wright document his activities as a New Jersey gentleman farmer, a Philadelphia merchant, an ironmaster, and a member of the New Jersey Legislature, as well as his private investments in land. As such, it is a valuable source on the details of the early nineteenth-century iron industry and its allied activities (including charcoal manufacture and coastwise shipping), on the impact of economic fluctuations during the Jacksonian Era, on the linkages between eastern merchants and the developing West, on land speculation, and on everyday life in rural New Jersey and Delaware.

The papers are essentially those which accumulated at Merino Hill over a period of about seventy years, plus some of those originally kept in Philadelphia by Wright's chief clerk, William Potter. The papers probably are not complete, although they do seem to cover the full range of Wright's activities. They reflect the relatively undeveloped state of recordkeeping and accounting in medium-sized businesses. Doubtless, much information at Merino Hill, Philadelphia, and Dover Furnace was conveyed orally. The managers of Delaware Furnace and other remote ventures produced more thorough written reports.

The core of the papers consists of bound and loose accounting materials and inbound correspondence. The accounts appear to be incomplete, and several volumes were used for writing practice and as scrapbooks by later generations. The largest portion covers the iron operations at Delaware and Dover Furnaces, with greater detail available on the former. Letters from the field describe all phases of ironmaking and its ancillary activities, including technical and labor problems, fluctuating market conditions, sales, and shipping. There is extensive correspondence with the Howells concerning the financial and legal difficulties surrounding the resale of the Dover Furnace Tract to the Monmouth Purchase Company. A photocopy of a map of the tract made by the Monmouth Purchase Company is available in the Pictorial Collections Department. There is some wage data, and the manufacture and marketing of cast-iron pipes and stoves is described in great detail. Wright was enmeshed in an extensive network of ironmasters and iron dealers stretching up and down the East Coast, and the correspondence indicates contacts with such iron pioneers as Oliver Evans and Eliphalet Nott.

Wright's western and southwestern trade is documented in accounts with David Brearley for the Arkansas fur-trading venture and by letters from Wright's clerk/agent William Potter during a long tour to Arkansas describing market conditions and prospects along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. There are also letters from merchants in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Natchez who traded with Wright. Other letters describe Wright's early ventures in cordwood and salt manufacture, as well as speculative purchases of land in Otsego County (New York), Missouri, and Illinois, and purchases with his brother Joseph and nephew Hendrick of anthracite coal lands in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. An account book lists bog ore shipments from central New Jersey in the 1820s.

Merino Hill Farm is represented by incomplete accounts, including farm payrolls and accounts with tenant/agent Caleb Malsbury. The accounts cover the construction of Merino Hill house and farm. Other account books give some coverage of Wright's Philadelphia mercantile business between 1817 and 1842.

Wright's political career is represented by a series of printed bills, petitions, and reports from Wright's term in the State Legislature. The bills include many that did not become law, the principal issues of the session being competing railroad schemes and the founding of the Camden and Amboy Railroad monopoly. The official collection of draft bills in the New Jersey State Library does not begin until much later. There is also ephemera from several political campaigns in which Wright participated, including a printed song from William Henry Harrison's Log Cabin campaign in 1840. There is also a chart giving a phrenological analysis of Samuel G. Wright, and the manumission papers for a young slave that he apparently bought and liberated.

Samuel G. Wright's father Caleb is represented by a small collection of papers, primarily related to the charitable and anti-slavery activities of the Society of Friends and to Orthodox attacks against the Hicksite Schism. Letters of Sarah Wright (1811-1883), Gardiner H. Wright (1826-1852), Harrison G. Wright (1826-1886), and Samuel G. Wright, Jr. (1839-1860) are primarily concerned with family and domestic life, although Gardiner in particular writes about his father's business activities. There are a number of letters from Samuel G. Wright, Sr., written to his wife while traveling on business. The sons wrote to their parents and to one another des-cribing life in boarding school and their social lives as young men in the 1820s. Of particular note are Gardiner's description of a stay with distant relations, the Latta family of Yorkville and Columbia, South Carolina. The papers of Harrison G. Wright also document his activities in settling his father's estate and closing up his affairs, as well as accounts for the operation of Merino Hill Farm.

Existence and Location of Copies

Microfilm available in the Manuscripts and Archives Department at Hagley Museum and Library.

Duplicate microfilm also available in the New Jersey State Archives, 185 West State Street, CN307, Trenton, N.J. 08625

Related Material

Wright family papers (Accession 2575), Manuscripts and Archives Department, Hagley Museum and Library

Documentary photographs of "Merino Hill" by Hagley photographer Martin Kane (Accession 1991.243) Audio-Visual and Digital Department, Hagley Museum and Library. Includes a photographic copy of the portrait of Samuel G. Wright that was later sold at auction.

"Merino Hill" was the subject of an Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Records (HABS/HAER) study, the records of which are preserved in the Library of Congress.

Language of Materials

English


Additional Information

Additional Description

Provenance

Gift of Richard R. Wright and Elizabeth Gaskill Wright Meirs, Jr., who are fifth-generation descendants of Samuel G. Wright. The Wright family papers were received in three installments between 1979 and 1981 and a large final addition in 1989.

Accruals

Six linear feet of material was received as an addendum and are not part of the microfilm edition.

Processing Notes

The loose papers had been bundled, probably by Wright's sons, and stored in cloth bags at Merino Hill. The initial processing in 1980-1981 simply preserved the wrapper titles created by Wright's sons.

The last installment which arrived in 1989 contained all of Wright's papers for the 1840-1845 period, but also a large quantity of letters, accounts, bills and receipts which fell into all the categories and date ranges set up in the initial processing. Upon closer examination, it was discovered that much of the bundling of the papers by Wright's sons was extremely arbitrary, that correspondents were misidentified, and that the wrapper titles were not accurate. Consequently, the entire collection has been reworked, preserving only those headings and groupings which were in Samuel G. Wright's own hand.

All correspondence which could be identified as relating to a single enterprise, such as Dover Furnace, the Arrarat Company, etc., has been consolidated. The letters from Gardiner H. Wright have been separated from those on Delaware Furnace, since they discuss a number of unrelated subjects. The remaining letters have been arranged by name of correspondent. The account books have been grouped in something closer to their proper sequence. Since more material is now available for other family members, the collection has been retitled Wright Family Papers. This rearrangement has rendered the old microfilm edition both incomplete and obsolete. The inventory for the old arrangement can be found in the case file along with a sheet coordinating the old and new numbers of the accounting volumes.

Related Names

Creator

Finding Aid & Administrative Information

Title:
Wright family papers
Status:
Online
Author:
Christopher T. Baer
Description rules:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description:
English
Script of description:
Latin

Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

Contact:
PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA
302-658-2400