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Nathaniel and Thomas Shaw papers

Call Number: MS 445

Scope and Contents

Miss Jane R. Perkins of New London has recently presented to the Yale University Library the Nathaniel and Thomas Shaw Papers, in her name and that of her brothers, as a memorial to their father, Dr. Nathaniel Shaw Perkins, Yale 1812. The collection, consisting of account books, ledgers, a letter book and more than eight thousand bills, receipts, letters, etc., is packed in a large camphor wood chest brought from Hawaii by Miss Perkins's brother, Elias, who at one time was United States Consul to the Sandwich Islands.

Many hundreds of these papers are the receipts, accounts, and business letters to merchants in other cities that one would expect to find in the records of a large mercantile house of the day, but, even in business letters, Nathaniel Shaw sometimes commented on the affairs of the day. The opinions and judgment of a man of his standing are an authentic source of information about the attitude of the citizens and the conditions in New London preceding and during the Revolution. The Letter Book, in particular, has been consulted by local historians and has been quoted quite extensively by Miss Frances M. Caulkins in herHistory of New Londonpublished in 1895.

Nathaniel and Thomas Shaw were the sons of Captain Nathaniel Shaw, who was born in Fairfield, Connecticut, but moved to New London before 1730. In that year he married Temperance Harris, granddaughter of the first Gabriel Harris of New London. For many years he engaged as a sea captain in the Irish trade. Three of his six sons perished at sea at various times, at the ages of twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two. Nathaniel and Thomas remained in New London, engaged in the West Indies trade and in the mercantile business. Daniel, the sixth son, also lived in New London, but did not engage in business with his brothers, much of his time being spent on farms in Jordan and East Haddam. He died in 1798, and his wife, Grace Coit, died two years later, leaving no children.

Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., the eldest son, born on the 5th of December, 1735, was one of the most prominent citizens and most enterprising merchants of New London, and was devoted to the welfare of the town and of the Colony. He was one of the original proprietors of the Union School, incorporated by the General Assembly in 1774, from which Nathan Hale went to join the Continental Army.

Among the first citizens to come forward for the cause of the Colonies was Nathaniel Shaw, Jr. In 1767, when the Selectmen of Boston wrote to New London, enclosing the Resolutions of October 23rd, both Nathaniel Shaw and his father, Captain Shaw, were on the Committee of Fifteen to whom they were referred. In 1770 Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., was one of the four delegates sent to the Grand Convention of the Colony of New Haven; and in 1774, when Parliament closed the Port of Boston and the Colonies were aroused, Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., was put on the New London Committee. He served on this Committee of Correspondence again in 1776, 1777, and 1778.

The Letter Book contains many allusions to these stirring times. On October 22, 1773, at the end of a business letter to Peter Vandevoort, Merchant, of New York, Shaw writes:

"In regard to the Tea that is expected from Great Britian, I pray heartily that the Colonies will not suffer any to be landed, but in case your governor has any directions about the matter, its my opinion you will not oppose him. The people with us seem determined not to purchase any that comes in that way."

On December 14, 1774, he wrote to a friend:

"In consequence of the Cannon being mov'd from the Fort att New Port to Providence, we yesterday Remov'd ours into the Cuntry but I lement the Unhappy Situation we are in for want of Powder, we are universally without any, for our Town Stock, in this Town we have not a barrell and they know not were to git any I think if the Assembly is cal'd they should imediately give an order on the Treasury for a Sum of money Sufficient to Purchase 4 or 5 hundred barrells if they would Employ me to git it, unless sum accident I think I could have that Quantity hear in Ten Weeks yesterday Col. Huntington and Col. Spencer were in Town, and they both seem'd to be much in y opinion of the Nessisity of sending for it Imediately if it should take with the Assembly your mentioning my Name will be Agreeable as I have a small vessell in Readiness that I am cartain is the fastest Sailor in the Colony can be Ready att a Days Warning."

The General Assembly approved of this recommendation, and early in 1775 Shaw was ordering powder and arms from the Islands. On the 25th of April, 1775, Shaw wrote to Mr. Peter Vandevoort of New York:

"We have no further News from the Eastward only that there is Thirty Thousand Provential Troops in the neighbourhood of Boston…the Communication between the Town & Country Intirely Stop'd and I believe its our Intention to keep it so. I think its now high time that all the Tory Party should be made to be Silent our Generall Assembly sitts Tomorrow and I pray God Almighty to Direct them to adopt such Measures as will be for the Interests of America."

The government had the highest opinion of Nathaniel Shaw's judgment, particularly in naval affairs, and on July 10, 1776, he was appointed by the Governor and Council of Safety "agent of the Colony for naval supplies and taking care of sick seamen." From that time until his death he was the accredited agent of Congress and the Colony. One of his account books has, at the end, "Commissary proceedings, October 11, 1781," with such entries as "Gave Aaron Olmsted a flag to go into New York to carry money to his friends, prisoners there, and carry Captain Williamson, Lady and Servant on Parole from Boston." The Letter Book contains copies of letters to Governor Trumbull, Robert Morris, Chairman of the Secret Committee at Philadelphia, the Marine Committee of Congress, General Gates, the Continental Navy Board, and the Commissioners of the Admiralty of the United States, about supplies and stores for the army, accounts for prisoners, and conditions in New London.

The Letter Book contains also copies of letters to Commodore Hopkins, who was in command of the first naval expedition under the authority of Congress. Four vessels under his command were fitted out secretly at New London, the "Alfred," "Columbus," "Andrea Doria," and "Cabot," to go south to annoy the British fleet. Commodore Hopkins returned from this expedition in April, 1777, when General Washington was on his way from Boston to New York. They met at New London on April the 9th, and Washington spent the night in the Shaw mansion, which had been built on Bank Street by Captain Shaw from stone blasted out of the rock on which it stands. The Muster Roll of the "Andrea Doria" and accounts of the Brig "Cabot" are among the papers. There are also the accounts for the ship "Oliver Cromwell," the largest state vessel of Connecticut, fitted in New London by Shaw, and a list of men "Deserted from 'Oliver Cromwell'."

In March, 1776, after a lengthy debate, the Continental Congress authorized the use of privateers. Many of these were fitted out at New London by Nathaniel Shaw, and among his papers are the accounts for some of them, including the "American Revenue," with the roll of officers; "The Two Brothers," the Brig "Nancy," and the Ship "Putnam," built by Shaw in 1778. One account book contains "Accounts of losses in vessels underwrote upon," with the premiums paid. There are also the accounts of prizes brought in and sales of their cargoes.

In 1781, when General Arnold led an expedition from New York against New London, and burned much of the town, the stone house where Nathaniel and Thomas Shaw lived was set on fire, but a neighbor, who had remained hidden near by, entered and put out the fires before serious damage had been done. An old wooden house next door, used by the Shaws as an office and storehouse, was destroyed, and in it a chest of valuable papers. Fortunately all the family papers were not in that building, and some have been preserved.

Nathaniel Shaw did not live to see the peace he had helped to gain. On December 11, 1781, his wife, Lucretia, the only child of Daniel Harris, died of a malignant fever that she had caught while tending some prisoners. Five months later her husband was killed by the accidental discharge of his own gun while out hunting.

After his brother's death, Thomas Shaw succeeded as head of the family and of the vast business interests. He, also, was a keen business man and a patriot, and a devout Congregationalist, contributing largely toward the building of the old Zion's Hill meeting house in 1786, and presenting the congregation with a parsonage in 1787. Thomas Shaw was a bachelor, and lived with his aged mother in the family mansion. At the age of fifty-seven, in 1795, he died, leaving his property to his brother Daniel, and to his sister's children. His widowed mother died the following year.

Of Captain Nathaniel Shaw's large family of six sons and two daughters, four sons met tragic deaths, and the two daughters died while still young. The elder, Sarah, married David Allen and died at twenty-five, leaving no children. The younger, Mary, married Ephraim Woodbridge, and died of consumption in June, 1775, at the age of twenty-four. She was the only one of Captain Shaw's family to leave descendants. Her husband died the following year, of the same disease, and their two young children, a boy and a girl, were left to their mother's brothers, who had no children. They are named as the beneficiaries under their uncle's will, in a letter describing his death written by Thomas Shaw.

Neither Nathaniel nor Thomas Shaw was a Yale graduate, but through their niece, Lucretia Woodbridge, the Shaw papers have been handed down in a family closely bound to Yale through generations, and so they form a peculiarly appropriate memorial to one of her descendants, Dr. Nathaniel Shaw Perkins, of the Class of 1812.

Ephraim Woodbridge himself was a graduate of Yale in the Class of 1765, and his daughter, Lucretia Shaw, married, on March 14, 1790, Elias Perkins, of the Class of 1786. He was the grandson of Dr. Joseph Perkins, who graduated from Yale in 1727. An older brother graduated in 1785, and a twin brother in 1787. Elias Perkins was a leading citizen of New London, a very prominent lawyer, the third mayor of New London, 1829-1832, member of Congress, 1801-1803, the first president of the New London Bank, representative in the General Assembly for eight sessions, state senator for six years, anex officioFellow of the Yale Corporation, and judge of the County Court for many years. He had four sons and two daughters. Two of the sons died in infancy, but the other two, Nathaniel Shaw Perkins and Thomas Shaw Perkins, graduated from Yale in 1812.

Nathaniel Shaw Perkins, in whose memory the gift is made, was born in New London in 1792, received a Master's degree from Yale in 1815, and an honorary Doctor of Medicine in 1829. He practiced medicine for many years in New London and died in his seventy-ninth year, in the house in which he was born, after a life of great usefulness as a physician, much beloved and trusted. Six of his fourteen children survived him. One son, Nathaniel Shaw Perkins, Jr., graduated from Yale in 1842.

With the memorial gift of the Shaw papers, Miss Perkins sent interesting memorabilia of her grandfather and her father, including Elias Perkins's B.A. diploma; an undated manuscript "Oration - Yale College"; a manuscript "Dispute, Yale College April 18, 1784"; his appointments as judge and chief judge of the County Court; letters to Judge Perkins from Samuel Austin, Jonathan Trumbull, John Humphreys, Jeremiah Day, and Wyllys Warner; and Nathaniel Shaw Perkins's three diplomas received from Yale, B.A. 1812, M.A. 1815, and M.D. 1829; and his Warrants as Surgeon's mate of the 3d Regiment of Infantry of Connecticut, 16 July, 1813, and as Surgeon of the 2d Regiment of Horse Artillery of Connecticut, 13 August, 1816.

(The description of the papers is quoted from "The Nathaniel and Thomas Shaw Papers," by Mary Withington, The Yale University Library Gazette. Volume I, Number 4, April 1927.)


  • 1755-1799


Conditions Governing Access

The entire collection is available on microfilm. Patrons must use FILM HM 116 instead of the originals.

Existence and Location of Copies

Entire collection also available on microfilm (23,477 frames on 23 reels, 35mm.) from Scholarly Resources, Inc., Wilmington, Delaware.

Conditions Governing Use

Unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by the creator(s) of this collection are in the public domain. There are no restrictions on use. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Jane R. Perkins, 1927.


17.5 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Account books, ledgers, a letter book and over 8,000 bills and receipts of Nathaniel Shaw and his brother, Thomas, who succeeded him in managing the family business. Many of the ledgers and accounts are for cargoes in Shaw's ships which were engaged in the West Indies trade. During the American Revolution Nathaniel Shaw was an active partisan of the colonies and his letter books refer to the ongoing situation. From 1776 he was "agent of the Colony [Connecticut] for naval supplies and taking care of sick seamen" and his ledgers document the financial side of these enterprises, including the accounts of privateers and the disposition of prizes taken by American ships during the war.

Other Finding Aids

A Name and Subject index with packet numbers, microfilm reels and items not received by Yale Library (denoted with an asterisk *) is available.

Note not all items are included in the index.

A List of items not received by Yale Library is available.

Separated Materials

Manuscripts of Elias Perkins (1767-1847; Y. 1786) have been separated from the Shaw Papers to make up the Elias Perkins Papers, Manuscript Group No. 1013.


A Note on the Shaw Papers

The items in the Shaw Papers have been numbered, but are not arranged in numerical order. A catalogue of these items, arranged by name and subject, is in boxes 29-32, although not all items are catalogued and not all catalogued items are in the collection.

There is a manuscript inventory in 2 "order books" (located in box 33). Each item has a number. The "blue Y" next to the number in the order book indicates that the item was received by Yale, however a subsequent list indicates that some of these items were not received by the Yale Library. The account books are individually described. There is is a partial name and subject index and a list of the item numbers and account books numbers which were not received by the Yale University Library; see Other finding aids.

Guide to the Nathaniel and Thomas Shaw Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Marguerite S. Witkop
February 1980
Description rules
Finding Aid Created In Accordance With Manuscripts And Archives Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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