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COLLECTION Identifier: Mss:766 1803-1942 F693

Forbes family business records


Business records of the Forbes family of Milton, Mass., commission merchants engaged in the China trade during the nineteenth century. Records include correspondence, financial material, and business papers relating to the China trade.


  • 1658-1968 (inclusive)

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Materials stored onsite. Please contact for more information.


58 linear feet (107 volumes, 49 boxes)

The Forbes family business records are arranged in thirteen series. Each series contains volumes and papers relating to a specific family member that carried on business activities. The series are arranged chronologically, with the earliest generations of Forbes family members listed first. Letters exchanged by family members and other family papers are grouped together in a separate series. Papers relating to the firms Russell & Co. and J. M. Forbes & Co. are also grouped separately as this material contains primarily financial records and material relating to the China trade.

The Forbes family business records contain an enormous amount of material pertaining to the one of the most important families of Boston merchants engaged in the China trade during the nineteenth century. The collection consists mainly of account books, letter books, and loose correspondence relating to the China trade beginning with brothers Thomas Tunno, Robert Bennet, and John Murray Forbes. The correspondence and account books document commercial activities of Forbes family members as partners in the firm Russell & Co.

Included is material pertaining to the private banking investment firm J. M. Forbes & Co. consisting of financial records, estate and trust accounts, and the records of companies that J. M. Forbes & Co. held significant shares of. The material related to J. M. Forbes & Co. documents the extensive administration and redistribution of wealth made by Forbes family members during the China trade and the establishment of trusts in order to ensure continued prosperity.

Also included is material relating to W. Cameron Forbes consisting of correspondence, financial and legal papers, and material relating to Forbes-Perkins Company and the Massachusetts Street Railway Commission. The collection includes original and copied documents and claims of the ship Macedonian pertaining to two separate seizures in 1819 and 1820 by the Chilean Navy. The papers include correspondence and other documents relating to efforts for recompense of stolen monies and goods.

Historical Note:

The Forbes family came to the colonies in 1763 when Rev. John Forbes was appointed minister at St. Augustine in the territory of Florida. Forbes left Florida for Boston in 1769 and married Dorothy Murray. Their first son, James Grant Forbes (1769-1825), was born later that year. At the end of the Revolution, the Loyalist John Forbes and his son James traveled to England. Dorothy Murray Forbes remained in Milton, Massachusetts, to care for their two younger sons, John M. Forbes (1771-1831) and Ralph Bennet Forbes (1773-1824). James Grant Forbes became a merchant and worked in the West Indies trade before he was commissioned a Colonel in the army and fought in the War of 1812. He later became the mayor of St. Augustine, Florida. He married Frances Elizabeth Blackwell in 1804 and had two children, Rev. John Murray Forbes and Paul Siemen Forbes.

John M. Forbes attended Harvard College and was a friend and classmate of John Quincy Adams. After graduating from Harvard in 1787 he studied law and then left for Europe in 1790. He later served as the United States Consul to Hamburg, Germany, from 1801 to 1811, U. S. Consul General in Stettin, Poland, from 1816 to 1819, U. S. Agent for Commerce in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 1820 to1823, and the U. S. Charge d'affaires to Argentina from 1825 to1831. His brother Ralph Bennet Forbes was employed in the merchant trade traveling much of the world as a supercargo, though not very successfully. He married Margaret Perkins, the sister of well known Boston merchants James and Thomas Handasyd Perkins and had three sons, Thomas Tunno, Robert Bennet, and John Murray Forbes. These three brothers later amassed the family fortunes by working in the China trade.

Thomas Tunno Forbes (1802-1829), the eldest son of Ralph Bennet and Margaret Perkins Forbes, was the first to go to sea. He was sent to China by his Perkins uncles to work as a clerk with Perkins & Co. agent John Perkins Cushing. Early on, Cushing and Forbes established a close relationship with Houqua, the most powerful Hong merchant in Canton. Cushing groomed Forbes to become his successor. However, Thomas Tunno Forbes drowned in a typhoon in 1829. After the death of Forbes, the interests of Perkins & Company were merged with that of Russell & Company, a merchant firm based out of Middletown, Connecticut. Forbes family members retained prominent roles in Russell & Company throughout the 19th century.

Robert Bennet Forbes (1804-1889), called Bennet by the family and Black Ben by friends, was educated briefly in France and at Milton Academy until his father's financial problems caused him to withdraw from school. Shortly thereafter he began working as a clerk in his Perkins uncles' counting room office in Boston. He was sent to China at the age of 13 to work for Russell & Co. He soon amassed a great fortune as a ship captain and merchant importing and exporting goods. He returned to Boston and married Rose Greene Smith with whom he had three children, Robert Bennet Forbes, Jr., Edith Forbes, and James Murray Forbes. He moved to Milton, Mass., where he had built a house and continued to act as an agent for Russell & Co. while also overseeing his shipbuilding operation. Major financial losses during panic of 1837 caused him to sail for China once again where he played a prominent role in the Opium Wars. Having reestablished his wealth he returned to Boston and turned his attention to writing and philanthropy.

The youngest son, John Murray Forbes (1813-1898) became the most prominent of the three brothers. He was educated at the Round Hill School in Northampton and entered his uncles' Boston merchant firm in 1828. Upon the death of his brother Thomas, he sailed for Canton, China, in the ship Lintin, commanded by his brother Bennet . He was employed as a clerk in the office of Russell & Co. under the direction of firm partner Augustine Heard. He was held in high confidence by Canton merchant Houqua and by many other important firms in China. In addition to Russell & Co. affairs, he handled English correspondence and shipping affairs of Houqua. He amassed a great fortune trading opium, sandalwood, and furs for Chinese silk and tea. Upon returning to the United States he invested his money in railroads, mines, and forestry garnering more wealth. Later in life he became a dedicated philanthropist. He married Sarah Swain Hathaway and had a daughter named Mary Hathaway Forbes and a son, William Hathaway Forbes.

In China at the same time as Robert Bennet and John Murray Forbes was their cousin Paul Siemen Forbes (1806-1886). He served as partner in Russell & Co. and as the United States Consul in Canton. Francis Blackwell Forbes (1839-1908) was the son of St. Luke's rector John Murray and Anne Howell Forbes and the nephew of Paul Siemen Forbes. Like many family members before him, he traveled to China as a partner in Russell & Co. and amassed a fortune in the opium trade before leaving and settling in Europe. While in China he played a role in the Shanghai Steam Navigation Company and served as United States Consul in Canton. Through his work with opium he became deeply interested in the poppy plant and studied botany, becoming somewhat of a renowned specialist. He married Isabel Clarke and had four children.

W. Cameron Forbes, the son of William Hathaway and Edith Emerson Forbes, was born in Milton, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1870. He graduated from Harvard in 1892 and began as a clerk in stock and note brokers office of Jackson & Curtis in 1894. He served as head of the financial department and auditor of electrical engineering firm Stone & Webster in 1897. He entered the family private banking investment firm J. M. Forbes & Company as a partner in 1899, while retaining his position at Stone & Webster. Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of Commerce and Police in the Philippine Commission, which was responsible for all government sponsored construction. He was appointed governor general of the Philippine Islands from 1909 to 1913 and later United States ambassador to Japan from 1930 to1932. He served as receiver of the Brazil Railway Company and was a member of the Massachusetts Street Railway Commission. He died in 1959.

Series Outline

The collection is arranged in the following series:

  1. Series A. John M. Forbes papers, 1803-1831
  2. Series B. James Grant Forbes papers, 1821-1822
  3. Series C. Ralph Bennet Forbes papers, 1810-1819
  4. Series D. Thomas Tunno Forbes papers, 1822-1838
  5. Series E. Robert Bennet Forbes papers, 1825-1853
  6. Series F. John Murray Forbes papers, 1829-1891
  7. Series G. Paul Siemen Forbes papers, 1825-1886
  8. Series H. Russell & Co. papers, 1816-1872
  9. Series K. Forbes family papers, 1658-1889
  10. Series L. J. M. Forbes & Co. papers, 1834-1968
  11. Series M. J. Malcolm Forbes papers, 1871-1884
  12. Series N. Francis Blackwell Forbes papers, 1866-1904
  13. Series O. W. Cameron Forbes papers, 1892-1968
  14. Series P. Macedonian (Ship) papers, 1819-1863

Physical Location



Gift of W. Cameron Forbes, through Harvard College Library, 1951. Letter books of Frank Blackwell Forbes came from F. Murray Forbes, 1962. Additional records from J. M. Forbes & Co., 2009 and 2010.

Related Materials

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds a large collection of Forbes family papers.

Processing Information

Processed: November 2009

By: Benjamin Johnson

Processing Note:

The Forbes Family business records have been available to researchers since the collection was acquired in 1951. An addenda to the collection was acquired from J. M. Forbes & Company in 2009. The addenda to the existing collection contained like materials that overlapped in both date and subject. For ease of use, the addenda material was integrated into the existing collection. The series arrangement of the existing collection, as well as its numbering scheme, have not changed. The new material follows the original series arrangement and continues the numbering scheme, where appropriate. Material not directly related to the Forbes Family that was included in the original finding aid has been removed. These materials include Brazil Railway Company, Petroleum Heat & Power Co., and a checkbook belonging to W. Cameron Forbes. The Brazil Railway Company has a separate finding aid and a catalog record in HOLLIS; the other two collections are discoverable in HOLLIS.

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Repository Details

Part of the Baker Library Special Collections, Harvard Business School, Harvard University Repository

Baker Library Special Collections holds unique resources that focus on the evolution of business and industry, as well as the records of the Harvard Business School, documenting the institution's development over the last century. These rich and varied collections support research in a diverse range of fields such as business, economic, social and cultural history as well as the history of science and technology.

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