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COLLECTION Identifier: Mss:766 1712-1854 H234

Hancock family papers


The Hancock family of Boston included wealthy colonial merchant Thomas Hancock (1703-1764) and his nephew John Hancock (1737-1793), president of the Second Continental Congress, governor of Massachusetts, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. This collection, dated 1664-1854, contains business and personal correspondence, financial records, and legal papers of Thomas Hancock, John Hancock, and other relatives and associates, including Ebenezer Hancock (1741-1819; Harvard AB 1760), his sons John Hancock (1774-1859) and Thomas Hancock, bookseller Daniel Henchman (1689-1761), and merchant and slave trader Peter Faneuil (1700-1743).


  • 1664-1854 (inclusive)


Conditions Governing Access

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


44 linear feet (27 volumes, 34 boxes)
The Hancock family collection, dated 1664-1854, contains business and personal correspondence, financial records, and legal papers of Thomas Hancock (1703-1764), his nephew John Hancock (1737-1793), and other relatives and associates, including Ebenezer Hancock (1741-1819), his sons John Hancock (1774-1859) and Thomas Hancock, Boston bookseller Daniel Henchman (1689-1761), Boston merchant and slave trader Peter Faneuil (1700-1743), shipmaster James Scott, New York and New Jersey merchant Thomas Goadsby, and the firm of Tolman & Fayerweather. The bulk of the collection concerns the business activities of Thomas Hancock, circa 1730 to 1760, John Hancock, circa 1755 to 1795, and his nephew John Hancock, circa 1795 to 1815, including the trade of books, whale oil, gunpowder and ordnance, liquor and wine, cotton, lumber, and various fabrics and textiles. Many records of Thomas Hancock and the elder John Hancock relate to contracts with the British government to supply provisions and other services to the British Army and Navy before America declared independence. Letters also reference political and military events in North America and overseas, and their impact on trade, including the French and Indian War, the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. There are additionally a number of records related to Cato, Cambridge, and Dinah, who were enslaved and later freed by the Hancocks, as well as Prince Holmes, a free African American who worked periodically for Thomas Hancock and sold the family fish, fowl, pigs, and eggs.

A detailed inventory of the Hancock family collection is available for use in the de Gaspé Beaubien Reading Room, Baker Library. The inventory provides an item-by-item list of the documents included in the collection.

Historical Note:

The Hancock family of Boston included wealthy colonial merchant Thomas Hancock (1703-1764) and his nephew John Hancock (1737-1793), president of the Second Continental Congress, governor of Massachusetts, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Hancock, the son of the Reverend John and Elizabeth Clark Hancock, was born in 1703 in Lexington, Massachusetts (then a part of the town of Cambridge.) At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to Samuel Gerrish (approximately 1680s-1741), a Boston bookseller. In 1724, he opened his own bookshop, “The Bible & Three Crowns,” in the North End of Boston. In an economic environment where cash was scarce and bartering prevailed, Thomas Hancock pursued a variety of business activities. He was a partner in a paper mill, exported goods, including codfish, whale oil, log wood, and potash, supplied rum and provisions to the Newfoundland fishing fleet, and owned shares in freighting vessels. During this time Hancock met and went into business with Daniel Henchman (1689-1761), a leading Boston bookseller. They jointly purchased large consignments of paper and supplies, which allowed Hancock to establish his own credit, and were publishers. Thomas Hancock married Henchman's daughter Lydia in 1730.

Between 1746 and 1758, Hancock and another partner, Boston merchant and slave trader Charles Apthorp (1698-1758), secured contracts to supply British forces during King George's War and the French and Indian War; they furnished ordnance, lumber, food, medicines, and ships, which transported soldiers as well expelled Acadians in the mid-1750s. Apthorp died in 1758, and five years later Thomas Hancock, having no children of his own, established his nephew John as his partner. Thomas Hancock died in 1764, leaving behind an estate estimated at £70,000, one of the largest in the colonies at that time.

John Hancock inherited the bulk of his uncle's estate at the age of twenty-seven. John's father was a clergyman, the Reverend John Hancock (1702-1744; Harvard AB 1719) of Braintree. After his father's death in 1744, John's mother, Mary Thaxter Hancock, agreed to send him to live with his uncle and aunt, Thomas and Lydia Hancock, in Lexington. He graduated Harvard College in 1754, and subsequently joined his uncle in business. In 1760, John was sent to London for nearly a year to learn the English end of trade, meeting with Hancock's agents and associates there. Upon his return to Boston, John Hancock found his uncle in poor health, and he took on an increasingly larger role in the business.

After Thomas Hancock's death, John became more and more involved in the cause of American liberty. He was a Boston selectman from 1765 to 1774 and a member of the colony's General Court from 1766 to 1774. In 1774 the General Court was absorbed into the Provincial Congress, and John Hancock was elected president. He was appointed as a Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and in May 1775 he was elected its president. In August 1775 he married Dorothy Quincy (they had two children; neither survived to maturity.) He left the Congress in 1778.

John Hancock's service during the Revolution and as later as first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1780-1785, 1787-1793), along with his other political involvements, shifted his focus away from his business, and he relied increasingly on subordinates. Hancock intended to return to trade full-time once he retired from public life, but soon after became ill and died in 1793 at the age of fifty-six.

John Hancock's younger brother, Ebenezer Hancock (1741-1819), remained with his mother and her new husband after his father's death. He graduated from Harvard College in 1760. In 1764, upon his uncle Thomas Hancock's death, he received £666 and three thousand acres of land in Maine. Hancock set up a retail store in partnership with Edward Blanchard, but the business failed by 1768. With the help of his brother, Ebenezer was set up in a new hardware shop. John Hancock's political connections helped secure Ebenezer a position as Deputy Paymaster General for the Eastern Department during the Revolution. He inherited a third of John Hancock's estate in 1793, including the Beacon Hill mansion known as Hancock House.

John Hancock's nephews, named Thomas and John Hancock, went into business in 1793, following their uncle's death. The brothers dealt mainly in coastwise shipping of cotton, tobacco, fish, and dry goods, and owned a general store. John Hancock (1774-1859) appears to have operated both in partnership with his brother and on his own, trading commodities including cotton, tobacco, coffee, flour, potash, and gunpowder with merchants in New England, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Baltimore, as well as in Great Britain, Europe, and the West Indies. He owned ships and at least one store on Long Wharf. Hancock also acted as an agent for Boston gunpowder sales of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company before and during the War of 1812.

Series Outline

The collection is arranged in the following series:
  1. Series I. Thomas Hancock papers, 1664-1795 (bulk 1717-1765)
  2. Series II. John Hancock (1737-1793) papers, 1749-1814 (bulk 1760-1795)
  3. Series III. Ebenezer Hancock papers, 1739-1831 (bulk 1757-1815)
  4. Series IV. Thomas & John Hancock (nephews of John Hancock) papers, 1763-1835 (bulk 1794-1816)
  5. Series V. John Hancock (1774-1859) papers, 1793-1854 (bulk 1795-1814)
  6. Series VI. Blanchard & Hancock records, 1763-1791 (bulk 1764-1768)
  7. Series VII. Daniel Henchman papers, 1718-1795 (bulk 1781-1763)
  8. Series VIII. Peter Faneuil papers, 1716-1796 (bulk 1716-1739)
  9. Series IX. Miscellaneous papers, 1731-1809

Physical Location



The Hancock family papers were initially deposited with Baker Library by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 1928. The papers were returned to the NEHGS in 1974 to form the basis of its Bicentennial program. In 1992, Baker Library purchased the Hancock family papers from the society in honor of Mary Chatfield, former Librarian of Baker Library.

Processing Information


By: Lisa DeCesare and Brooke Fox

Additional preservation and description were supported by the Colonial North America at Harvard Library Project in 2017. A review of boxes 22, 33, and 34 concluded a number of folders were mislabeled; the location of the folders is unchanged, but the new folder titles were integrated in the finding aid into Series I. Thomas Hancock, and Series II. John Hancock.
Link to catalog
Hancock Family. Hancock Family Papers, 1664-1854 (inclusive): A Finding Aid
Baker Library
Description rules
Language of description

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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