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Bowditch Family Papers, 1726/7-1942, 1961, 1975, undated

Identifier: MSS 3

Scope and Content Note

This collection contains correspondence, legal documents, financial records, maps, photographs, published works, and genealogy of the Bowditch family of Salem, Massachusetts. It also contains papers of the Babcock family, Swann family, Lyon family, Ingersoll family, and Plummer family. It has been divided into seven series.

Series I. Nathaniel Bowditch Papers consists of correspondence, shipping papers, and other records of Nathaniel Bowditch. This series has been subdivided into three subseries. Subseries A. Correspondence contains letters to and from Nathaniel Bowditch, the correspondence of his wife, Mary Ingersoll Bowditch, and correspondence with publisher Edmund M. Blunt (1770-1862), who published the New American Practical Navigator. Subseries B. Early Work, Financial Records, and Legal Papers consists of the original notebook for the 1794 survey of Salem, receipts, shipping papers, mathematical tables, a land deed, and newspaper clippings arranged chronologically. It includes papers for the ship Putnam, and sloops Polly, Nancy, and Industry. There is also a folder of ships unrelated to Nathaniel Bowditch's life, which includes documents from the schooner Freedom, brig Eunice, ship Henry, and brigantine Cadet. The folder with drawings of Bowditch's dividing engine contains Xerox copies of the wooden pattern pieces, measured drawings of the metal parts by Philip C.F. Smith, Curator of Maritime History at the Peabody Museum, 1971, and Xerox copies of a notebook relating to the theoretical application for dividing in the hand of Bowditch's son, J. Ingersoll Bowditch. Subseries C. Publications contains a copy of Directions for Sailing into the Harbours of Salem, Marblehead, Beverly and Manchester with an inscription and document from Harold I. Bowditch pasted in.

Series II. William Ingersoll Bowditch Papers consists of family letters, business papers, and material from his studies at Harvard during the 1830s. Manuscripts, copies of many of Bowditch's speeches and pamphlets, and numerous clippings on anti-slavery and women's suffrage are also included. This series has been subdivided into four subseries. Subseries A. Correspondence contains correspondence with family and friends, which is arranged alphabetically by correspondent name. Subseries B. Others' Correspondence contains letters between reformers including that of William Lloyd Garrison, Francis Jackson, Lydia Maria Child, Theodore Parker, Susan B. Anthony, and Samuel May. Subseries C. Financial and Legal Papers contains receipts, accounts, bills, legal documents, and obituaries as well as a plot plan of his lot in Brookline. Subseries D. Writings includes original manuscript versions of books, printed pamphlets, and articles as well as a journal and school notebooks. This subseries has been organized into four sub-subseries. Sub-subseries 1. Personal (Academic) contains Bowditch's handwritten notebooks from his academic work at Harvard College and Harvard Law School as well as an article that he wrote for the Boston Globe about his college class of 1838. Sub-subseries 2. Genealogical (Family History) contains background material on Bowditch family members, handwritten manuscript drafts, and the final version of Our Family Story from 1639 to 1838, which was published in 1896. Family Letters, etc. collected by William I. Bowditch, 1906 contains original letters, maps, music, and photographs of Nathaniel Bowditch, Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, Jonathan Ingersoll Bowditch, Charles Ingersoll Bowditch, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, Mary Ingersoll Bowditch, wife of Epes S. Dixwell, and Elizabeth Boardman Ingersoll Bowditch, wife of John James Dixwell. William I. Bowditch's Life Volume II, 1907 details his activities on anti-slavery, women's suffrage, aiding discharged convicts, and the Plummer School [Salem, Massachusetts]. Sub-subseries 3. Anti-slavery contains notes and original manuscripts of various publications that Bowditch published in the late 1840s and 1850s. Reply to Mr. Peabody was a series of newspaper articles. Sub-subseries 4. Women's rights contains notes, manuscripts, and printed articles that Bowditch wrote in the 1870s and 1880s. Subseries E. Clippings and Printed Material contains newspaper clippings and pamphlets on subjects in which Bowditch was interested, mainly slavery and women's suffrage.

Series III. Ernest William Bowditch Papers contains correspondence, journals, family genealogy, and correspondence of his wife. It has been organized into four subseries. Subseries A. Personal Papers consists of personal and business correspondence, receipts, a certificate, and various miscellaneous items. Subseries B. Darien Expedition Material consists of journals and correspondence relating to his work on the Darien Expedition in 1870 to map out a route through the Panama Canal. Subseries C. Genealogy contains correspondence, charts, obituaries, and information about the Ebenezer Bowditch house in Salem, Massachusetts. The genealogical chart of Higginson family has been restricted due to its fragile condition. Subseries D. Publications contains eight printed pamphlets owned by Bowditch on topics of interest to him. Subseries E. Margaret Swann Bowditch Papers contains her sketchbooks, family correspondence, letters from her husband, and obituaries.

Series IV. Related Family Papers contains material from other Bowditch family members or individuals related to the Bowditch family by marriage. Subseries A. Early Ancestors' Papers contains a musical score by William Bowditch, copies of wills of William, Ebenezer, and Habakkuk Bowditch, and an account book/journal by an unidentified man. The author of this journal stayed with Mr. John Coburn of Boston while recovering from an illness. He was treated by Dr. Nathaniel Perkins and was visited by his brother, James. Subseries B. Nathaniel I. Bowditch Papers contains notebooks created by Nathaniel's son, Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch (1805-1861) and two letters. Subseries C. Babcock Family Papers contains the correspondence of Babcock family members who are related through Nathaniel Ingersoll. It also contains typescript copies of the journals of Rev. William Smyth Babcock (1764-1809), a Freewill Baptist minister preaching in Vermont and New Hampshire. Subseries D. Swann Family Papers contains letters, calling cards, and a will from the Swann family to which Margaret Swann Bowditch, wife of Ernest William Bowditch, is related. Subseries E. Lyon Family Papers contain correspondence of Lizzie and Henry Lyon, ancestors of Margaret Swann Bowditch. Subseries F. Ingersoll Family Papers contain correspondence, financial records, a diploma, and genealogical charts for the Ingersoll family, who are related to the Bowditch family through Mary Ingersoll Bowditch (1781-1834). Subseries G. Harold Bowditch Papers contains correspondence, clippings, genealogy, printed materials, and a radio playlet about Nathaniel Bowditch compiled by his great-grandson, Dr. Harold Bowditch. Subseries H. Other Bowditch Papers contains four letters, one each from J. Ingersoll Bowditch, Henry I. Bowditch, Charles P. Bowditch, and Vincent Y. Bowditch.

Series V. Plummer Family Papers includes the letters and papers of Ernestus Plummer, Caroline Plummer, Joshua Plummer, Lyman Plummer, Olive Plummer, and Theodore Plummer. Caroline Plummer was a close personal friend of William Ingersoll Bowditch.

Series VI. Photographs consists of photographs of family members and Salem scenes arranged chronologically.

Series VII. Genealogy consists of many volumes of genealogical research and writings. Volumes include original letters, the family crest, and genealogy of related families. The family hired at least four professional genealogists over the years and their work is included here.


  • Creation: 1726/7-1942, 1961, 1975, undated


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use. The genealogical chart of the Higginson family in box 17 folder 5 has been restricted due to its fragile condition.

Biographical Sketch

Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1773, the fourth child of Habakkuk (1737-1798) and Mary Ingersoll (b. circa 1738) Bowditch. Habakkuk was a cooper and shipmaster. When Nathaniel was two, the family moved from the Salem waterfront to rural Salem Village (now Peabody). His early education was at the dame school across the road from home. The family moved back to Salem when he was seven. He attended Master Watson's school where he had his first taste of mathematics.

At age 10 Nathaniel went to work beside his father at a cooperage. In the evenings he took a bookkeeping short course. In 1785, at age 12, Nathaniel was apprenticed to Ropes and Hodges, ship chandlers. Living in the house of Jonathan Hodges, he was allowed to use Hodges' library. During the day he learned about the equipment and supplies needed to outfit sailing ships and heard stories of exotic ports and people. In the evenings he studied in the library.

Salem's sea-going merchants generated wealth, which supported scientific development and instrument-making. In these fields Bowditch was encouraged by three local Harvard-trained scholars: Nathan Read, an apothecary, nail factory entrepreneur, and early steam engine and paddlewheel boat inventor; John Prince, the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Salem and the inventor of an air pump; and William Bentley, Unitarian pastor of the Second Congregational Church, whose diaries and journalism recorded his encyclopedic learning. Bentley encouraged Bowditch to study Latin, lending him books from his 4,000-book library, including Isaac Newton's Principia. In 1791 the Philosophical Library Society, at the urging of Bentley and Prince, granted 18-year-old Bowditch borrowing privileges. With these resources he continued his readings in mathematics and natural philosophy, mastered Euclid, and learned French by translating the New Testament with the help of a dictionary. He constructed his own astronomical and surveying instruments.

In 1794 Bowditch assisted Reverend Bentley and shipmaster John Gibaut in the land survey of Salem. Gibaut was so impressed with the young man's thoroughness and accuracy that he invited Bowditch to sign on as his clerk on his next voyage to the East Indies. In preparation, Bowditch took up the study of sea journals and navigation techniques. Between 1795 and 1803, Bowditch sailed to the East Indies five times. He used his free time on board studying sailing charts and navigation, taking lunar measurements, and filling notebooks with observations. The first time he signed on as a clerk and second mate; by the last voyage he was master and part-owner of the ship. After selling his goods from the last voyage, he had enough capital to retire from the sea.

Practical sailing experience combined with astronomy scholarship made Bowditch one of the best navigators in America. Newburyport publisher, Edmund March Blunt, commissioned him to update and revise his The American Coast Pilot, 1796. Bowditch used a 15-month stretch of shore time, 1797-1798, to check the data and recalculate the tables. Building on his work on The American Coast Pilot, Bowditch compiled The New American Practical Navigator in 1802. As secretary and inspector of voyage journals for the East India Marine Society of Salem, he had access to additional information on voyages, routes, and foreign ports. The New American Practical Navigator contained instruction in navigation; surveying directions; data on winds; directions on how to calculate high tides; notes on currents; a dictionary of sea terms; an explanation of rigging; model contracts; a model ship's journal or log; statistics on marine insurance; information on bills of exchange; and lists of responsibilities for ship owners, masters, factors, and agents. This comprehensiveness soon won it wide usage and the title of "the seaman's bible."

In 1798 Bowditch married Elizabeth Boardman (1780-1798). His father died of a paralytic stroke a few months later. He was in Spain, on his fourth voyage, when he received the news that his wife of only a few months had also died. In 1800, Nathaniel Bowditch married his cousin, Mary Ingersoll (1781-1834). They had seven children: Nathaniel Ingersoll (1805-1861); Jonathon Ingersoll (1806-1889); Henry Ingersoll (1808-1892); Charles (1809-1820); a son born in 1813; Mary Ingersoll (1816-1893?); William Ingersoll (1819-1909); and Elizabeth Boardman Ingersoll (1823-1888).

At the age of 30, Bowditch was invited to become President of the Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Salem. He worked there for 20 years.

In 1799 Bowditch had been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was its president from 1829 to 1838. In 1818 he was elected to the Edinburgh and London Royal Societies. He later joined the Irish Royal Academy, the Royal Astronomical Society of London, the Royal Academies of Palermo and Berlin, and the British Association. He declined Thomas Jefferson's 1818 offer of the mathematics chair at the new University of Virginia.

Beginning in 1812 Bowditch worked on an English translation of Pierre Laplace's Traité de Mécanique Céleste, 1799-1825, and wrote scientific articles on spherical trigonometry, magnetic compass variations, the earth's oblateness, celestial table corrections, and the behavior of twin pendulums. These articles appeared in the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. He published his four-volume translation of Laplace, 1829-1839, using part of his life savings.

In 1823, at the age of 50, Bowditch moved to Boston to become the actuary of the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company. His wife, Mary Bowditch, died of tuberculosis in 1834. In 1838 Bowditch died of stomach cancer and was buried beside his wife under Trinity Church in Boston. Later they were reburied in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

William Ingersoll Bowditch (1819-1909) was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1819 to Nathaniel and Mary Bowditch. He attended Harvard College, receiving his A. B. in 1838 and his LL.B. in 1841. He was a lawyer and resident of Brookline, Massachusetts. He was active in local Brookline politics, serving as a selectman and moderator of Town Meetings for a number of years. Before the Civil War, he was an avid abolitionist, active in Brookline and Boston efforts. Besides trying to sway public opinion through meetings, lectures, and membership in the Boston Vigilance Committee, Bowditch used his house to shelter fugitive slaves. He was also active in a variety of reform movements, including suffrage. He married Sarah Rhea Higginson (1819-1919) in 1844 and they had five children: James Higginson (b. 1846); William Ernestus (1850-1918); Frederick Channing (1854-1925); Susan Higginson (1857-1935); and Louisa Higginson (1860-1929). He died in Brookline in 1909.

William Ernestus Bowditch (1850-1918), the son of William Ingersoll Bowditch and Sarah Rhea Higginson, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1850. He later changed his name to Ernest William Bowditch. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1869. In 1870, he became a member of the United States Expedition to the Isthmus of Darien (Panama), acting as a topographer and geologist while surveying for the future Panama Canal. Returning, he entered the services of Shedd and Sawyer, civil engineers, and shortly left them to establish an office of his own. He worked as a landscape architect and sanitary engineer for many years. In 1889, he married Margaret Lyon Swann (1864-1933) and they had four children: Elizabeth Swan (1891-1923), William Ingersoll (1893-1934), Richard Lyon (1900-1959), and Sarah Higginson (1904-1966). He died in Milton, Massachusetts in 1918.


22.25 linear feet (38 boxes; 3 oversize folders)

Language of Materials



This collection contains correspondence, legal documents, financial records, maps, photographs, published works, and genealogy of the Bowditch family of Salem, Massachusetts. It also contains papers of the Babcock family, Swann family, Lyon family, Ingersoll family, and Plummer family.

Series List

SERIES I. Nathaniel Bowditch (1773-1838) Papers

  • A. Correspondence
  • B. Early Work, Financial Records, and Legal Papers
  • C. Publications
SERIES II. William Ingersoll Bowditch (1819-1909) Papers

  • A. Correspondence
  • B. Others' Correspondence
  • C. Financial and Legal Papers
  • D. Writings
    • 1. Personal (Academic)
    • 2. Genealogical (Family History)
    • 3. Anti-slavery
    • 4. Women's rights
  • E. Clippings and Printed Material
SERIES III. Ernest William Bowditch (1850-1918) Papers

  • A. Personal Papers
  • B. Darien Expedition Material
  • C. Genealogy
  • D. Publications
  • E. Margaret Swann Bowditch (1864-1933) Papers
SERIES IV. Related Family Papers

  • A. Early Ancestors' Papers
  • B. Nathaniel I. Bowditch (1805-1861) Papers
  • C. Babcock Family Papers
  • D. Swann Family Papers
  • E. Lyon Family Papers
  • F. Ingersoll Family Papers
  • G. Harold Bowditch (1883-1964) Papers
  • H. Other Bowditch Papers
SERIES V. Plummer Family Papers

SERIES VI. Photographs

SERIES VII. Genealogy

Physical Location

Phillips Library Stacks


The majority of this material was donated by Nathaniel R. Bowditch in 1977, 1978, and 1980. Additional items were donated by: Alfred Bowditch in 1915 (acc #88036 and 88037); Malcolm Bowditch Stone in 1923; Mrs. William R. Buckminster in 1943; Harold Bowditch in 1946, 1948 (acc #11,675), and 1959 (acc #14,700); Augustus P. Loring in 1987 (acc #87016); and Dr. Willis I. Milhan. The letter to David Leslie dated 1808 was donated by Edmund Leslie in 1878. Some material was donated by Philip C. F. Smith on August 22, 1972 (acc #19,951) and some by Nathaniel R. Bowditch on September 11, 1980. The letter from Nathaniel Bowditch to Marcus Catlin (1832) was purchased in 1990 (acc #90058). All of the material from Fam. Mss. 88 and MH 42 was incorporated into this collection. Copies of wills for Ebed S. Bowditch and Amelia Bartlett were acquired in 2002 (acc #2002.035) and added to Box 19, new Folder 21. A letter from Nathaniel Bowditch to Moses Dorman of Boxford, Mass., dated December 16, 1794, was purchased from Boston Rare Maps on January 12, 2021 (accession 2021.001).

Bibliography and Related Material

Berry, Robert Elton. Yankee Stargazer; the Life of Nathaniel Bowditch. New York: Whittlesey House, 1941.

Nugent, Jim. "Nathaniel Bowditch." The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Unitarian Universalist History & Heritage Society, 1999. Web. Nov. 2012.

Joseph Bowditch Papers, MSS 156

Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Company, MSS 134

Nathaniel Bowditch's Life and Works by Harold Bowditch, MH 42

Processing Information

Collection processed and cataloged by Hilda L. Amour in November 1978. Updated and re-processed by Tamara Gaydos in November 2012. Updted by Tatiyana Bastet, July 2019.


BOWDITCH FAMILY PAPERS, 1726/7-1942, 1961, 1975, undated
Inventory prepared by Tamara Gaydos; Updated by Tatiyana Bastet
Language of description
Script of description
Processing of this collection was funded by a grant from the NHPRC (National Historical Publications and Records Commission).

Repository Details

Part of the Phillips Library Repository

Peabody Essex Museum
306 Newburyport Turnpike
Rowley MA 01969 USA