Bartlett, John Russell, 1805-1886
John Russell Bartlett (1805-1886) is generally regarded as Rhode Island’s greatest secretary of state. Although a Providence native, he was educated in Canada and New York and operated a bookstore in New York City during the late 1830s and 1840s. Surrounded by books, he turned to writing. In 1847 Bartlett published The Progress of Ethnology which was followed a year later by his famous Dictionary of Americanisms.
In 1850, Bartlett sought other work for health and financial reasons. His political and scholarly connections brought him an appointment as the commissioner of the Mexican Boundary Survey, a sensitive post that afforded Bartlett an opportunity to combine ethnological and scientific exploration. During his two-and-a-half year tenure in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Bartlett sketched the terrain, collected specimens of plants and animals, and studied the languages, artifacts, and cultures of the Southwestern Indians. He published his observations in his Personal Narrative, a two-volume work that appeared in 1854 and remains a study of great scholarly merit.
After Bartlett’s return to Rhode Island, he was elected to the position of secretary of state in 1855 and won annual reelection as a Republican for seventeen consecutive years. More than any other secretary, Bartlett fulfilled the historical duties of his office by such publications as the ten volume Records of the Colony of Rhode Island, the Memoirs of Rhode Island’s Civil War officers, and a detailed Bibliography of Rhode Island. In the last decades of his life, Bartlett was associated with John Carter Brown in the acquisition of Brown’s remarkable collection of colonial Americana, which Bartlett catalogued.