Thomas Robinson Hazard

Inducted: 2002
Born: 1797 - Died:
1886

Thomas Robinson Hazard was a South Kingstown manufacturer, agriculturalist, author and social reformer who embodied the egalitarian spirit of the pre–Civil War age of reform. Affectionately called “Shepherd Tom” because of his prize sheep herd, Hazard, born on January 3, 1797, was a seventh-generation descendant of Thomas Hazard, the progenitor of the famous Hazard clan of Rhode Island and one of the nine founders of Newport. Shepherd Tom was also the grandson of Thomas Hazard (1720–1798), an eighteenth-century South County Quaker abolitionist called College Tom because of his advanced study at Yale, and the older brother of Rowland Gibson Hazard (1801–1888), a noted Peace Dale woolen manufacturer, railroad promoter, financial expert and writer on philosophical subjects. The parents of these Hall of Fame brothers were Mary Peace and Rowland Hazard Sr., who established a woolen mill and the village he called Peace Dale in 1802, when Thomas was five years old.

Despite his family’s prominence, Thomas had limited formal education except for his four-year attendance at a Quaker boarding school in Westtown, Pennsylvania. Upon his return to Rhode Island, he learned the textile business from his father at the Peace Dale Mill, and at the age of twenty-four he purchased his own waterpower site nearby and received a gift of seventy prime acres of pastureland from his father. Adjacent to his own woolen mill, the pasture transformed the young entrepreneur into “Shepherd” Tom as his flock of sheep grew to more than 1,200 in size. As a mill owner, he prospered greatly, and at the somewhat advanced age of forty-one, he married Frances Minturn, a New Yorker, described by contemporaries as “a highly cultured lady of great personal beauty.” Unlike his brother Rowland and the other entrepreneurs profiled herein, “Shepherd Tom” could walk away from business activities to pursue a leisurely but very significant life dedicated to learning and social reform.

In 1840, he returned to his family’s Aquidneck Island roots and purchased a seventeen-acre estate called Vaucluse on Middletown’s eastern shore, overlooking the Sakonnet River. Its setting inspired him to publish several articles on horticulture. In this idyllic spot, he and his wife raised six children prior to her death in 1854 at the age of forty-two. Tragically, her death was preceded by that of two of their young daughters.

Immediately upon his retirement, this ardent Whig assumed the role of patrician reformer. Like his fellow Quakers, he abhorred slavery. His solution, similar to the one advocated by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, was to free the slaves and colonize them in Liberia, back to their roots. To that end, he became an active member and vice-president of the African Colonization Society.

Most of his reform impulses, however, proved more constructive and successful. In 1856, he published A Constitutional Manual: Negro Slavery and the Constitution, urging both an end to slavery and the preservation of the Union. He was also a strong advocate of education. In 1821, he became the first manufacturer to establish an evening school for workers in his mill and, in 1851, took the lead in establishing the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction, the forerunner of Rhode Island College. In the late 1840s, Thomas spearheaded local relief efforts for victims of the Irish potato famine, including a generous donation of his own.

Thomas and his brother Rowland supported the establishment of Butler Hospital in Providence, and Thomas’s involvement with that project led him to make a report to the General Assembly in 1851 on the condition of the poor and the insane in every town in Rhode Island, except for New Shoreham. This exposé influenced the reform-oriented Dorr Democrats, then in control of the legislature, to institute improvements in the care and management of the poor, the insane, the blind, the deaf and the dumb and to make regular annual appropriations for such purposes.

Another of Thomas Hazard’s notable contributions to the General Assembly came in 1852, when he provided the Dorr Democrats with a petition and a forty-page report praying for the abolition of capital punishment in Rhode Island, a request inspired by the unjust execution of Irish immigrant John Gordon on February 14, 1845, for the alleged murder of Amasa Sprague. In concert with Attorney General Walter S. Burges, state senator Thomas Davis, and representatives Ariel Ballou, John Weeden and others, Hazard helped to secure a law banning the death penalty. Although Hazard never held public office of any kind, he took a deep interest in many areas of societal reform and used his pen, without fear or favor, toward any cause he felt to be just.

After his wife’s death, Hazard turned his avid attention to spiritualism and began to seek solace in séances. He also wrote a number of articles on the spiritualistic belief that the dead communicate with the living, a view devoutly held by some of Rhode Island’s leading female authors, such as Frances (Whipple) McDougall and Sarah Helen Whitman. In 1870, he compiled the Ordeal of Life based on information gathered by medium John C. Grinnell from his encounters with 1,500 spirits.

Hazard also turned to more traditional historical and genealogical writing. In 1879, he published Recollections of Olden Times, a work that casts a rich afterglow on nineteenth-century life in South County while also providing genealogies of the fascinating Hazard and Robinson families. The Jonny-Cake Papers of “Shepherd Tom,” a collection of newspaper articles relating to South County’s nineteenth-century customs and traditions, was published posthumously in 1915 by his grandniece Caroline Hazard, a president of Wellesley College.

Thomas Robinson Hazard died in New York City on March 26, 1886, at the age of eighty-nine. His remains were returned to his estate at Vaucluse for burial beside his wife.

Thomas Robinson Hazard was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2002.

For additional reading:
The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, SC.

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