The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame has developed a tradition of listing its inductees by the title of their highest public office or by the title “Dr.” if they have earned that distinction in their chosen field of endeavor. John Russell Bartlett’s title, though prestigious, only begins to embrace his many notable achievements. Clearly, Bartlett was Rhode Island’s most significant secretary of state and the one who most expanded and fulfilled the historical duties of that office. Still, there is more to his career than the holding of a mainly ministerial political post.
Bartlett was born in Providence on October 23, 1805, the second of the six children of Smith and Nancy (Russell) Bartlett. Shortly after his birth, his parents took the family to the Canadian town of Kingston, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, where Smith Bartlett established a thriving mercantile business and where this American family weathered the War of 1812. One of the five American diplomats who negotiated the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict was Providence-born Jonathan Russell, his mother’s cousin.
Bartlett was raised in Kingston, where he received his early education before studying for two years at Lowville Academy in upstate New York and then receiving a year of private tutoring in Montreal. In 1824, when he was eighteen, he returned to Providence and worked for several years as a clerk in his uncle’s dry goods store on Westminster Street opposite where developer Cyrus Butler was building the Arcade. When Bartlett’s uncle moved his shop to the Arcade, Butler became acquainted with young John and offered him the position of clerk in Butler’s Bank of North America, also located in the Arcade. By 1831, Bartlett had persuaded Butler to open a library and reading room on the building’s second floor. This facility soon evolved into the prestigious Providence Athenaeum, which Bartlett not only helped to found but also supported throughout his life.
During his twelve-year association with Rhode Island from 1824 to 1836, Bartlett left the employ of Butler to become a cashier at the Globe Bank, owned by the William Sprague family. In 1831, the year he assumed his new post, he married Eliza A. Rhodes of Pawtuxet, by whom he had seven children prior to her death on November 11, 1853. Until 1836, the couple lived in an apartment above the bank.
Bartlett embarked on a much more exciting career than that of store clerk or bank cashier when he began to paint and draw during his early years in Providence. Around 1835, he produced his most famous local image, The Great Gale of September 1815, an oil painting depicting the raging waters of the Providence River inundating Market Square. In addition, his association with the Athenaeum, the Franklin Society, and the Rhode Island Historical Society put him in contact with the young bibliophile John Carter Brown. It launched Bartlett into the world of books.
In 1836, Bartlett took a more lucrative bank position in New York City, but the bank dissolved in the Panic of 1837. In the late 1830s, he was active in the revival of the nearly defunct New York Historical Society, and in 1843 he entered the book business with Charles Welford. This duo marketed large consignments from prominent London bookseller William C. Hall and books from their own searches. Bartlett later claimed that his firm was “the first to keep a large stock of choice old books in every department of literature hence, our establishment was the resort of literary men not only from New York, but from all parts of the country.” Prominent among his regular clientele were Albert Gallatin and James Fenimore Cooper. Not content merely with selling books, however, Bartlett began to write. With Gallatin, former secretary of the treasury under Jefferson and Madison, Bartlett was prominent in the formation of the American Ethnological Society, an organization created to further the study of primitive cultures. He contributed to this scholarly endeavor as the society’s corresponding secretary by publishing a book entitled Progress of Ethnology in 1847. He followed this work a year later with his most commercially successful volume, the still valuable Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States (1848, rev. ed. 1857), which was later translated into Dutch and German.
In 1850, Bartlett sought other work for health and financial reasons. His political and scholarly connections brought him an appointment as the American commissioner of the Mexican Boundary Survey, a task necessitated by the American acquisition of a huge area from Mexico in its Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War. This post allowed Bartlett to combine ethnological and scientific exploration with his artistic skills. During his two-and-a-half-year tenure in the United States–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 at his own expense in his Personal Narrative, a two-volume work that appeared in 1854 and remained a study of great scholarly merit. It is described by Robert V. Hine, a leading historian of the American West, as “a vivid, literate account of enduring value to scholars and naturalists.” In 1968, Hine published a study of Bartlett’s work entitled Bartlett’s West: Drawing the Mexican Boundary.
In October 1853, Bartlett returned to Rhode Island with his ailing wife, Eliza, and their children. The timing of this return may have been related to Eliza’s failing health; she died a few weeks after she arrived at her father’s Pawtuxet home. During the next several months, Bartlett made provisions for the care of his youngest children, settled his accounts with the U.S. government, and wrote essays for the Providence Journal.
In April 1855, he was placed on the Whig/American/Republican Party fusion ticket as a candidate for Rhode Island secretary of state. His nomination was undoubtedly the work of former governor and future U.S. senator Henry Bowen Anthony, a founder of the Republican Party and the Providence Journal’s publisher. In addition to Bartlett’s outstanding qualifications, he was aided by the fact that Anthony had married Sarah Rhodes, Eliza’s younger sister, and one of Bartlett’s sons had been named Henry Anthony Bartlett. Here was a classic case of political nepotism that proved to have good results.
Bartlett won the April 1855 election and commenced a seventeen-year tenure in a post he would dramatically transform. He began immediately to organize, edit, and publish the ten-volume Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations…1636–1792 (1855–1865), still the essential primary reference for Rhode Island’s early history. Then, in succession, he published A History of Lotteries in Rhode Island (1856), A Census of the Inhabitants of the Colony of Rhode Island (1859), A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee 1862), two indices to Rhode Island’s early acts and resolves and the invaluable Bibliography of Rhode Island (1864), an annotated listing of all printed books, articles and pamphlets written about Rhode Island from its founding, prepared with assistance from Elisha Potter Jr. The Civil War led to his books entitled The Literature of the Rebellion (a catalog of works relating to that conflict) and Memoirs of Rhode Island Officers Who Were Engaged in the Service of Their Country during the Great Rebellion of the South (1867).
While serving as secretary of state, Bartlett also assisted John Carter Brown in compiling a catalog of Brown’s extensive collection of early Americana, which they titled Bibliotheca Americana, A Catalog of Books Relating to North and South America in the Library of John Carter Brown, of Providence, R.I., a work still much used by the John Carter Brown Library’s staff. After Bartlett relinquished the office of secretary of state in 1872 because his Republican Party failed to renominate him, he continued to work with Brown in the expansion of that remarkable library.
During the final fourteen years of his life, Bartlett traveled, compiled genealogies of the Wanton and Russell families of Rhode Island, continued his work (commenced in 1856) of developing a gallery of Rhode Island portraits at Brown University, and enlarged a very sizable private library of his own, with concentrations in geography, ethnology, antiquities, philology, history, and the classics. He also compiled large and elaborate scrapbooks relating to significant current events, and he made numerous watercolor sketches of various Rhode Island scenes.
In 1874, as an active member of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery Commission at Gettysburg, Bartlett produced a 109-page memorial volume to lay the cornerstone of the monument erected by that organization. In his Autobiography, skillfully and thoroughly edited by geomorphologist Jerry E. Mueller, Bartlett states that he was on the platform “within ten feet of Mr. Lincoln” when the president delivered his immortal address. In November 1863, shortly after that memorable event, Bartlett married Ellen E. Eddy, daughter of Nelson S. Eddy of Providence, the ancestor and namesake of the famed singer.
Bartlett’s brilliant career ended with his death on May 28, 1886. He was survived by his second wife and was buried in the Bartlett family plot in Providence’s Swan Point Cemetery. His memory and legacy survive, however, through the efforts of local historians and bibliophiles who have honored him by creating the John Russell Bartlett Society in 1983.
John Russell Bartlett was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2004.
For additional reading:
The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2012.