A prosperous family of merchants and landowners, the Brinleys were well ensconced among the social and political elite of colonial New England. Connected by marriage to other elite families in Rhode Island and Massachusetts -- the Auchmutys, Craddocks, and Tyngs among them -- the Brinleys were refined, highly educated, public spirited, and most often business-minded. Although many members of the family remained loyal to the British cause during the Revolution, the family retained their high social standing in the years following.
The Brinley collection includes business letters, legal and business records, wills, a fragment of a diary, documents relating to slaves, newspaper clippings, and a small number of paintings and artifacts. A descendent, Nancy Brinley, contributed a quantity of genealogical research notes and photocopies of Brinley family documents from other repositories. Of particular note in the collection is a fine nineteenth century copy of a John Smibert portrait of Deborah Brinley (1719), an elegant silver salver passed through the generations, and is a 1713 list of the library of Francis Brinley, which offers a foreshadowing of the remarkable book collection put together in the later nineteenth century by his descendant George Brinley.
The collection is open for research.
Englishmen and colonial Americans, Loyalists and Patriots, colonial Canadians and American citizens, the members of the Brinley family were a diverse group of characters, ranging from auditors to officers, businessmen, lawyers, legislators, book-collectors, historians, aristocratic ladies and housewives, devoted mothers, husbands, and fathers. A few were slave-holders. Yet through decades of tumultuous social and political change, the family maintained certain distinctive traits and traditions, clinging most notably to their strong ties to England and to the status quo at home. The Brinleys were wealthy, business-minded members of the colonial elite, profoundly Protestant, and most were highly educated and steeped in knowledge. Many became prominent public figures and many more served their respective nations in uniform.
The roots of the Brinley family extend back to England, where the common ancestor of the North American branch of the family, Thomas Brinley, served as Auditor of the Revenue for James I and Charles I. When Thomas' son Francis emigrated to Newport, Rhode Island, in the mid-seventeenth century, the family's wealth and prestige were transplanted with him, and many of the Brinleys or their relatives, such as the Auchmutys or Tyngs, rose to public office or wielded a sword under the colonial government, serving as judges or military officers from the time of King Philip's War to the French and Indian War.
Like many of their fellow colonists, the pre-Revolutionary Brinleys were also profoundly religious. Thomas Brinley helped found King's Chapel in Boston, and its cemetery bears the remains of many of his ancestors and descendants. The Brinleys wrote prayers and religious poetry, raised their children with Protestant ideals, purchased pews, and spared no expense in the education of their children, putting almost all of their sons through Harvard. Great education fostered even greater wealth, and under British rule, the family enjoyed great economic success. Thomas Brinley of Boston was a well-to-do merchant, as was his grandson, Edward. Colonel Francis Brinley opened a prosperous farm in Framingham, bequeathing it to his son Nathaniel. As the colonies grew in size and population, the Brinley's sold off parts of their extensive land-holdings, adding further to their wealth, and marriages with elite mercantile and landowning families such as the Malbones and Cradocks only strengthened their social standing.
Personal prosperity and public service forged a strong British identity in most of the pre-Revolution Brinleys, and with the onset of the American Revolution, they were often seen as patriots of a different feather, suffering accordingly for their loyalty. Brinleys were prominent among the Loyalists who petitioned Governor Thomas Hutchinson and General Thomas Gage, and when the fortunes of the empire turned, some fled to England or Nova Scotia, while others were imprisoned. At home, the Brinleys suffered the confiscation and sale of their properties, with little recompense.
Despite the hardships, the Brinleys who fled were graciously reabsorbed back into English and colonial Canadian society, while those who remained in America recovered their pre-war standing, even while remaining in contact with relatives overseas. In the new United States, the Brinleys continued as their ancestors had, enjoying the wealth and business opportunities afforded them by their religious affiliations, political offices, law practices, Harvard education, and military service. One Brinley became active in political circles in Boston, another assembled one of the grandest private libraries in 19th century America, and yet another served under Secretary of State Daniel Webster. This last Brinley, Francis Brinley, Jr., also continued the grand procession of Brinleys in uniform, serving three times as commander of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company.
Through the devastation of revolution and Civil War and transplantation from continent to continent, the members of the Brinley family kept alive a distinctive Brinley identity. This fact was not lost upon them, as one particular trait extends through three centuries: the need for Brinleys to know their ancestors. Perhaps George Brinley spoke for all of his family when he wrote: "There is an instinctive impulse in the breast of every human being, which prompts us to inquire not about ourselves... but to trace past generations, examine the family ties, and to ascertain from what nation we sprung, and whether our Forefathers held a distinguished rank in society, or were doomed through ages to enjoy a mediocrity."
The Brinley collection documents the changing fortunes of a wealthy, educated, and prosperous Anglo-American family from the early eighteenth through the late nineteenth century, and their genealogical interests since. Though varied in scope, the collection offers a valuable reflection on social status in America, from the enjoyment of ties to the highest elite during the colonial period to the sufferings of upper-class Loyalist, and the lifestyle and career choices of wealthy Americans during the nineteenth century. The collection is divided into four series:
The papers of the colonial-era Brinleys speak of finances and conveyances, and are a great source of insight into entrepreneurship and land transactions in early America, with some information on the Brinleys in the British colonial establishment. Among the highlights are a remarkable folio list of the extensive personal library of Francis Brinley of Newport, 1713, which included dozens of standard works on law and imperial ambitions along with dozens more from the most radical religious sects of the day -- Familists, Ranters, Seekers, and Diggers among them. Religious records and poetry offers glimpses into the minds, hearts, and day to day lives of the privileged stratum in New England, and particularly the life of Colonel Francis Brinley.
The colonial records come to an end with the shot heard round the world, when the American Revolution wreaked havoc on the fortunes and fate of the Brinley family. Although the collection does not document their emotional duress, it does chronicle the extensive damage to their purses, and can be useful in understanding the impact of the Revolution on landed Loyalists. A number of letters in the collection were written by expatriate Brinleys seeking help from their relatives in the new United States in reclaiming their abandoned (or confiscated) American property.
The other side of the Loyalist story is covered by collateral relatives, the Putnams, whose most prominent representative was Major-General Israel Putnam, a hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The collection includes a copy of the sermon given at Putnam's funeral, as well as publications by Putnam's son Daniel in 1818 defending Putnam's role at Bunker Hill, and responding to Major-General Henry Dearborn's self-serving history of the battle.
The papers of the next generation of Brinleys describe their lives in the early Republic, as well as the lives of those family members who returned to England or resettled in what is now Canada. These items speak of the strength of family bonds even as political realities rent the family apart. Like their predecessors, the papers of this generation demonstrate moneyed interests, but they also betray a shift into more political thinking. Francis Brinley, Sr., was especially excited about politics, writing newspaper editors on everything from body snatchers to slavery, canals, and the price of milk. His documents are a fine source on the politics of early republican America in general and of the city of Boston in particular. Also notable are several detailed letters concerning the education of Francis, Jr., both before and during his attendance at Harvard, which have much to say about university education in the early nineteenth century; Robert Brinley's passport to France under the Directory; a copy of The Newport Herald, ripe with details of the world in the year in 1788; and the arithmetic book of George Brinley, useful in understanding the history of education in America during the early Federalist period.
The generation that came of age in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, is represented by letters of Francis "Frank" Brinley, Jr., and of George Brinley the book collector, two upper-class men who led very different lives. Frank, like his father, was a public figure who served in several political and military offices. His papers represent, in many ways, the highest ideals of New England society at this time, building a life around erudition and service. Frank's cousin George was more of a private man, and one of the great book collectors of his time. While both cousins took an interest in history, they pursued their interests in different ways: while Frank led and contributed to several historical societies, George gathered an immense personal library, but reportedly allowed only one other person access to it. Almost all of the materials in the collection pertaining to George deal with the auction of that library after his death, and may be useful to the researcher interested in book-collecting and in American library history. An autobiography of George Brinley, Sr., is of particular value.
In addition to the Brinleys, four other branches of the family are substantially represented in the collection: the Auchmuty, Cradock, Tyng, and Putnam families. A few letters from a member of the Malbone family are also included. Married to Brinleys, all of these families seem to have had common business and political interests.
The Brinley collection also includes some miscellaneous materials, in which the connection to the Brinleys is unclear. There are letters, business, papers, songs and poems, and newspaper clippings. Some of the names appearing here are Blake, Bowers, Moore, Murphy, and White. Notable items include a certificate of service for Isaac Bowers in the War of 1812 and a certificate from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Finally, the collection also contains a wealth of Brinley family genealogical research notes assembled primarily by Nancy Brinley. These materials include copies of Brinley family documents held at other repositories, publications, notes and correspondence. Photographs and art work representing family members literally bring the Brinleys to life as do treasured family objects such as a George II silver salver and fish knife, which were passed down the generations and a large punch bowl.
The collection was acquired from Cedric Robinson in June 1987. Additions to the collection were made by Edward "Ned" and Nancy Brinley in 2004-2006.
Collection processed by Lisa May; re-processed with additions by Mike Verney, 2008.
Brindley, Gordon, Brindley Genealogy, Including the James Brindley Clan of Leek, Francis Brinley and New England, "Southern" Brindleys. Leek, Staffordshire : Churnet Valley Books, 2002. Series 3 (Box 3:12).
Please use the following format when citing materials from this collection:
Brinley Family Papers (MS 161). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.