John Adams

The Sprague Family: An American Story

“William Sprague was the youngest of three brothers…who arrived in Salem in 1629, and from thence removed to Charlestown (then called Mish-a-wam by the natives) where they, with a few others, were the first to form an English settlement.” –Marcia A. Thomas, 1835

Sprague_Photo_1Thus begins the story of the Sprague family, an enduring, historically-significant group that calls New England home. The history of the Sprague family can be seen in a new collection at the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives. Through letters, manuscripts, genealogical charts, official documents, and photographs, a clear picture of the Sprague family develops—from their arrival in the 17th century up until the middle of the 20th century.

At the center of the collection is Harold W. Sprague, who assembled much of the material. Harold was an extremely active member in fraternal and civic organizations during his lifetime, being appointed Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in 1952, as well as being recognized by the Sons of the American Revolution. Harold’s involvement in these organizations demonstrates his sense of community and speaks to his interest in history and tradition. Much of the information gleaned from the collection comes from Harold’s own research into the Sprague family history. His investigations led him down a road of various Sprague relations, including the Burt, Taylor, and Adams families, among others.

It was through these familial connections that Harold was able to piece together the links between his ancestors and two great political families of the 18th and 19th centuries. William Sprague, who came to Salem in 1629, had numerous children with his wife Millicent Eames. Among these was Samuel (Harold’s ancestor) who remained in Massachusetts, and William, who moved to Rhode Island around 1664. William (the younger) established the Rhode Island line of Spragues that included two prominent leaders. The first, William Sprague III, was the 14th Governor of Rhode Island (1838-1839). William also served in Congress both before and after he was governor, first as a Representative (1835-1837) and then as Senator (1842-1844). His nephew, William Sprague IV, was greatly influenced by him and followed him into the political realm at an early age. In 1860, William IV was elected the 27th Governor of Rhode Island (1860-1863). He was only 30 years old at the time, making him one of the youngest governors in U.S. history. Like his uncle, William IV was also a member of Congress, serving two terms as Senator (1863-1875).

While the Sprague family in Rhode Island was certainly notable for their political power, it was through Harold Sprague’s mother that the family is connected to its most influential relatives. As Harold learned through his research, his mother’s side of the family could trace their lineage all the way back to Joseph Adams (1654-1736). Joseph was the uncle of founding father and statesman, Samuel Adams. Even more directly, Joseph’s grandson was John Adams, 2nd President of the United States. John Adams served as vice-president under George Washington from 1789-1797 before being elected president in 1797, serving one term. He was greatly influential as a political thinker and was one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. His political legacy was carried on by his son John Quincy Adams, who served as the 6th President of the United States from 1825-1829. He then had a long career as a representative in Congress (1831-1848), winning reelection eight times!

Numerous letters, notes, and genealogical charts in the collection show the familial links between the Adams and Sprague families. In addition to these documents, the collection includes autograph books containing a variety of signatures, including those of John Quincy Adams and his son Charles Francis Adams. The presence of these signatures shows just how close the families were. In fact, numerous letters between prominent members of the two families can be seen in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Family Papers. A quick search through the MHS Online Adams Catalog reveals dozens of letters between the Adams and Sprague families.


The story of the Sprague family is a familiar one in American history. Beginning with a long voyage across the sea, three brothers set forth to explore and establish a new land. They made their home among the wilds of North America and built towns, cities, and families along the way. As time passed, the Sprague family expanded, and the founders of towns gave way to founders of countries and leaders of states. Theirs is certainly an American story, one that can be discovered in the collections at the Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives.

If you want to learn more about the contents of this collection, we've made the Sprague Family Papers finding aid available online.

Photos from the Sprague Family collection, USM 077, Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives

An Undeclared War and the Ship, the "Industry"

A91_041_1_Ship_Industry_J_Adams_scan_detail_WEBIn preparing the new vault after its recent renovation, the Librarian and Archivist were going through some flat files that contained uncataloged backlog material. Most of what was there were unidentified photographs and facsimile documents. To our surprise, though, we found a rare and interesting document which sheds light on the story of the so-called XYZ Affair, and the United States undeclared war with France during 1798-1800. The document we came across is an original document signed by John Adams!

The original manuscript and printed certificate for the ship, the "Industry," with Isaac Cutter as Commander, permitted the ship to travel from Boston to Aux Cayes, a French colony on Hispaniola (now Les Cayes, Haiti.)  The certificate is dated 1797.The document certifies that this is a ship of the United States of America and asks those who encounter the ship to let it navigate waters and enter ports during its travels. The "Industry" was laden with many goods:  butter, beef, fish oil, tea, and other merchandise. The document is signed by then-president of the United States John Adams and spells out its terms in four languages:  French, Spanish, English, and Dutch.                                        

Here's the story...

The relationship between France and United States became strained in the late 18th century for several reasons.  France was at war with Great Britain and the United States was trying to remain neutral.  The United States ran into difficulties due to the harassment of its merchant vessels by both the English and the French.  When Jay's Treaty was signed on November 19, 1794, it was an attempt to improve the relationship between England and the United States.  However, the French saw this treaty as a violation of earlier agreements signed with their government, as well as a violation of American neutrality.  Because of this, the French government passed several decrees permitting their ships off the coast of North America and the West Indies to capture American merchant vessels, like the "Industry."

The French inflicted substantial losses on American shipping. Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering, reported to Congress on June 21, 1797 that the French had captured 316 American merchant ships in the previous eleven months. In his State of the Union address to Congress at the close of 1797, President John Adams reported on France’s refusal to negotiate and spoke of the need "to place our country in a suitable posture of defense."

Dated December 22, 1797, the certificate for the ship, the "Industry" was signed exactly at the time the United States was going to take this defensive action. Because ships such as the "Industry" were threatened with being seized by the French and probably, as a result, were given special certificates for traveling. This certificate for the "Industry" was signed by Timothy Pickering, countersigned by Benjamin Lincoln Coll, as well as John Adams.  You can see a detail of the certificate (USM 001.309) on the right.

A91_041_1_Ship_Industry_J_Adams_scan_WEB United States diplomats tried to convince the French to revoke the decrees but failed. Both the United States and France were frustrated, but neither formally declared war.  However, the United States formed a small navy and allowed merchant vessels to carry arms to defend themselves.  It revoked former treaties with France.  The relationship bewteen France and the United States continued to be hostile until the signing of the Convention of Mortefontaine on September 30, 1800.

Certificate for the Brig the "Industry", 1797, Boston, Massachusetts
Gift of William Caleb Loring, Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives, A91/041/1