Brown University Logo

Office of University Communications
38 Brown Street / Box 1920
Providence RI 02912

401 863-2453
Fax 863-1650
[email protected]du



From Martha Mitchell’s Encyclopedia Brunoniana:

Brown family

The Brown Family of Providence has maintained its connection with the University for two centuries. As Moses Brown said in a letter to President Wayland in 1833, discussing the relocation of the college from Warren to Providence, “Thou may see by this, our family had an interest in promoting the Institution now called Brown University, besides the purchase of the name by my worthy nephew Nicholas.”

The founding father of the Brown family in America was Chad Brown, who came from England to Boston in 1638. He soon moved to Providence and was one of the elders in Roger Williams’s new Baptist church. Chad’s son, John, was about eight years old when they came to America. The first three generations of the family were farmers, pastors and surveyors. James and Obadiah Brown of the fourth generation turned to trade with the West Indies, delivering livestock and food from Rhode Island and bringing back molasses and rum, and also transported slaves from Africa. On the home front James had a chocolate mill and a rum distillery. This James, grandson of John who emigrated with his father in his youth, died in 1739, leaving five sons ranging in age from one to fifteen years. The oldest, James, died in 1750. The other four were Nicholas, Joseph, John, and Moses, who are called the “four brothers” (or sometimes, “John and Josie, Nick and Mosie”.) In time the four brothers joined their uncle Obadiah in the family business. After Obadiah’s death the brothers formed Nicholas Brown & Company. Their ventures included the founding of the Hope Furnace for production of pig iron and large scale importation of British goods.

William G. Roelker described other accomplishments of the Browns, “In 1773, also with the aid of a lottery, they built the Market House. ... In 1775-76, they had contracts with the Secret Committee to cast cannon at the Hope Furnace. From 1775 to 1796, John Brown was Treasurer of the College. In 1783, he offered half of the sum for Philosophical Apparatus and the Library. ... In 1784, Joseph Brown was Professor of Experimental Philosophy. In 1786, John commenced building his ‘Red-Brick-Mansion-on-the-Hill.’ In 1787 he sent the first ship from Narragansett Bay to China, his General Washington. In 1790, Moses induced Samuel Slater to come to Rhode Island to start cotton manufacturing. In 1791, John and Moses founded the Providence Bank. In 1793 John built the Washington Bridge. In 1796, he proposed the canal to Worcester. In 1799, the Providence Insurance Company was founded, at the initiative of the Browns.”

Honorary degrees were awarded to Joseph Brown in 1770 and to John Brown in 1773. A number of the Brown family attended the University, among them Nicholas Brown 1786, for whom the college was named in 1804, and his brother, Moses Brown 1790, who died in 1791. They were the sons of Nicholas Brown, 1729-1791, treasurer, builder and benefactor of the College. Two sons of Nicholas Brown 1786 attended, Nicholas Brown 1811, United States Consul in Italy from 1845 to 1853, and John Carter Brown 1816, donor of the funds for the library building which is now Robinson Hall, and founder of the collection of Americana which constitutes the John Carter Brown Library. John Carter Brown 1816 had two sons, John Nicholas Brown 1885 and Harold Brown 1886, both of whom died in May 1900, leaving their estates to the three-month old John Nicholas Brown, Jr. Young John Nicholas led a secluded life as a child, partly because of his frailty, which may have been caused by growth. At the age of twelve he was already over six feet tall. He began his connection with the University early. In December 1903 he participated in the laying of the cornerstone of the John Nicholas Brown Gate in memory of his father, John Nicholas Brown. In May 1904 he presented the keys of the John Carter Library to President Faunce. He was walking with his nurse on the campus when the seniors of the Class of 1905 were posing for a group photograph, and the students placed him in front of President Faunce for the photograph and made him an honorary member of the class. Later in life he attended their class reunions and posed again in 1955 with them. John Nicholas Brown went to Harvard, but continued his association with Brown as a Trustee from 1930 to 1935, when he became a Fellow, and as Secretary of the Corporation from 1963 to 1971. His wife, Anne S. K. Brown, donated her extensive military collection to the University. (That collection is on display at the John Hay Library.) John Nicholas and Anne Brown had three children. Their first son, Capt. Nicholas Brown USN, was former director of the National Aquarium and served on the board overseeing his mother’s military collection. Their second son, J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Gallery of Art, was awarded an honorary degree in 1970. Their daughter, Angela Brown Fischer, was a term trustee from 1975 to 1980. J. Carter Brown died in 2002.

The campus buildings which are associated with the Brown family are University Hall, which was built by Nicholas Brown and Company, Hope College and Manning Hall, which were given by Nicholas Brown 1786, Rhode Island Hall, to which Nicholas Brown 1786 made a generous donation, Robinson Hall, which was built as a library with a bequest from John Carter Brown 1816, the John Carter Brown Library, built with a bequest from John Nicholas Brown 1885 to house the collection begun by John Carter Brown 1816, Carrie Tower, erected by Paul Bajnotti as a memorial to his wife, Carrie Mathilde Brown, daughter of Nicholas Brown 1811, and the Annmary Brown Memorial erected by Rush C. Hawkins as a memorial to his wife, Annmary Brown Hawkins, also the daughter of Nicholas Brown 1811. The Nightingale-Brown House, a National Historic Landmark and home to five generations of the Brown family, was given to the University in 1995 as a museum and study center for scholars.

The above entry appears in Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell, copyright 1993 by the Brown University Library. It is used here by permission of the author and the University and may not be copied or further distributed without permission.

Return to Encyclopedia Index  |  University Home Page