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Of Men and Dreams

The Bowne HouseOne February Morning, in 1775, the merchants along Queen Street (now Pearl Street) were surprised to see the sidewalk in front of No. 39 piled high with casks and boxes and to note, in the window above, a laboriously painted placard which read "Bowne & Co. Merchants."

Unmindful of a a light snowfall or their audience, Robert Bowne and his two associates began carrying the merchandise from the walk to the shelves of their new shop. This labor was pleasant indeed to men who, for the past few months, had spent sleepless nights weighing the pros and cons of investing hard-earned savings in this new enterprise, to be launched in the wake of the Townshend Duties, the Boston "Massacre" and "Tea Party," and other events that did not serve to inspire confidence in a bright commercial future for New York City.

However, for these young men, the die was cast and they set themselves assiduously to the task of making a success of the business. A newspaper advertisement of the day announced:

Bowne & Co., newly established at No. 39 Queen Street, has for sale Writing Paper, English and American; Account Books; Quills and Pens; Binding and Printing materials; Bolting Cloths; Powder, Furs, Nails, Glass and Dry Goods; Pitch Pine Boards; and a few casks of low-priced Cultery.

Although all this happened about a year and a half before the Declaration of Independence, Robert Bowne was an American of four generations. His great-great-grandfather Thomas Bowne, came from England to Boston in 1649 and then migrated to Flushing, Long Island, where with his son, John, he purchased farm land from the Matinecock Indians for "eight strings of white wampum" (about fourteen dollars). In 1661 they began construction of the house which still stands today, having been a home for nine generations of the family.

John Bowne was one of the early defenders of religious freedom in the colonies. Inspired by the simple faith of the Society of Friends, he invited its members to meet in his home.... The Quakers had long been a thorn in the side of New Amsterdam's fiery-tempered governor, Peter Stuyvesant. He had issued an ordinance forbidding their gatherings and at once a warrant went out for John Bowne's arrest. The staunch Quaker not only refused to deny his faith and pay the fine imposed but would not remove his hat in the governor's presence. A prison term brought no change of heart and so Bowne was ordered "transported from the province, as an example to others."

Undaunted, he pleaded his case in Holland, where the court was greatly impressed by his eloquence and, permitting him to return home, instructed Governor Stuyvesant to end persecution of the Society of Friends and to be guided by the principle that "the consciences of men ought ever to remain free and unshackled." On his arrival in New York, John Bowne is said to have met the governor on the street, and, according to a contemporary author, the latter "seemed ashamed and said he was glad to see him home again...."

John Bowne was married three times and had sixteen children. His eldest son, Samuel, was also twice widowed and he raised a family of fifteen. The latter's fifth child by his first wife was John Bowne, whose son, Robert, was to leave the old family home to establish, in 1775, the firm which todays bears his name.


Robert Bowne, a Quaker and successful merchant, was not altogether sympathetic to the cause of the "Revolution." His religious scruples forbade violence as a means of resolving conflict and, from a business standpoint, he could see only economic chaos as the result of the struggle. The following letter, written at the home of his father-in-law, gives some insight into his sentiments:

As yet we have been much favored in every respect. The 27th of last month Betsy was safely delivered of a fine son, Robert Hartshorne Bowne, I have endeavored to avoid giving offense to any and have associated with very few persons here, finding it much the best thing to do. There are many of quick temper about who seem bent on driving out anyone who does not approve of these violent and unjust proceedings. We New Yorkers have been repeatedly threatened....


Robert Bowne & Company increased its sale of stationery supplies and began to do printing work. In one respect this development saddened Robert Bowne, because one of his most promising young associates, whose interests lay in another direction, decided to strike out on his own. With a background of peddling bakery goods from door to door, he started with the company in 1784 at $2 per week, but soon amazed his new employer with his industry and ready grasp of the business. He handled what fur trade the firm had and made a few trips into the wilderness, gaining the friendship of many of the trappers and even learning the rudiments of the Mohawk and Seneca languages. On his return from a trip to Montreal, he tried to persuade Robert Bowne to devote all the capital of the company to this growing and profitable business, but after careful consideration, the latter declined. The young man's name was John Jacob Astor.

Over a hundred years later, on the site of the headquarters of Astor's fur operations in Michilimachinac, Michigan, excavation for a new building uncovered a battered silver watch of the English bull-dog style. Still legible on the back was the inscription "Presented to John Jacob Astor by R. Bowne, 1785."


The business grew and became sufficiently well-established for Robert Bowne to be able to devote some time to philanthropic and other endeavors. Out of the intellectual and spiritual awakenings of the time grew the belief in the dignity of the common man and a feeling of social responsibility for those afflicted with ills not of their own making nor within their power to correct.

The plight of black people in the United States had already become the concern of many. Though all blacks brought to America were transported for the purpose of being sold into slavery, by the late 18th Century many had escaped from their masters or had been given their freedom. They sought refuge in the Northern States, but soon found themselves victims of a clever scheme which exploited their former status. Bands of kidnappers would seize unsuspecting blacks, bring them to one of the Southern states, and sell them. Incensed by this inhuman practice and slavery in general, a public meeting was held, and the "Manumission Society" formed, with George Clinton, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Bowne, John Jay, Thomas Eddy and several others, as directors.


With the return of peace, the population of New York increased rapidly, largely as a result of immigration from Europe. Though certain private and church schools existed, it was apparent that many children were to grow up ignorant of the history, philosophy, and even the language of the new nation. On February 19, 1805, De Witt Clinton, John Pintard, Archibald Gracie, Col. Henry Rutgers, Robert Bowne and a few others met at the home of John Murray, Jr. in Pearl Street to discuss the problem. Colonel Rutgers offered to donate a site for a school house and, thus inspired, the group formed "The Society for Establishing a Free School in the City of New York." The scholars were to be chosen on the basis of need, irrespective of "sect, creed, nationality, or name" and state aid was sought. These were the beginnings of the great free school system of today.

The New York Hospital

Chartered by George III in 1771, the Society of the New York Hospital was reorganized after its buildings were destroyed by fire during the Revolutionary War. Robert Bowne held an enviable record of service to this institutions which was to grow to become the world-famous New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. As its governor for 34 years and as its vice president for 13, Robert Bowne worked at various times with James Duane, Robert Murray, Thomas Eddy, Samuel Franklin, Isaac Roosevelt, and many other prominent figures of the time.

The Health of the Citizenry

In 1793, with the yellow fever epidemic raging, Robert Bowne formed the New York City Health Committee and became its first chairman. His first act was to provide a sedan chair, which in those days must have served the combined purposed of stretcher and ambulance, to bring those afflicted to the newly established hospital on the site of what is now Bellevue Hospital.

Dr. Valentine Seaman, in his Diary and Prescription Book, notes that on January 11, 1796, he "received o the Health Committee by the hands of Robert Bowne £40 8s. 6d. for services rendered the poor during the late epidemic fever."

The fever subsided and then broke out again. The summer of 1798 was the worst ever, with those who could afford to do so moving from their homes in the city to the country—today's Greenwich Village. More than 2,000 people died. Bank Street in Greenwich Village gets its name from the days of the epidemic, when the Bank of New York had its temporary offices and vault there.

New York's First Bank

On February 24, 1784, a number of prominent business men met at the Merchants' Coffee House to organize the city's first bank—the Bank of New York. Stock subscription books were made available at Bowne & Co. and at several other firms, and the shares were quickly subscribed. At the next meetings, twelve directors were elected, including Alexander Hamilton, Robert Bowne, Samuel Franklin, John Vanderbilt and Isaac Roosevelt.

At first the bank was not incorporated but later a petition to incorporate was signed by Robert Bowne and twelve others. The petition was renewed in 1789, 1790 and 1791, when it was finally passed by the legislature. The bank then issued 2,000 sheets of circulating notes "stuck off on a hand press in the bank," undoubtedly provided by Bowne & Co.

In 1794 the bank made a loan of $200,000 at 5 per cent interest to the United States government to help secure protection for shipping from the depredations of Algerian pirates and to ransom American citizens.

The Erie Canal

Today, the Erie Canal is something vaguely remembered from history books. It was, however, a significant turning point in the nation's development. The slender thread of water that was eight years in the making reduced the hazardous overland journey from Buffalo to New York City from 20 to 6 days, cut freight rates form $100 to $15 per don, and stimulated growth of not only the communities along its banks but, more important, the great wilderness beyond the Appalachians.

The canal had its origin in surveys made in the 1780's by an able engineer, better known as a soldier and statesman, George Washington toured the Mohawk and Hudson valleys and concluded that if New York could take advantage of the only gap in the 1,000-mile mountain range which paralleled the Eastern seaboard, it would surely become the "seat of Empire."

Robert Bowne showed a great deal of interest in these surveys and in 1791 helped organize an inland navigation company. His was a modest undertaking, a three-mile canal of five locks near Little Falls, New York, but it proved what might be done on a larger scale. By 1811, a few more successful ventures had given sufficient impetus to the idea to have the governor establish a canal commission.... The years that followed were difficult beyond description. The project was too vast to be other than dismissed as visionary by the great majority who regarded the canal as a "big ditch" in which "would be buried the treasures of the state, to be watered by the tears of posterity."

As the canal approached completion, there were many festivities and public meetings. At a large gathering in New York City, Governor De Witt Clinton paid this tribute:

Let me on this occasion discharge a debt of gratitude and of justice to the late Robert Bowne. He is now elevated above human panegyric and reposes, I humbly and fervently believe, in the bosom of his God. He had at an early period devoted his attention to this subject and was master of all its important hearings. To his wise counsels, intelligent views and patriotic exertions, we were under incalculable obligations. I never left the society of this venerable man without feeling the most powerful inducements for the most animated efforts.