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Obadiah Moses Brown Papers

Historical note

Obadiah M. Brown was born on July 15, 1771,* the only son of Moses (1738-1836) and Anna (Brown) Brown (1744-1773) of Providence. In adulthood he added Moses as a middle name and used the signature Obadiah M. Brown to distinguish himself from his cousin Obadiah Brown, son of Joseph Brown.

After the Revolutionary War, Obadiah’s father Moses became convinced that America needed to create economic independence from England and Europe by developing domestic industries and manufacturing. He was also interested in developing methods to employ Quakers and reduce any economic dependence on the slave trade the Quakers may have had. With his son-in-law William Almy and his cousin Smith Brown, Moses decides to invest in the textile industry which was just beginning in nearby Massachusetts. Together, in 1788 they started a business known as Almy & Brown for spinning and weaving cloth in Providence. As the business became established, Moses investigated more practical methods to spin thread and became interested in the English Arkwright method using water power to run spinning frames and carding machines. Moses Brown hired Samuel Slater, recently arrived from England with direct experience and knowledge of the Arkwright machines, to design the machinery for Almy & Brown.

In 1791, Obadiah M. Brown joined his father’s business. He often acted as an agent for the company by traveling to New York and throughout the South purchasing cotton to ship back to Rhode Island. By this time, Samuel Slater had become a partner and the firm was then known as Almy, Brown and Slater. Almy, Brown and Slater was very successful and it firmly established textile manufacturing in Rhode Island which soon dominated the region’s economy.

In 1798, Obadiah married Dorcas Hadwen (1765-1826), daughter of John and Elizabeth Hadwen of Newport, RI. They had no children and she died in 1826. Like his father, Obadiah M. was a member of the Quaker faith and a strong financial supporter of the Yearly Meeting School, later named the Moses Brown School, for the education of Quaker children. He was also involved in the Bible Society of Rhode Island, which sold and distributed bibles, serving as Treasurer until his death in 1822.

Obadiah M. Brown was a religious man who became deeply committed to the Quaker doctrine calling for the abolition of slavery. He was a member of the Society of the Abolition of Slavery and the Society for the Free Instruction of the Blacks. He sponsored free blacks and found employment for them. He championed their legal disputes and provided them with financial assistance. He also became involved in securing the freedom of kidnapped free blacks who were abducted and held by slave traders in the South. In addition to the issue of slavery Obadiah M. was also involved in other humanitarian pursuits. His correspondence shows subscription efforts and personal interest in George Comstock, a deaf man whom he and his father sponsored at the Hartford School for the Deaf and Dumb. Obadiah M. Brown died on October 15, 1822 in his 51st year.

*The year of his birth is often recorded as 1770 in various documents. However, the Births and Deaths record book, 1783-1877 of the Providence Monthly Meeting which is at the RIHS documents his birth year as 1771. The inside front cover of the book states that Moses Brown was the recorder starting in 1783 and the handwriting for Obadiah M. Brown's entry is consistent with the handwriting of Moses Brown on other documents known to have been written by him.