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John Brown
Joseph Brown
Moses Brown


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The four brothers Brown were the most prominent of the important Providence merchants of 18th century Rhode Island. 

The trading activities, carried on under the trade name of Nicolas Brown and Company, profited greatly by constant avoidance of the payment of customs taxes (i.e. smuggling). The business was interfered with by the customs enforcement of the English Navy.  Brother John Brown's ire, directed at what he regarded as insufferable trade laws of England imposed on the New England, was the driving force that led to the attack and destruction of the Gaspee.

The Brown Brothers' main businesses were gathered under the trade name of Nicholas Brown and Company.  The Company was a mercantile and shipping enterprise composed of various shifting partnership combinations, and individual initiatives, of the four brothers: Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses Brown.   By 1752, the Brown brothers had a chocolate mill in operation; by 1753 a candle works;  by 1762, rum distilleries; and by 1765 a iron works involving 75 employees digging iron ore and coal and producing all sorts of metal products. This mercantile empire was supported, or was the support, for their fleet of ships.

Moses Brown, an admirable man of godly faith and business vision.Moses, whose picture is shown on the left, was the driving force behind new manufacturing ventures of the Browns.   He was the person who recognized new opportunities, starting with his recognition of the value of candle making and thus building a fortune for the bothers by merging whaling and the capture of the raw materials for superior candles, with a new factory to produce fine candles quickly and cheaply.  Later, he provided the capital and the idea for the first factory effectively using machinery and water power to produce woolen cloth.  Although Samuel Slater is the person generally associated with the start of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, it was Moses Brown who had the vision and the capital for that business of Slater.

Although a man of business vision, Moses was also a godly man of strong Quaker faith and morals. In a time when slavery was generally approved, Moses proposed  abolitionist legislation.  He publicly and strongly opposed his brother John's trafficking in the slave trade, while still retaining brotherly love and showing it.
See discussion of John Brown involvement in Colonial History of United States to read more about Moses.

John, whose picture is shown to the left,  was the person whose wealth showed the most.  He was the most prominent of the brothers in terms of being known as a merchant.  He concentrated on the shipping trade, and his  wealth was built largely on shipping and the three cornered trade involving slaves and trade with the West Indies islands. John Brown's long career as an entrepreneur, privateer, and China trade merchant made him one of the most prominent men in Providence. His slave trade, also known as the Triangle trade, caused dissension within the Brown family.  His purchase of a large tract of land in Northern New York after the Revolutionary war was part of a vision of what could be done by investing in land, but it cost him and his children their wealth. John also is noted for his spirited defense of slavery in the House of Representatives of the United States Congress, to which he was elected in 1800.  (The picture of John, b1736, d 1803, is a miniature by Edward Greene Malbone, and is the only know likeness of John.  However, some of the clothing he wore survives, and from this we can estimate him as being over six feet in height and well over 200 pounds in weight.)
See discussion of John Brown involvement in Colonial History of United States to John's involvement in the Gaspee attack.
Joseph was the most active politically.  Although he did engage in the merchant business of Nicolas Brown and Company for income,  his political and social activities overshadowed his business activities.  He was an architect, leaving as part of his legacy the design of the imposing John Brown house (now a part of the Rhode Island Historical Society buildings), and the First Baptist Church of America (1774) whose spire and style have inspired church goers in Providence for three centuries.
to Joseph's involvement in the Gaspee attack.
Nicholas was the oldest of the four Brown brothers. He was the conservative, prudent, methodical and steadfast merchant of the group.  In spite of being the oldest of the brothers, history has put him in the shadow of his brothers. 

The following succinct information is from the excellent the Brown Family Genealogical Society, in their Vol. 25, Issue 2 (December 1996) at p.17. Unfortunately, the Brown Society ran out of funds and editors and no longer is available on the Internet..

"Background; John Brown of Providence Rl was the son of Capt. James Brown (Elder James3 John2 Chacf). John Brown was one of the famous "four brothers," merchants in Providence and founders and patrons of Brown University. His father James was born at Providence 22Mar1698, died there 26Apr1739 and married at Providence, 21Dec1722, Hope (POWER) Brown who was born 4Jan1702, died 8June1792, daughter of Nicholas and Mercy (Tillinghast) Power. Their children born at Providence were;

  • i. James Brown,5 b. 12Feb1724; d. unm. at York, Va., 15Feb1750.
  • ii. Nicholas Brown, b. 28July1729; m. (1) 2 May 1762 Rhoda (JENKS) Brown;
    m. (2) 9Sept1785 Avis (BINNEY) Brown.
  • iii. Mary (BROWN) Vanderlight, b. in 1731; m. John Vanderlight.
  • iv. Hon. Joseph Brown, b. 3Dec1733; d. 3Dec1785; m. 30Sept1759 Elizabeth (POWER) Brown. He was a patriot in the Revolution and filled both town and State offices.
  • v. John Brown, b. 27Jan1736; m. 27Nov 1760 Sarah (SMITH) Brown.
  • vi. Moses Brown, b. 12Sept1738; m. (1) Uan1764 his first cousin,
    Anna6 (BROWN) Brown (27, iv), b. 28Nov1744, daughter of Obadiah4 Brown and
    Mary (HARRIS) Brown; m. (2) 4Mar1779 Mary (OLNEY) Brown; m. (3) 2May1799 Phebe (LOCKWOOD) Brown."

Many books describe the activities of the 18th century Brown brothers of Providence, Rhode Island.  One of the best is the 2006-2007 best seller Sons of Providence, by Charles Rappleye (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006).

References in square[ ] or curly{} brackets] on any page in this website are to books, or other materials, listed in the Joseph Bucklin Society Library Catalog.]