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Biography of John Bromfield



One of Newburyport’s most influential citizens, John Bromfield (1779-1849), ended up becoming the catalyst for transforming how the city’s neighborhoods would look and feel.   At the beginning of the nineteenth century and at the very start of the industrial revolution, he was considered one of fifty most important industrialists in the young United States.    Through frugal living and hard work, he amassed a fortune in international trade and business.      Regardless of where he went in the world -- from China to India to Europe to his towering presence in the City of Boston -- he never forgot Newburyport.    


When Bromfield died in 1849, he bequeathed a large portion of his estate to the Massachusetts General Hospital,  the Boston Athenaeum and to many charitable organizations in the Commonwealth.  Many places in Boston carry the name “Bromfield” in revered memory of him.   But the single most amazing gift was $10,000 that was provided to the City of Newburyport.    He placed that bequest in the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, one of the first real investment companies in America and he stipulated that the interest generated by the Bromfield Fund for Newburyport should be split in two.   One-half was to be used to plant and tend to the trees that lined the streets of our city, and one-half was to be used to maintain the sidewalks.    The words of his will state,


“I order the sum of ten thousand dollars to be invested, at interest, in the Hospital Life Insurance Company, in the city of Boston, so and in such manner as that the selectmen or other duly authorized agents of the town of Newburyport, for the time being, may annually receive the interest which shall accrue or become payable  for or in respect of said deposit; and I direct, that, by or in behalf of said town, the interest so received shall be annually expended, --one half in keeping the sidewalks in the public streets of said town in good order, and the other half in the planting and preserving trees in said streets, for the embellishing and ornamenting of said streets for the pleasure and comfort of the inhabitants”


He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery on December 8th, 1849.


To understand how phenomenal his gift was, at the time of his death, the yearly budget for the city was $42,000. (Showing that some things never change, citizens at the time felt that was far too great a sum. Cut the fat!)   Today, of course, the annual budget for the City of Newburyport is approximately $54,000,000.  Simply extrapolating the value of that $10,000 would translate in today’s money close to $10,700,000.   Generous indeed.   The Boston Athenaeum was given $25,000, and their Bromfield Fund is now $7,000,000 (2007).    It was common for such charitable funds to be maintained through interest from investments and many of these funds still exist today in the 21st Century, happily churning out income.   In fact, the Newburyport Public Library’s reading room is presently funded by the Todd Fund, established in 1870 by William Todd, another important former Newburyport personage who loved the city even though he resided in Washington, D.C.  


When prominent Newburyport’s historic figures are recounted, however, somehow Mr. Bromfield is rarely mentioned.    And yet, it is his contribution that has made Newburyport the way it looks today.    Much of Newburyport when he was alive consisted of treeless blocks and open areas peppered with grazing cattle.  The stylish sidewalks and wonderful, tree-lined avenues, were all his idea, a tradition we, the current inhabitants of this great city, would do well to emulate.


John Bromfield, the merchant, was a thoughtful and generous man.    He belonged to a class of merchants that would be alien today.   Born in Newburyport, in 1779, he was brought up by parents who practiced the old-fashioned system of making him hardy and self-reliant. His mother bored holes in her son’s shoes in order to accustom him to wet feet, so that he might be made less liable to catch cold!   When his feet were wet, she refused to allow him to take his shoes off, regarding it as an effeminate practice. The Puritan ethic, alive and well in Newburyport!


On approaching the time of entering college his father met with financial misfortune and could not bear the expense. Two aunts of his, somewhat better off, promised to pay his educational expenses, but he firmly declined their offer. The foundation of his character and career was a love of independence. Instead, he asked to be apprenticed to a mercantile house, and remained in it as long as it held together. After its failure he tried for months to obtain a clerkship, but, not succeeding, he arranged with a carpenter to learn his trade. Just before putting on the carpenter's apron, however, an opening occurred in a local counting house, and he became a merchant.


He apparently never looked back after that.


About the year 1801 he went out to China and continued to visit that part of the world for many years, occasionally making small ventures of his own, and slowly accumulating a little capital. On one occasion, he had a ship full of valuable goods, and the market to which he was carrying them was eager to buy, but within twenty-four hours after arriving he was arrested and detained ten weeks a prisoner because of the War of 1812.


When peace was finally restored in 1815, with freedom of the seas again assured, merchants resumed their business dealings without fear of their ships being taken by English or French cruisers. From that time on Bromfield had better luck, and gradually made his fortune. He never kept a store, nor had any sort of warehouse, but made his considerable profits by sending or taking merchandise from a port which had too much of it to one that was in want of it.   He traveled as far west as the wilderness of Missouri.   He would ride miles and miles without seeing a house.

He traveled extensively throughout Europe, and on one of his winter passages he found the sailors suffering extremely from handling frozen ropes, as they were not provided with mittens. Being a Yankee, and having been brought up to do things as well as read about them, he took one of his thick overcoats and made with his own hands a pair of mittens for every sailor.


On another occasion in 1809, on the ship Atahualpa bound to China, the vessel was attacked off Macao by pirates, in twenty-two junks, some of them being twice the tonnage of his own boat. Captain Sturgis, who commanded the vessel, defended her with signal ability and courage, and kept the pirates off for forty minutes, until the Atahualpa gained the protection of a coastal fort. John Bromfield, a passenger on board, handled one of the guns himself, and assisted the efforts of the captain with such coolness and promptitude as to contribute greatly toward the protection of the ship.


In retirement he lived a quiet life in Boston, unmarried, fond of books, and practicing unusual frugality for a person who was wealthy. He had a singular abhorrence of luxury, waste, and ostentation. He often said that the cause of more than half the business bankruptcies that he saw was reckless spending. Does that sound familiar in 2009?


Nothing could induce him to accept personal service. He was one of those men who wait upon themselves, reduce their wants to the necessaries of civilized life, and all with a view to a more perfect independence. He would take trouble to oblige others, but could not bear to trouble anyone else.     He was incredibly independent and would discourage even his relations and friends to aide him in any way.


He was a man of sayings, and one of them was:


"The good must merit God's peculiar care,
and none but God can tell us who they are."


Another of his favorite poem’s was Pope's:


"Reason's whole pleasure, all the joys of sense,
Lie in three words: health, peace, and competence."


He used to quote Burns' stanza about the desirableness of wealth:


"Not to hide it in a hedge,
Nor for a train attendant;
But for the glorious privilege
Of being independent."


He was utterly opposed to businesses undertaking risky ventures upon borrowed capital. Excessive credit given out was one of the subjects he would often rail against.


This native of Newburyport, after an interesting and productive life, died in 1849, aged seventy, and left considerable sums to benevolent societies. His estate proved to be of about two hundred thousand dollars (in today’s money, over a quarter of a billion dollars!), and he bestowed more than half that sum on institutions for mitigating human woe.


The greatest monument to this man that we see in Newburyport is the waving and rustling of leaves over our city (from the trees he endowed) and the beautiful brick sidewalks that still survive (or are being restored) … again, that he financed.    On hot days, these monuments to his forethought give shade to those who walk our streets.    Each bird that sings from the tree branches pays tribute to his handiwork.   


We owe so much to this humble man who helped to establish our city as one of the most beautiful in the country.

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