John Corlis: 19th Century Businessman
By Michael R. Veach
John Corlis (1767-1839) started life as a merchant in Providence, R.I. He was involved in the shipping industry and was a partner in a gin distillery in Providence. He serves as a good example of an individual of the growing upper-middle class in New England. He made sure his children received good educations. His son Charles became a midshipman on the frigate USS Congress. Corlis was involved in the overseas trade and invested in several merchant ships. This collection includes letters written from the captain of the merchant ship Hazard while trading furs in Canton, China, in 1803. Corlis’s first setback as a businessman occurred when the Spanish government seized the Hazard off the coast of Chile in 1799. The Spanish government seized another ship, the Mary Ann, in 1805 near modern day Uruguay. The loss of this cargo resulted in Corlis and his partners fighting a 20-year legal battle to recover their investment. These suits were made even more complicated by regime changes during the Napoleonic Era and by revolution in South America. Corlis and his partners placed great hope in the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty by which the United States acquired Florida and claims by U. S. citizens against Spain were to be settled. Unfortunately for Corlis and his fellow investors, they ultimately received only a small percentage of their claim.
Corlis also made investments in the Yazoo Land Company. This company did not hold proper title to the lands they were selling, and once again Corlis was involved in legal disputes that lasted for over 20 years. Other factors also added to the hardships he faced living in New England. The War of 1812 hurt his shipping interest when the coastal embargo shut down the shipping industry for several years. This embargo also hurt his distilling business because he could not receive enough grain to supply his distillery. On Jan. 4, 1814, he wrote, “Who in this nation could have anticipated an embargo on the coast trade, it does indeed look to me more a hostility to New England than Old England.”
In 1815 Corlis decided that his best course of action was to move to Kentucky. He bought a farm in Bourbon County and moved his family west and south but continued to return to Providence often in order to address his legal problems. He also used his New England business ties to fund several mercantile ventures in Kentucky, including a distillery.
Life in Kentucky was different than life in Providence. Corlis found that he had to hire slaves to help run the farm. He and his wife, Susan, were very uncomfortable with the institution of slavery, and many of their letters reflect this fact. Susan explained this feeling in a letter dated May 6, 1821. She described how beautiful and green the farm was in the spring of that year;a beauty she felt was marred only by the fact that Kentucky was a slave state. There are a series of letters in the collection that recount how one of their hired slaves, Ezekiel, ran away after getting into a fight with a white man. Corlis lamented that they could not better protect Ezekiel from this “scoundrel of a man,” thus causing him to run away.
While in Kentucky, Corlis became a tobacco merchant. He bought local tobacco in Kentucky and shipped it down river on flatboats, and later by steamboat, to New Orleans for shipment to European markets. He made many of these trips himself, and his letters home often describe the country through which he passed and the people with whom he was traveling. After arriving in New Orleans, he took passage on a ship sailing to Providence in order to settle business affairs. Sometimes he hired men to deliver the tobacco to New Orleans, as he needed to make the direct overland trip from Kentucky to New England. As a businessman he often had his employees report the prices of other commodities in New Orleans to him, which he considered as possible investments. Always looking for an investment in the future, Corlis had his son look into the possibility of starting a vineyard on the farm.
Investments and improvements required money. Money was a major concern to Kentuckians of Corlis’s era. There was a shortage of specie, and the state debated issuing paper money. Corlis was against this short-term solution. He had experienced a bad paper money solution in Rhode Island in 1786 and believed the results would be similar in Kentucky. He later used his connections in the east to purchase tobacco with New England bank notes rather than the “western currency.”
John Corlis struggled in business until his death in 1839. His losses in the Yazoo land scandal and to the Spanish government kept him working until the end of his life. His desire to maintain family ties with family that had remained in New England and business associates there resulted in letters from him in Kentucky, and his frequent travels east resulted in letters back to Kentucky. He kept these letters as a family record and also to chronicle his business enterprises.
John Corlis’s family ultimately did prosper in Kentucky. After his death they continued correspondence as they became scattered, and a wealth of information can be found in this collection. John Corlis’s children and grandchildren were well educated and were often teachers and ministers. Religion and education were often the subjects of their correspondence, as well as descriptions of the towns in which they lived and worked. The Corlis-Respess Family Papers are well used by researchers, and The Filson is pleased to have them as part of its collection.
The Filson Historical Society