Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online

For Participating Institutions

John Nicholas Brown (1861-1900) papers

Brown University Library

Box A
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
Tel: 401-863-2146

Biographical note

John Nicholas Brown (1861-1900) was born on December 17, 1861, at the family homestead in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the eldest son of John Carter Brown and Sophia Augusta (Brown) Brown. John Nicholas Brown was a member of one of the most prominent and distinguished families in Rhode Island, and an eighth generation descendant of Chad Brown, one of the original settlers of Providence Plantations. The family was active during the American Revolution and a supporter of the Federal Constitution. The Browns proved to be resourceful and prosperous merchants and manufacturers, pioneers in the China trade, and well-known manufacturers of spermaceti candles. During the nineteenth century, the Brown family transferred their vested interests from commerce to cotton manufacturing. The Brown family was a political, economic, philosophical, religious and philanthropic leader in Rhode Island.

During his childhood, John Nicholas Brown resided at 357 Benefit Street on the East Side of Providence. There he received his early education under the direction of private tutors. The family summered in Newport, Rhode Island, at their Mansion House located on Bellevue Avenue. Due to the nature of his father's business activities, John Nicholas Brown and his family lived and traveled throughout Europe for many years. Following the death of his father in 1874, John Nicholas Brown spent two years abroad traveling with his family. He resided in Cannes for the winter season, and during the summer months, he visited museums. As a young teen, John Nicholas had the opportunity to tour the Louvre, the Bibliotecque Nationale, various churches, art museums, and private libraries.

John Carter Brown was an avid collector of Americana, and Sophia Augusta Brown was a self-proclaimed bibliophile. This love of books and libraries, whether inherited or cultivated, was present in John Nicholas Brown. Often, as a young teen, he would accompany his mother to various booksellers and tour private libraries. In Milan, Sophia Augusta Brown had a letter of introduction to the Ambrosian Library where the prefect showed them valuable books and documents. There John Nicholas Brown saw a Columbus letter, the missal of the French monarch Francis I, the drawings and papers of Leonardo daVinci, a Virgil with notes by Petrarch, and original Galileo correspondence.

In 1881, John Nicholas Brown entered Brown University as a freshman. However, he left school after completing only two years, citing his poor health and weak constitution. Nonetheless, he continued his studies of his own accord. He traveled extensively and studied history, architecture, languages and classics. In 1895, the faculty of Brown University voted to confer a degree upon John Nicholas Brown as a member of the class of 1885.

Under the tutelage of his cousin William Goddard, John Nicholas Brown began to work for the family business, Brown and Ives. As President of Lonsdale Company, John Nicholas Brown was often concerned for the physical and spiritual welfare of the work force. In 1888, John Nicholas Brown and his brother, Harold, formed a partnership, JN & H Brown. They occupied office space at 50 South Main Street, the family business headquarters. In many ways, the JN & H Brown business paralleled the activities of the John Carter Brown Estate. They lent money for mortgages and invested money in buildings and western lands. In these business endeavors, the brothers relied upon the assistance of George W.R. Matteson, trustee of the Estate of John Carter Brown.

A staunch, devoted and enthusiastic supporter of the Episcopal Church and its missions, John Nicholas Brown was a communicant at St. John's Church on North Main Street, Providence, and Emmanuel Church, Newport. He was active in church affairs and participated in both the Diocesan Episcopal convention and the National Episcopal convention. As a member of the Board of Managers of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, John Nicholas Brown took an active role in funding and advancing the growth of Episcopal missions throughout Rhode Island and the United States. He was particularly interested in the western United States missions and in the Swedish and French Episcopal missions. He generously donated a great deal of money to help build churches and to defray the expenses of poorer parishes.

John Nicholas Brown was a philanthropist. He donated to numerous organizations and individuals in needed of assistance. He funded a project to repopulate Alaska with reindeer and import Eskimos to teach the native population how to care for the reindeer. Among his many charitable causes, he supported the Young Men's Christian Association, the Providence Athenaeum, Brown University, the Providence Charitable Fuel Society and the Southern Negro Orphan Asylum. One of his most generous donations, a gift of $268,000, was used to complete the building of the Providence Public Library. William Foster of the Providence Public Library exclaimed, "It was extremely noble in him, and thoroughly characteristic."

Throughout his life, John Nicholas Brown was interested in Republican politics, community service, and various social clubs. He was elected President of the Rhode Island Republican League and he was an elector for Benjamin Harrison in the election of 1888. In the years that followed, John Nicholas Brown did not actively partake in political affairs, but he was concerned about the free trade issue, the Civil Service law, the Puerto Rican Tariff issue, and other local issues. As a civic leader, John Nicholas Brown sat on the board of several local banks and hospitals. He was active in various social and business clubs in Providence, Newport and New York City.

During his leisure time, John Nicholas Brown enjoyed yachting and collecting rare books, fine wine, and the new impressionist art. He delighted in purchasing rare and valuable books for his library. "I think that old books and new pictures are weaknesses of mine. The former I do know something about, the latter nothing." A patron of the arts, John Nicholas Brown was a frequent visitor to art museums. The Paris Exhibitions and galleries proved to be a special place for him. He conferred with well-known artists of the day, men such as Detaille, de Neuville, Meissonier, Bonnat, and Monet. A great admirer of Monet, John Nicholas Brown visited him at his studio. Brown commissioned Bonnat to paint his portrait in 1889.

On September 8, 1897, John Nicholas Brown married Natalie Bayard Dresser of New York and Newport. The couple spent their honeymoon in Europe, traveling and visiting friends and relatives. They returned to the United States in 1898 and set up a winter household in Providence. They summered in Newport, renting the Fearing House on Narragansett Boulevard, and they maintained a residence in New York City. This successful and loving marriage was blessed with the birth of a son, John Nicholas, on February 21, 1900.

Tragically, John Nicholas Brown became ill and passed away in the spring of 1900. He was mourned not only by members of his immediate family, but by all those he had helped throughout the years. His wife, Natalie, and their son, John Nicholas, missed his company and guidance in the years that followed. His passion for the arts, travel, Europe, yachts, philanthropic activities, and civic endeavors were continued by his son and namesake, John Nicholas Brown.


1861 Dec 17Birth of John Nicholas Brown.
1874 Jun 10Death of John Carter Brown.
1880Western United States.
1881Freshman at Brown University.
1882 MayDecision to leave Brown University.
1882 JulWestern United States.
1882 AugAdirondacks.
1886 MarNassau.
1886 AugAdirondacks.
1887 AprLeaves for Europe.
1887 OctReturns from Europe.
1888 Apr 21Distribution of John Carter Brown Estate.
1888 Apr 30John Nicholas Brown and his brother Harold form a business partnership, JN & H Brown.
1888President of the Republican League of Rhode Island.
1889 MarElector for Benjamin Harrison.
1888 Jul 2Leaves Providence for trip to western United States and Alaska.
1888 Sep 29Returns from western United States and Alaska.
1889Bonnat portrait.
1893President Lonsdale Company.
1892 Jun 10Paris, visit with Monet.
1893Ballymena purchased.
1897 AugEngagement to Natalie Bayard Dresser.
1897 Sep 8Marriage to Natalie Bayard Dresser.
1899Summer rental - Fearing Cottage, Newport.
1900 Feb 21Birth of John Nicholas Brown (1900-1979).
1900 May 1Death of John Nicholas Brown (1861-1900).