About John Russell Bartlett

John Russell Bartlett Portrait

Oil painting of John Russell Bartlett. Collection of the John Carter Brown Library.

Born in Providence in October 1805, Bartlett was raised in Kingston, Ontario, by Smith Bartlett, a successful businessman, and his wife Nancy (neé Russell). Without much exposure to formal education, Bartlett nevetheless applied his talents to learning and became a skilled draftsman, artist and bookkeeper by the time he was twenty. He returned to Providence at the age of 18 to work in his uncle’s dry goods business and was subsequently employed as a teller and bookkeeper for several banks in the city. In 1831, at the age of twenty six, he married Eliza Allen Rhodes of Patuxent (Rhode Island) with whom he would have seven children between 1833 and 1850.

Bartlett’s career in the book world is legendary. He was a co-founder of the Providence Athenaeum in the early 1830s, and served that institution as its first treasurer, librarian, and cataloger of books. After an ill-fated move to New York for a business venture that would fail in the Panic of 1837, Bartlett decided to devote himself to a career in books. He embarked on a partnership with Charles Welford under the name Bartlett & Welford, which dealt in British and foreign books as well as publishing. The Bartlett & Welford bookshop became the meeting place for the literary circles of New York City. Through the bookshop, Bartlett also established a link to John Carter Brown, then embarked on his venture to collect every publication published about the Americas from the time of Columbus. He served as the official librarian for John Carter Brown’s library collection from 1856 until his death on May 28, 1886.

Bartlett was equally devoted to scientific study and scholarship. He joined a number of societies devoted to the advancement of human knowledge, including the Franklin Society (for the study of natural science), the Royal Society of Antiquarians, the American Geographical Society; the American Oriental Society, and a number of historical societies. While still in New York, he encountered former Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin, the “patriarch of scholars and public men in New York.” Bartlett, through his acquaintance with Gallatin, went on to co-found the American Ethnological Society, an organization devoted to study of geography, archaeology, philology, and related fields. Bartlett also assisted in research for Gallatin’s book, “Peace with Mexico,” which was published by Bartlett & Welford in 1847. Bartlett returned to Providence in 1849, but was appointed to the Commission for the Mexican Boundary Question by President Taylor soon afterward. He served as Commissioner for three years before the funding for this project ran out. An account of his adventures, entitled “Personal Narrative of Incidents & Explorations in Texas, New Mexico, California, Senora, etc.” was published in 1854. He returned to Providence in 1852, this time for good.

From 1855 to 1872, John Russell Bartlett undertook the part of his career for which he is perhaps best remembered in Rhode Island: his service as Secretary of State. During his seventeen years in this post, Bartlett undertook a wide variety of important tasks, including the establishment of a collection of portraits of the Governors of Rhode Island; raising funds for a monument to Gen. Ambrose Burnside, Rhode Island’s most distinguished contribution to the Civil War; the preservation of early Rhode Island records, including those of Roger Williams; and the preparation and publication of state papers and records every year for ten years. In addition to his important role in promoting public records, Bartlett had an independent writing career that began in 1847 with the publication of the first volume of his “Dictionary of Americanisms,” and eventually encompassed nineteen published works.

For more information about John Russell Bartlett and his career

Handbook of Texas Online

Report of the Boundary Commission Survey

Research Collections

Autobiograph of John Russell Bartlett, 1805-1886. Edited by Jerry E. Mueller. Providence, RI: John Carter Brown Library, 2006. For purchase, see Oakknoll Press.

Papers of John Russell Bartlett at the Rhode Island Historical Society

Founders Collection at the Providence Athenaeum

The John Carter Brown Library (see also, Smithsonian Archive of American art for a description of John Russell Bartlett’s sketchbooks at the JCBL).


Members of JRBS, 2020-21

Lifetime Members are in BOLD

Virginia Adams (Providence, RI)
Phoebe Bean (Providence, RI)
Alice Beckwith (North Kingstown, RI)
Sean Briody (Columbia, SC)
Elliott Caldwell (Newport, RI)
Claudia Covert (Providence, RI)
Robert P. Davis (Providence, RI)
Timothy Demy (Middletown, RI)
Lisa Long Feldmann (Longmeadow, MA)
Norman Fiering (Providence, RI)
Jordan Goffin (Warwick, RI)
John Hattendorf (Newport, RI)
Cory King (Providence, RI)
James McIlwain (Rehoboth, MA)
Madison Mott (Providence, RI)
Jerry Mueller (Forsyth, MO)
Susan Newbury (Pawtucket, RI)
Robin Nyzio (Pawtucket, RI)
Maureen O’Donnell (New Bedford, MA)
Whitney Pape (Cranston, RI)
Richard Ring (Cranston, RI)
Michael Russem (Somerville, MA)
Paul Selwyn (Narragansett, RI)
Holly Snyder (Providence, RI)
Michael Speidel (Lincoln, RI)
Simon M. Sullivan (Providence, RI)
Erika Wallington (Pawtucket, RI)
Kate Wodehouse (Providence, RI)

Dragonfly Bindery (Woonsocket, RI)
Mom and Pop’s Bookshop (Wakefield, RI)
Providence Public Library (Providence, RI)
Rhode Island Historical Society (Providence, RI)