Woodbridge and Backus families business records, 1754-1890 (inclusive)

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Content Notes

The Woodbridge and Backus families business records date from 1725 to 1896 and consist of legal and estate papers, financial records, correspondence, and genealogical research. Legal papers include deeds, wills, and powers-of-attorney, as well as court records and writs issued in cases where Elijah Backus was a justice of the peace, or Dudley Woodbridge acted as an attorney. Financial records contain accounts of sales, orders, bills, receipts, promissory notes, invoices, and account books generated by the families' respective businesses, which involved trade of rum, molasses, sugar, tobacco, salt, tea, staves, and dry goods. There are also records of the general stores run by each family in Norwich, and of the Backus iron works, which manufactured anchors, mill cranks and saws, and farm tools. Some accounts reflect overlapping interests and partnership between the families in trade and voyages to the West Indies. Later financial papers in the collection concern farming and investments in securities by James Backus' son, William Woodbridge Backus. The collection contains correspondence of Elijah Backus, Dudley Woodbridge, Rufus & James Backus, and James Backus with merchants in ports such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, where the families sold goods on consignment. Topics of letters include terms of trade and payment, market demand, prices current, and debts. There is also correspondence of William Woodbridge Backus and his relations and associates as he conducted genealogical research for his family memoir, some photographs of family members, and letters and memoranda related to his various investments.

Biographical Notes

The Woodbridge and Backus families of Norwich, Connecticut, engaged in international and coastwise shipping and trade of commodities like iron, rum, molasses, tobacco, and sugar. The families were connected by marriage and apparently not formal business partners, but their mercantile activities and shipping ventures often overlapped. Elijah Backus was born in Norwich to Elizabeth Tracy and Samuel Backus (1693-1740) in 1726. He managed an iron works and grist mill at Yantic, Connecticut. Elijah served as a captain during the American Revolutionary War, and the Backus iron works cast cannons, mortar, and horse shoes for the Continental Army, and anchors for privateers. Other products manufactured by the iron works were farm tools, saw mill cranks and saws, and grist mill spindles. Elijah was involved in shipping and trade of commodities other than iron, and retail sales at a general store. He was also a justice of the peace. He married Lucy Griswold in 1753, and they had nine children, four of whom lived to adulthood: Lucy (1757-1818); Elijah (1759-1811); James (1764-1816); and Clarina (1769-1831). Elijah Backus died in Norwich in 1798. Dudley Woodbridge was born in Stonington, Connecticut, in 1747. He graduated from Yale in 1766, and became a lawyer in Norwich. He married Lucy Backus, daughter of Elijah Backus, in 1774. He was the first postmaster of Norwich, serving from February 1781 to September 1789. Woodbridge sold rum, foodstuffs, and dry-goods, from a general store in Norwich, and invested in shipping ventures to the West Indies, often in partnership with his brother, Samuel Woodbridge, and sometimes his in-laws. In the late 18th century, he joined his brother-in-law James Backus and moved to Marietta, where he resumed his law practice. He died there in 1823. James Backus, was one of the first settlers of Marietta, Ohio, in April 1788, where he was an agent for the Ohio Company, conducting surveys of the town. At his father’s request, he returned to Connecticut in March 1791 to run the family iron works, grist mill, and shipping interests. James also simultaneously formed a brief business partnership with his cousin, Rufus Backus (born 1761), which dissolved in 1796. Rufus & James Backus imported and traded goods from the West Indies like molasses, salt, and rum, as well as tea from China, French indigo, and British dry-goods; they consigned with merchants in New York, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island. James at some point bought out his siblings’ share in their father’s businesses, which he ran until 1814. He also operated a farm and meatpacking plant, constructed a saw mill, and built and maintained two carding machines.James Backus married Dorothy Church Chandler in 1793, and they had eight children, including William Woodbridge (1803-1892) and Henry T. (1809-1877). William Woodbridge Backus inherited his father’s farm, while his brother Henry T. Backus became a lawyer in Detroit, Michigan, and later a judge in the Arizona Territory. William was not involved in shipping like other Backus family members, but sold beef and produce from the farm, and invested in stock in the Chicago & Alton Rail Road, Phenix Insurance Company, Shoe and Leather Bank, and other companies. William also wrote and published A Genealogical Memoir of the Backus family in 1889.