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Forbes family


Forbes family

Current region United States
Place of origin Aberdeenshire, Scotland, United Kingdom
Members John Murray Forbes, John Kerry, Brice Lalonde
Connected families Kerry family
Estate Les Essarts,
Naushon Island

The Forbes family is a wealthy extended American family long prominent in Boston, Massachusetts. The family's fortune originates from trading between North America and China in the 19th century plus other investments in the same period. The name descends from Scottish immigrants, and can be traced back to Sir John de Forbes in Scotland in the 12th century. Notable family members are businessman John Murray Forbes (1813–1898), part of the first generation who accumulated wealth, and politician John Forbes Kerry (born 1943).


  • Family origins 1
  • Accumulation of wealth 2
    • Trade with China 2.1
    • Railroad investment 2.2
    • Other sources 2.3
  • Family assets 3
  • Notable family members 4
    • Noted as businessmen 4.1
    • Noted as politicians and activists 4.2
  • Genealogy 5
    • Ancestors in the United States 5.1
  • Sources 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Family origins

The Forbes family descends from the Scottish clan Forbes, which was seated in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The first member of the Forbes family to live in the United States, John Forbes (1740–1783), a clergyman, married Dorothy Murray on February 2, 1769 in Milton, Massachusetts, where one of his three sons was born. The family is considered part of the Boston Brahmin ėlite, although the Reverend John Forbes' first post on the North American continent was in British East Florida, where he became the first Anglican clergyman licensed to officiate during the English period of 1763-1783. The Forbes family has a link to the Dudley-Winthrop family directly from Thomas Dudley (1576-1653), father of Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), the first English-language female poet from America.

Accumulation of wealth

Opiums ships at Lintin (Nei Lingding Island, Chinese: 内伶仃岛, Nei Lingding Dao, 'Inner Lingding Island') in 1824, by William John Huggins.

Trade with China

The Boston trading firm Perkins & Co. sent many young men of their extended family to participate in their business activities abroad. Ralph Forbes being married to Margaret Perkins, their children were encouraged in the business. Following the death overseas of his older brother, Thomas Tunno Forbes, the Perkinses encouraged John Murray Forbes to travel to China, too. There John was mentored by the Chinese merchant Houqua who treated him like a son.

Portrait of George Chinnery, 1830.

Perkins & Co., like many other Boston trading firms in the early 19th century, sent ships to China to get tea for sale in America (although some was ultimately re-exported to Britain and Europe). To pay for the tea, they exported to China large quantities of silver and also furs, manufactured goods, cloth, wood, opium and any other items that they thought the Chinese market would absorb. Active trading houses, particularly those from Boston, usually kept representatives resident in Hong Kong whose main role was to look for and secure quality tea for export at good prices. This was John Murray Forbes' main job during the two years he spent in China (Gibson 2001; Malloy 1998). John Murray Forbes' brother, Robert Bennet Forbes, was more intimately involved in the importing side of the business and, at least by their own writings, had a more direct role than did John in the opium trade. (Kerr 1996; Hughes 1899).

Until recently, the Museum of the American China Trade in Milton, Mass., on Boston's South Shore, was curated by a Forbes great-grandson, Dr. H. A. Crosby Forbes, an expert on Chinese porcelain.[1] The museum, which was housed in Robert Bennet Forbes' 1833 Greek Revival style house, was a monument to the China merchants and the great wealth in Boston that both drove and resulted from the China trade. The China trade museum was merged with the Peabody Essex Museum in 1984 leaving the house in the management of the Forbes House Charitable Trust which operates it now as the Captain Forbes House Museum.

Neither John nor Robert spent more than a relatively short time in China—John was there for two years. Upon his return to Boston, John continued interest in the China trade for a few more years, serving as a business/investment manager for voyages undertaken by Robert and others. Fairly soon, however, he recognized that the China trade was becoming increasingly difficult to pursue profitably and that railroads offered a new and much more lucrative opportunity.

Railroad investment

John Murray Forbes made a considerable fortune from investments in railroads from the 1840s onwards. Some of the population growth of Chicago and Midwestern Plains states in the middle to late 19th century was due to John Murray Forbes' railroad projects in Michigan and Chicago. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, from Chicago west to the Mississippi, was built by John Murray Forbes who had a reputation for sound financial management amongst the railroad tycoons of the day (Larson 2001).

Other sources

John Murray Forbes and Ralph Waldo Emerson were friends. Forbes's son William Hathaway Forbes married Emerson's daughter Edith in 1865. William was an early investor in Alexander Graham Bell's telephone company, becoming company president.

Family assets

Some Forbes family members remain generally influential in local or national politics.

In the 1840s, John Murray Forbes bought Naushon Island, which is one of the Elizabeth Islands northwest of Martha's Vineyard and southwest of Cape Cod, and within the town of Gosnold, Massachusetts. Forbes and his descendants have used the property as a summer retreat since then. The property is presently owned by a Forbes family corporation, the Naushon Trust, Inc.

Notable family members

Noted as businessmen

  • Colonel James Grant Forbes (1769-1826), engaged in the West India trade in Port-au-Prince (Haiti), served as an army officer during the War of 1812, went as envoy in 1821 to receive the relinquishment of the Floridas from the Spanish authority in Cuba, Governor of East Florida.[2]
  • Grandson of John Forbes, John Murray Forbes (1813-1898), born in France, John Murray Forbes was the first of the family to enter the China trade and later invested in railroads and amassed a large fortune.
  • Francis Blackwell Forbes (1839-1908), poppy botanist, wrote a book on Chinese plants, opium trader in the China trade.
  • James Grant Forbes II (1879-1955), American lawyer, banker and businessman, son of Francis Blackwell Forbes and wife Isabel Clark and brother of William Hathaway Forbes. Was born in Shanghai, China, where the Forbes amassed a fortune from the opium trade and merchant banking after the Opium Wars. The grandfather of Brice Lalonde and John Forbes Kerry.
  • Another grandson of John Forbes Robert Bennet Forbes (1804-1889): Partner of Russell & Company, and later associated with Yale University development and endowment.

Noted as politicians and activists

Many Forbes family members are influential in local or national politics in France, the US and the Philippines.


Ancestors in the United States

The first members of the family to live in the United States was John Forbes, clergyman, son of Archibald Forbes, although the family retained its connections with Europe and John Murray Forbes was born in France.


  • Life and Recollections of John Murray Forbes, ed. by Sarah Forbes Hughes, Two Volumes, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1899.
  • An American Railroad Builder: John Murray Forbes, by Henry Pearson, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1911.
  • Forbes: Telephone Pioneer, by Arthur Pier, 1953.
  • The Bingham Genealogy Project, by Doug Bingham, 2003
  • Boston Men on the Northwest Coast: The American Fur Trade, 1788-1844, by Mary Malloy, University of Alaska Press, 1998.
  • Bonds of Enterprise: John Murray Forbes and Western Development in America's Railway Age, John Lauritz Larson, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.
  • Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841, by James R. Gibson, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001.
  • Letters from China: The Canton-Boston Correspondence of Robert Bennet Forbes, 1838–1840, ed. by Phyllis Forbes Kerr, Mystic Seaport Museum, 1996.


  1. ^ In 1992 H. A. Crosby Forbes donated his family's papers, beginning with those of Henry Ashton and Mary (Leavitt) Crosby, to the Massachusetts Historical Society.[2]
  2. ^ James Murray (1901). Letters of James Murray, loyalist. Retrieved 20 May 2014. 
  3. ^ Marquard, Bryan (June 12, 2008). "James D. Colt, 75, lawyer and former state representative". The Boston Globe. Retrieved October 23, 2013. 

External links

  • The Ancestors of Sen. John Forbes Kerry (b. 1943)
  • Website of the Captain Forbes House Museum in Milton, MA
  • Forbes Family Business Records at Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School
  • James Murray Forbes Papers at Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, MA)
  • Mary Bowditch Forbes Papers at Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, MA)
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