The Howards of Clark’s Square

Jun 12, 2020

By: Ruaidhrí Crofton

​Editor’s Note: This Express post is excerpted from our most recent Revere Gazette article. The article stands as the first of a two-part issue that takes a fresh look at Robert Howard’s life and his role in early colonial Boston society. Part two of the Gazette, which will be published later this summer, will further analyze the Revere House’s first occupant as a slaveholder and the nature of slavery in Boston during the period.

color drawing of row housesSometime between 1676 and 1680, a new house was constructed on the plot at 19 North Square in Boston where the preeminent Mather family residence had once stood. With spacious rooms, a sizable attic, and a cellar large enough for a working kitchen, the building’s grandeur reflected the affluence of its initial occupant and his family. Its owner Robert Howard had, by that point, marked himself as an important figure in Boston, and his local prominence and worldwide business connections would only grow over his 37-year occupancy of the house. Howard’s Puritan faith and eventual rise to wealth as a shipping merchant suggests his motivations for coming to, or remaining in, Massachusetts were a combination of religious freedom and a desire for entrepreneurial opportunities. These dual pillars combined to dominate Howard’s life and, through them, we can paint a more complete picture of Robert Howard’s world.

The first evidence of the Howards in Boston is a residential record that places the family in the North End. [i] As Boston emerged as a vibrant town in the mid-17th century, the North End became one of its most populated areas and a center of religious life. As early as the 1640s, the population of the neighborhood had increased so substantially that it was decided a new church would be needed to accommodate the spiritual needs of its residents. The Second Church of Boston was founded in 1649, with work starting on the congregation’s first meeting house shortly thereafter.[ii] The Old North Meeting House, as it would come to be known, was located at the head of Clark’s Square in the symbolic heart of the neighborhood and directly across from the future Howard household.

Within the records of the Second Church, “B[rother] Robert Howard” is listed as having “been admitted to full communion” as a member of the congregation on November 28, 1682, less than two years after moving into his new home.[iii] Although all citizens were required by law to attend church services, only a small number were actually members of the church they attended. After an arduous process of examination and questioning, the final part of Howard’s admission to full membership would have involved signing his name to “A Declaration of Faith,” whereby he would affirm alongside other newly admitted members that, “we do in a serious manner and as we trust in the fear of God, unite together…As the Disciples of Jesus, and engage to walk together in Love, and endeavor to promote each other’s edification, in faith, in knowledge, and in purity.”[iv] Once a member of this exclusive subset in Puritan society, Howard and his family would have continued to be subjected to heavy scrutiny as they were now expected to serve as role models of virtue and piety.

Despite Robert’s certified status within the Church, there are no records that would suggest Howard’s wife or children were also admitted as full members. His daughter, Sarah, is listed as having been baptized in the church after her birth in 1681, and in 1701 she wed her husband, Daniel Wyborne, in a ceremony officiated by the prominent minister Cotton Mather. Both events reinforced the family’s connection to, and standing within, the church.[v]

Puritanism’s tenets permeated every aspect of public and private life in Howard’s Boston, meaning that he and his family lived in a strictly regimented and authoritative society. Indeed, the Puritans of Boston “invested their own Congregational church and its clergy with immense and intrusive power over the…lives of citizens.”[vi] Every law passed or action undertaken by theocratic community leaders was done so with the notion that their society needed to be purged of any behavior and beliefs unsuitable in the eyes of God so as to avoid direct punishment in the form of plague, Native American massacres, or other misfortune.[vii]

As one of the elite group of God’s elect, full-church members like Robert Howard easily translated their authority within the church to Boston’s Puritan society more broadly. In turn, these “elect were under an obligation to impose restraint upon the unregenerate” through the imposition of laws that would allow society to function in accordance with their beliefs and values.[viii] Everything from the clothes colonists were allowed to wear and the entertainment they tolerated to their attitude toward work and prayer were ultimately influenced by politics and religion.

It was in this strict and pious environment that Howard accumulated his vast wealth. Howard traded goods from Massachusetts to other colonies and territories throughout the Atlantic world, functioning as a key cog in the infamous triangular trade which allowed slavery to flourish in the Americas. While Howard only owned one ship, a 110-ton vessel aptly named the Robert, Howard also invested in nineteen other ships based out of Massachusetts from 1697 to 1714, totaling 425 tons.[ix] It was through the use of these vessels that Howard was able to profit off of the shipment of goods such as tobacco, logwood, rum, fish, and timber. Much of his trade was focused on the western side of the Atlantic, with his ships making regular voyages between Boston and the Caribbean, but also to today’s Canada, as well as across the ocean to Amsterdam. By 1700, Howard ranked 9th out of 69 ship owners based on tonnage owned, with an average of 70.6 tons in comparison to the Boston average of 52 tons.[x]

In a society dominated by Puritan ideals that emphasized a focus on spiritual matters over material ones, it may seem somewhat contradictory that many Puritans strived to accumulate great wealth. However, merchants like Robert Howard equated professional success and wealth accumulation not with greed, but as an indication of having gained God’s favor.[xi] According to Puritan beliefs, God called men and women to perform particular roles in their lives. In the case of women like Elizabeth and her daughter Sarah Howard, they would be expected to serve as housewives and mothers or perhaps aid their husbands with their work. In contrast, men like Robert Howard would work as merchants, farmers, carpenters, shipbuilders, or in any number of other trades or professions for which God had selected them. Success in one’s profession was often judged through financial self-sufficiency, while poverty was considered a mark of laziness resulting from a lack of ambition.[xii] In turn, the accumulation of wealth and material goods, which in Robert Howard’s case meant owning at least one enslaved person, Samuel, was not seen to be a deviation from devout spirituality, but instead a reward for having followed the word of God and proof of one’s election and salvation. Howard’s success confirmed to his peers that he had indeed worked hard at his job and had been recognized by God as a member of the elect.

Perhaps the largest political challenges that Robert Howard faced as a merchant came from the English Parliament and Crown thousands of miles away. King James II was deposed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, through which William and Mary were installed as joint monarchs in England. This in turn spurred a 1689 rebellion in Boston that aimed to bring an end to James II’s reformulated Dominion of New England. The Dominion’s governor, Sir Edmund Andros, had angered the colonists by strictly enforcing the burdensome taxes of the Navigation Acts, imposing restrictions on town meetings, and promoting the Church of England.[xiii] A mob of angry Bostonians formed and arrested Dominion officials and members of the Church of England before restoring leaders of the former Massachusetts Bay Colony to power. Given Robert Howard’s political and social standing, he likely supported William and Mary’s ascension and Andros’s downfall. With the re-establishment of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Robert Howard’s profit margins increased and he continued to be a central figure in Boston’s shipping logs, but his name and household became more connected to slavery, the most notorious component of transatlantic trade in the 17th century.


[i] Alexander, Andrew. “So Who Was Robert Howard?” The Revere House Gazette. Summer 2003.

[ii] Massachusetts Historical Society. “Second Church (Boston, Mass.) Records: Guide to the Collection”.

[iii] Records of the Second Church of Boston, Volume VIII. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

[iv] Records of the Second Church of Boston, Volume VIII.

[v] Records of the Second Church of Boston, Volume III. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society; Register of Publishments and Marriages in Boston, 1646-1789. Book 1646, 131.

[vi] Johnson, xv.

[vii] Ibid, 13.

[viii] Konig, David Thomas. Law and Society in Puritan Massachusetts: Essex County, 1629-1692. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979, 4.

[ix] Bailyn, Bernard and Lotte Bailyn. Massachusetts Shipping 1697-1714: A Statistical Study. “Table XXVII – Investors in Ten or More Vessels, 1697-1714”. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959, 130-131.

[x] Alexander, Summer 2003.

[xi] Johnson, 57.

[xii] Bailyn, 20.

[xiii] Hall, Michael, Michael Kammen, and Lawerence Leder. The Glorious Revolution in America. Richmond, VA: The University of North Carolina Press, 1964, 4-5.

Ruaidhrí Crofton is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House