William Duer papers
Language of Materials
The Duer papers document William Duer's various mercantile and financial dealings, especially in contracts to outfit the Army during the Revolution, and his subsequent speculations leading to his incarceration in debtors' prison. They also include some correspondence to and from other members of the Duer family.
The third son of John and Francis (Frye) Duer, William Duer was born in Devonshire, England, on March 18, 1747. After a brief stint as aide-de-camp to Lord Clive in India and a few years of work on the family plantations in the Caribbean, Duer moved to the colony of New York in 1773. Duer had, on a previous trip to the area, purchased tracts of land on the North (Hudson) River near Albany. The area, known as Fort Miller, served both as Duer's first residence and as the site of his early financial ventures. Duer set up sawmills, warehouses, and a store, and, by 1776, had built a moderately successful mercantile business based primarily on lumber production.
A supporter of independence, Duer was an active member of the New York State Convention and went on to serve in the Continental Congress. Duer's public career ended in 1790 when he resigned from the Treasury Department where he had served as assistant secretary under his friend Alexander Hamilton.
Duer, however, gained much more notoriety from his financial dealings than from his contributions as a public servant. One of his first large-scale projects was to supply Continental troops with food during the Revolutionary War. Duer gained real economic stature, however, in the 1780s with his large land and stock speculations. Prominent among them was the Scioto speculation, through which Duer and his associates secured the right to purchase from the United States a large tract of western lands, which they in turn decided to sell chiefly to capitalists abroad, particularly in France and Holland.
Duer found himself severely overextended in the 1790s and he faced financial ruin when a suit was brought against him by the government regarding two unbalanced charges while he was with the treasury board. Unable to satisfy his creditors, Duer was arrested on March 23, 1792, and sent to debtors' prison. Duer's economic ties were so wide in the area that his financial collapse set off the first financial panic in New York City.
Duer remained in prison until his death on May 7, 1799.
He was married to the former Catherine Alexander, daughter of William Alexander, Lord Stirling, a general in the Revolutionary War. They had one son, William Alexander Duer (1780-1858), who later served as president of Columbia College.
The collection is organized in nineteen series:
Series I. Correspondence - William Duer, 1752-1799, Undated
Series II. Correspondence - William Duer with Tench Tilghman, 1776
Series III. Correspondence - Catherine (Mrs. William) Duer, Undated
Series IV. Correspondence - William Alexander Duer, 1816-1824, Undated
Series V. Chancery Cases, 1790-1803, Undated
Series VI. Legal Documents, 1772-1796, Undated
Series VII. Debtors' Prison, 1795-1798, Undated
Series VIII. Poughkeepsie Distillery Papers, 1782-1783, Undated
Series IX. Bonds, Deeds and Leases, 1763-1799, Undated
Series X. Invoices, 1770-1786, Undated
Series XI. Papers Relating to Robert Snell, 1771-1774, Undated
Series XII. Lumber Papers, 1785-1789
Series XIII. Papers Relating to Duer's Siblings, 1769-1829, Undated
Series XIV. Financial Documents, Speculation, 1782-1795, Undated
Series XV. Army Supply Papers, 1781-1785
Series XVI. Accounts, 1781-1792
Series XVII. Bills, Receipts and Notes, 1752-1798, Undated
Series XVIII. Unclassified personal and family materials
Series XIX. Bound volumes
Material within each series is arranged chronologically unless otherwise noted.
Scope and Contents
The William Duer Papers consist largely of correspondence (in English, with a few letters in French), accounts, contracts, financial documents and legal manuscripts. They are the products of William Duer, his family, and his associates. The bulk relate to financial activities, with far smaller amounts related to Duer's government work, his Revolutionary correspondence, and his personal life.
Parts of the collection have been microfilmed onto four reels; those portions of the collection will be brought to the researcher in microfilm format. In the container list below, folders that have been microfilmed are identified by a three-digit number separated by a hypen (e.g., 1-21), which denotes the reel and folder number where the material can be found. Because the physical collection has been rehoused since it was microfilmed, the physical folder and microfilm folder numbers do not always correspond.
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This collection should be cited as William Duer Papers, MS 182, The New-York Historical Society.