Special Collections and University Archives, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Brinley Family Papers
Englishmen and colonial Americans, Loyalists and Patriots, colonial Canadians and American citizens, the members of the Brinley family were a diverse group of characters, ranging from auditors to officers, businessmen, lawyers, legislators, book-collectors, historians, aristocratic ladies and housewives, devoted mothers, husbands, and fathers. A few were slave-holders. Yet through decades of tumultuous social and political change, the family maintained certain distinctive traits and traditions, clinging most notably to their strong ties to England and to the status quo at home. The Brinleys were wealthy, business-minded members of the colonial elite, profoundly Protestant, and most were highly educated and steeped in knowledge. Many became prominent public figures and many more served their respective nations in uniform.
The roots of the Brinley family extend back to England, where the common ancestor of the North American branch of the family, Thomas Brinley, served as Auditor of the Revenue for James I and Charles I. When Thomas' son Francis emigrated to Newport, Rhode Island, in the mid-seventeenth century, the family's wealth and prestige were transplanted with him, and many of the Brinleys or their relatives, such as the Auchmutys or Tyngs, rose to public office or wielded a sword under the colonial government, serving as judges or military officers from the time of King Philip's War to the French and Indian War.
Like many of their fellow colonists, the pre-Revolutionary Brinleys were also profoundly religious. Thomas Brinley helped found King's Chapel in Boston, and its cemetery bears the remains of many of his ancestors and descendants. The Brinleys wrote prayers and religious poetry, raised their children with Protestant ideals, purchased pews, and spared no expense in the education of their children, putting almost all of their sons through Harvard. Great education fostered even greater wealth, and under British rule, the family enjoyed great economic success. Thomas Brinley of Boston was a well-to-do merchant, as was his grandson, Edward. Colonel Francis Brinley opened a prosperous farm in Framingham, bequeathing it to his son Nathaniel. As the colonies grew in size and population, the Brinley's sold off parts of their extensive land-holdings, adding further to their wealth, and marriages with elite mercantile and landowning families such as the Malbones and Cradocks only strengthened their social standing.
Personal prosperity and public service forged a strong British identity in most of the pre-Revolution Brinleys, and with the onset of the American Revolution, they were often seen as patriots of a different feather, suffering accordingly for their loyalty. Brinleys were prominent among the Loyalists who petitioned Governor Thomas Hutchinson and General Thomas Gage, and when the fortunes of the empire turned, some fled to England or Nova Scotia, while others were imprisoned. At home, the Brinleys suffered the confiscation and sale of their properties, with little recompense.
Despite the hardships, the Brinleys who fled were graciously reabsorbed back into English and colonial Canadian society, while those who remained in America recovered their pre-war standing, even while remaining in contact with relatives overseas. In the new United States, the Brinleys continued as their ancestors had, enjoying the wealth and business opportunities afforded them by their religious affiliations, political offices, law practices, Harvard education, and military service. One Brinley became active in political circles in Boston, another assembled one of the grandest private libraries in 19th century America, and yet another served under Secretary of State Daniel Webster. This last Brinley, Francis Brinley, Jr., also continued the grand procession of Brinleys in uniform, serving three times as commander of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company.
Through the devastation of revolution and Civil War and transplantation from continent to continent, the members of the Brinley family kept alive a distinctive Brinley identity. This fact was not lost upon them, as one particular trait extends through three centuries: the need for Brinleys to know their ancestors. Perhaps George Brinley spoke for all of his family when he wrote: "There is an instinctive impulse in the breast of every human being, which prompts us to inquire not about ourselves... but to trace past generations, examine the family ties, and to ascertain from what nation we sprung, and whether our Forefathers held a distinguished rank in society, or were doomed through ages to enjoy a mediocrity."