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About William H. Sumner
William Hyslop Sumner was born on July 4, 1780 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, United States. He was the son of Governor Increase Sumner. He graduated from Harvard College in 1799, and practiced law. He served as a general in the Massachusetts militia. Sumner wrote The History of East Boston and died in 1861.
William H. Sumner spent his boyhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts, living in the house on the corner of Washington and Cliff Streets bought by his father, Governor Increase Sumner prior to the American Revolutionary War. After primary school in Roxbury he attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He later attended and graduated from Harvard College in 1799, shortly after the death of his father.
After graduating from college, Sumner entered the law office of district attorney John Davis, gaining admittance to the bar in 1802. He practiced law from 1802 until 1818 when he left the field in order to concentrate on his military duties. From 1808 to 1819 Sumner served in the Massachusetts State Legislature representing the city of Boston. In 1806 and again in 1813 to 1816 he was selected as aide-de-camp to Governor Caleb Strong. He served in the same roll from 1816-1818 to Governor John Brooks. In 1818 Governor Brooks appointed him Adjutant General of the state along with the office of Quartermaster General which he held until he resigned the office in 1834.
War of 1812
Sumner was involved in the state's defenses during the War of 1812. In September 1814 Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong sent Sumner, then a lieutenant colonel in the state militia, to coordinate the defense of Portland in the District of Maine. His task was to maintain 1,900 militia and create a better relationship between the Massachusetts militia and the U.S. Army forces posted there. There were many problems with the early American militia:
"Some of the men were deserting and had to be brought back by force and some officers were protesting against serving under regulars. The militia in Oxford county were even more troublesome...its militia showed little interest in making sacrifices for war. According to Sumner, they were "undisciplined, badly armed, miserably provided and worse commanded." ... Sumner could see no way of implementing a command agreement except by using force, which meant using militia against militia."
In 1826 he served on a board with a young Zachary Taylor to consider improvements in the militia. They recommended that "a complete system of tactics and exercise for cavalry and artillery of the militia" be created. This would organize the US militia who were so disjointed during the War of 1812. Congress however did not approve this plan.
William Sumner's main accomplishment was the development of Noddle's Island, in Boston Harbor, as East Boston, an extension of the City of Boston, beginning in 1833, in partnership with Stephen White and Francis J. Oliver. The East Boston Company was created to conduct the development, and The East Boston Timber Company was created to supply wood from upstate New York to shipbuilders whom the Company hoped to attract to the shores of East Boston.
The East Boston Company, founded on 25 March, 1833, laid out the first planned neighborhood in the city of Boston. Sumner served as its president and later on the executive committee of the company until he retired due to ill health in 1850 at age 70.
He spent many years writing the History of East Boston, a complete account of all of the early activities there.
William H Sumner is also known for being the founder of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. In tribute to his tireless work for East Boston the Sumner Tunnel that runs under Boston Harbor between East Boston and Boston bears his name. Sumner Hill (Jamaica Plain) and Sumner Street (Cambridge) are also named for him.
When he was in Boston Sumner resided at the family house on Mount Vernon Street in Beacon Hill. After resigning his office in 1834 he bought and moved to a large estate in Jamaica Plain.
Four years before his death Sumner was stricken with paralysis and was unable to speak for a time. While he retained his mental faculties to the end, he eventually succumbed to the disease and died in 1861.