Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Sr.

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Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Sr.

Also Known As: "T.H. Perkins"
Birthplace: Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts
Death: January 11, 1854 (89)
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
Place of Burial: Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of James Perkins and Elizabeth Perkins
Husband of Sarah Perkins
Father of Eliza Cabot; Col. Thomas H. "Short-Arm Tom" Perkins, Jr.; Caroline Gardner and Mary Ann Cushing Cary
Brother of Elizabeth "Betsy" Sturgis; Ann Maynard Cushing; James Perkins; Samuel Gardiner Perkins; Margaret Perkins and 1 other

Occupation: China Trader; philanthropist
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Sr.

Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins, or T. H. Perkins was a wealthy Boston merchant and an archetypical Boston Brahmin. Starting with bequests from his grandfather and father-in-law, he amassed a huge fortune. As a young man he was a slave trader in Haiti, a Maritime Fur Trader, trading furs from the American Northwest to China, and then a major smuggler of Turkish opium into China. He was also a philanthropist, an important Boston Federalist, a leader in the cultural life of Boston, and the founding patron of the world-renowned Perkins School for the Blind.

Born in Boston, Colonel Perkins grew up during the American Revolution and, as a boy, witnessed the Boston Massacre of 1770. In 1786 he and his brother James became commission merchants engaged in foreign trade of anything profitable including tea, silk, spices, slaves and opium. A massive fortune resulted from the shipping business with China and from his many investments at home: mining, quarrying, hotels, and the creator of America’s first railway.

Acquaintance with George Washington was a part of Perkins’s experience in state and national politics, which included leadership in the state militia corps. Today he is primarily honored for his philanthropies: the Boston Atheneum, the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Bunker Hill Monument, and the Perkins Institute for the Blind. His affiliation with the First Parish in Brookline betokens his Unitarian faith.

His parents, James Perkins and Elizabeth Peck, had ten children in eighteen years. When Perkins was twelve, he was in the crowd which first heard the Declaration of Independence read to the citizens of Boston. The family had planned to send Perkins to Harvard College, but he had no interest in a college education. In 1779 he began working, and in 1785 when he turned 21 he became legally entitled to a small bequest that had been left to him by his grandfather Thomas Handasyd Peck, a Boston merchant who dealt largely in furs and hats. Until 1793 Perkins engaged in the slave trade at Cap-Haïtien Haiti. In 1785, when China opened the port of Canton to foreign businesses, Perkins became one of the first Boston merchants to engage in the China trade. He sailed on the Astrea to Canton in 1789 with a cargo including ginseng, cheese, lard, wine, and iron. On the trip back it carried tea and silk cloth. In 1815 Perkins and his brother James opened a Mediterranean office to buy Turkish opium for resale in China. Perkins was also a major industrial investor within Massachusetts. He owned the Granite Railway, the first commercial American railroad, which was built to carry granite from Quincy quarries to Charlestown for construction of the Bunker Hill Monument and other city buildings in Boston. He also held significant holdings in the Elliot textile mills in Newton, the mills at Holyoke and Lowell, New England canals and railroads, and lead and iron mines including the Monkton Iron Company in Vermont. In addition, Perkins was politically active in the Federalist Party, serving terms as state senator and representative from 1805–1817. In later years Perkins became a philanthropist. In 1826, he and his brother, James Perkins, contributed half the sum of $30,000 that was needed for an addition to the Boston Athenaeum, and the old Boston Athenaeum Gallery of Art was moved to James Perkins's home. The Perkins School for the Blind, still in existence in Watertown, Massachusetts, was renamed in his honor after he donated his Boston mansion to the financially troubled "Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind" in 1832. He was also a major benefactor to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, McLean Hospital, and helped found the Massachusetts General Hospital. Upon retirement, Perkins built a summer home on Swan Island in the Kennebec River near Richmond, Maine. He helped the island achieve independent municipal status by paying legal fees for its charter and the town was renamed Perkins in gratitude. It is now Perkins Township, a ghost town. Colonel Perkins died on January 11, 1854 in Brookline, Massachusetts, and is buried in the family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Perkins married Sarah "Sally" Elliott (1768-February 25, 1852) on March 25, 1788, in Boston, Massachusetts. They had three children: Colonel Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Jr. ("Short-arm Tom"), whose daughter Louisa married the Boston painter William Morris Hunt;[2] Elizabeth Perkins Cabot (1791–1885); and Caroline Perkins Gardiner (1800–1867). His nephew John Perkins Cushing was active in Perkin's China business for 30 years; the town of Belmont, Massachusetts is named for his estate. His great nephew Charles Callahan Perkins became a well known artist, author and philanthropist like his grandfather James Perkins.

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Thomas Handasyd Perkins, Sr.'s Timeline

December 15, 1764
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts
March 17, 1791
Age 26
October 8, 1796
Age 31
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
Age 35
January 11, 1854
Age 89
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
January 1854
Age 89
Cambridge, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States