Manuscript Collection: Turner Family Papers

Fri, 05/19/2017 - 12:21pm -- mfarias

Some collections span across several generations of one family; such is the case with the Turner Family Papers. The oldest item in the collection dates back to 1797 and the last item is from 1846, marking the lives of many different Turners who were connected by their family ties, although just a fraction of them lived in Newport, Rhode Island.


One of the earliest traceable Turners in the family was Dr. William Turner (1712-1754), who was originally from Newport. He married Mehitable Foster (b. 1715) and the couple had four children: Lydia (b. 1746), William (1748-1755), Daniel (1751-1837), and Peter (1751-1822). Dr. Tuner attended Harvard University and then moved to Newark, New Jersey where he practiced medicine as a physician and surgeon. His  youngest son, Peter, graduated from Princeton and also worked as a surgeon, first serving as one in the Continental Army from 1776-1781. He married Eliza Child (1752-1819) on March 21, 1776, just before the start of the war. Together they had nine children, including Mehitable Foster (1780-1853), named after Peter’s mother. After the Revolutionary War, Peter and Eliza moved their family up to Rhode Island, settling in East Greenwich, where Peter ran a surgical practice until his death on February 14, 1822. The item in the collection from 1797 belonged to him. It is a deed for his property in East Greenwich, dated April 11, 1797, which details the exchange of funds and rights between the previous owner of the land, John Peirce (or possibly Prine), and the new owner, Peter Turner.

Deed of Land to Peter Turner, 1797
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

The rest of the collection extends from the line of another of Dr. William Turner’s children: Daniel. Captain Daniel Turner (1750-1837) was the second oldest son of Dr. Turner. He married Sarah Foster (1754-1809) and together the couple had ten children. One of these children was named William, after his grandfather and also practiced medicine. The younger Dr. William Turner (1775-1837) graduated from Princeton, like his uncle Peter, and began to practice medicine at the age of nineteen. He married his first cousin, Peter Turner’s daughter Mehitable Foster, who shared a name with his grandmother. Thus two generations later, another Dr. William Turner married another Mehitable Foster and the couple returned to Newport, Rhode Island with their family, sometime before 1824. They also had a large family of nine children. Pictured below is an attempt by William to balance the accounts of his family. At the top of the page, it reads: “William Turned to Daniel Turner,” likely his father based on the note on the second page, which reads, to the best of my ability to understand: “In making out this account, I have put father’s and Peter’s expenses by guess at [amount unreadable], which I know must be sufficiently mean the amount. The last set of charges for debts paid in the family account are over and above the sum of [amount unreadable] sent me by my brother Peter after leaving NewPort. - William Turner.”


Two pages of the Turner Family accounts by William Turner, 1814
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

Much of the collection consists of the younger Dr. William Turner’s mortgage deeds as he bought and sold land in Newport to various men. Some are accompanied by detailed contracts for the schedule of payment while others are missing the key detail of who he was selling his land to. These contracts, in their various forms, show a man who engaged in assorted business dealings while also serving as an assistant surgeon in the United States Army and on at least one occasion as a Special Judge Advocate for a general court martial held at Fort Wolcott. He died on September 26, 1837 in Newport.


Deed of land from Henry Moore to William Turner, 1827
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

One of the nine children of the second Dr. William Turner and Mehitable Foster was Peter Turner (1803-1871), who shared a name with his great-uncle and probably a score of other Turners as they were particularly fond of reusing names. Peter Turner made his career in the United States Navy, serving for forty-eight years and rising from Midshipman to Commodore. He was named Commodore in 1862 and was stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Asylum, where he remained until his death in 1871. Peter Turner married Sarah Stafford Jones (1826-1875) and together they had five children. The last papers in the collection are the correspondence of Commodore Turner, dated from 1831-1846, before he was promoted and moved to Philadelphia. Many of the letters deal with his deceased father’s unpaid mortgages. A letter from the Bank of Rhode Island in Newport, dated February of 1846, alerts him to his father’s note for $500 overdue by several years (originally due May of 1837). There are several letters in Peter’s own hand discussing these debts and his need to handle the family accounts and estate affairs. He mentions his own mother’s interest in the estate and his plans on moving forward to sell the property. The final letter in the collection, from June 3, 1846, is a short note asking Peter if his mother will sign the deed so that the property can be sold on that day, as was planned.

Letter written by Peter Turner regarding his family's accounts and estate, 1846
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

Letter written to Peter Turner regarding the sale of his estate, 1846
From the Collection of the Redwood Library

Collections that cover this many generations tell an incomplete, but still fascinating story of the way that family members living in different parts of the country are still connected by their family ties, settling accounts, marrying cousins, and dealing with estates when someone has passed on. To see this collection for yourself, you can view the finding aid here: or contact our reference librarians and schedule an appointment to come in.