An official website of the United States government.

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you've safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Prince Family Manuscript Collection


When Isaac Newton, the first commissioner of Agriculture, outlined the program for a new Department in 1862, he placed near the top of his list the establishment of an agricultural library. It was his belief that Athe most valuable work would gradually accumulate by exchange, gift and purchase forming a rich mine of knowledge. Since that time the National Agricultural Library (NAL) has assembled a collection of over 1,500,000 volumes inclusive of historic and/or rare books, manuscripts and oral history transcripts.

In addition to the usual collection activities, the library welcomes the opportunity to receive, preserve, and make available manuscript material of historic value including diaries, account books, letters, notebooks, memoirs and reminiscences pertaining to agriculture and its many related fields. These acquired holdings range from single items such as Vini, an 18th century Florentine wine-merchants's account book, to the personal papers of Charles E. North (1869-1961), physician, public health officer and agricultural scientists, and the papers of Julian N. Friant (1888-1939), a Special Assistant to Secretary Henry Wallace who corresponded with such notables as James Farley, Rex Tugwell and Franklin Roosevelt.

The Library, as part of its efforts to meet its growing responsibilities for providing an accurate and convenient approach to its manuscript holdings, is preparing a variety of registers to enhance custodial control as well as to improve access for both the reference staff and the researcher. Special thanks to Donald Pisani and Teresa Gill, graduate students in the College of Library and Information Services at the University of Maryland who together as a partial requirement for successful completion of a manuscript course assisted in the processing of the Papers of the Prince Family inclusive of accessioning, physical arrangement, description of the documents and the development of the register. Also in appreciation to Dorothy Manks, Librarian Emerita, Massachusetts Horticultural Society and Dr. Frank Burke, National Archives and Records Service for their thoughtful suggestions on this finding aid.

Alan Fusonie

Historical Program Librarian

Finding Aid File


Biographical Sketch

Around 1730, Robert Prince began growing plants for his own private use. When William Prince, Sr. (1725-1802) turned his father's personal gardens into a business enterprise some 20 years later, it was the beginning of the first commercial nursery in the United States and the foremost one in the country until the middle of the 19th century.

At the death of William Prince, Sr., the business was divided between his two sons - Benjamin, the elder, and William, Jr. Benjamin kept the property under the name "The Old American Nursery" while William, Jr. purchased a portion of it. During his ownership, the nursery enjoyed its best years. Known throughout the United States and Europe, the establishment enjoyed being the leader over all other American nurseries in plant varieties and species. Among other things, William, Jr. is remembered for his Treatise on Horticulture (1828) which was the first such work written in America. In addition to his horticultural and business activities, he was also a civic- minded individual who helped improve transportation by establishing the first steamboat between Flushing and New York City.

William, Jr. gave the nursery to his son, William Robert (1795-1869), who, in his turn, was a very influential individual in viticulture, improving and distributing the native species as well as writing such works as The Treatise on the Vine (1830) (with the assistance of his father), the two volume Pomological Manual (1831), and the Manual of Roses (1846). During the period when William, Jr. owned the nursery, rival businesses surpassed it in size and importance. He had invested heavily in the propagation of mulberry trees in the 1830's due to the national interest in raising sild worms for silk production. Due to the failure of this venture, the nursery had to be mortgaged to offset losses. He bequeathed the nursery to his son, L. Bradford, who continued it for a few years but then sold it at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Scope and Content Note

The Prince Family Manuscript was deposited in the National Agricultural Library sometime before 1900. The bulk of the material in the Prince Family Manuscript Collection falls within the period from the turn of the 19th century to the beginning of the Civil War.

This material is concerned with the most productive and innovative years of the Prince nurseries which were based in Flushing, Long Island, New York. During these years the nursery was owned and operated by William Prince, Jr., and William Prince, his son. Their Linnaean Gardens developed into experimental grounds for cultivating species discovered on the American frontier and for testing the adaptability of native European and Asian plants and trees.

The correspondence and journals provide an insight into the difficulties of maintaining a large nursery in the early years of the new American nation. They reveal the problems in communication as well as in business transactions experienced by nurseryman and other agricultural experts in America and Europe at the time. Much of the material concerns business dealings between members of the Prince family and those transacting business with them. The remaining portion of the material deals with observations on and experiments with plant life discovered or cultivated in early America. These documents are identified in a subject index following the document list.

Linear feet of shelf space occupied: 5
Approximate number of items: 450

Series Description

By Generation of Ownership

I. William Prince, Sr. Before 1802: Three note and account books (documents 400, 401, 402) cover the period from 1791 to 1795. He established the first commercial nursery in the United States, was one of the early exporters of plants too, and importer of plants from Europe, and was responsible for discovering new fruit varieties. The material concerns business transactions.

II. William Prince, Jr. 1802-1842: The material found in bulk covers the years 1818 and 1823 to 1829 (documents 50 to 80 and 119 to 200). He founded the Linnaean Gardens in 1793 and incorporated them into his father=s establishment by 1802. During his ownership, the Gardens grew in size and fame and were patronized by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Prince introduced the Lombardy poplar as well as naming the Isabella grape. In 1826, he was one of the first importers of the Asiatic Mulberry tree. The material includes correspondence and notebooks dealing with nursery business and horticultural observations.

III. William Robert Prince. 1842-1869: Documents comprise the bulk of the collection, the largest concentration found between 1838 and 1856 (documents 215 to 295). After a brief career as a merchant in New York, he returned to Flushing Landing, Long Island, and was faced with a controversy between his father and uncle over ownership of the family property during which his father died and he became legal owner. Apparently, he was a poor business man, losing much of the nursery in the crash of the market in mulberry trees. In 1849, he traveled to Mexico to observe the plant life. Among his accomplishments, he was considered an authority on grape culture, was responsible for introducing the Chinese potato into the United States and, in his later years, investigated the curative powers of plants. The material herein concerns plant imports, business transactions, and observations on the horticulture of eastern and western America.

IV. L. Bradford Prince. After 1869: The documents are few between 1861 and 1914, the bulk being found in 1869 (documents 303 to 307). L. Bradford Prince, son of William Robert, became a successful politician in the southwest. The documents are condolences on the death of his father, William Robert, and include business transaction records.

Page Content Curated By