John Murray Forbes

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John Murray Forbes
John Murray Forbes (1813–1898), c. 1851.png
Crayon portrait by Seth Wells Cheney, c. 1851
Born(1813-02-23)February 23, 1813
Bordeaux, France
DiedOctober 12, 1898(1898-10-12) (aged 85)
EducationPhillips Academy
Round Hill School
OccupationRailroad magnate, merchant, financier
Spouse(s)Sarah Hathaway
Children6, including William, John
RelativesRobert Bennet Forbes (brother)
Francis B. Forbes (cousin)
John Murray Forbes (uncle)
Thomas H. Perkins (uncle)
Signature of John Murray Forbes (1813–1898).png

John Murray Forbes (February 23, 1813 – October 12, 1898) was an American railroad magnate, merchant, philanthropist and abolitionist. He was president of both the Michigan Central railroad and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in the 1850s. He kept doing business with Russell & Company.[1]

Early life[edit]

Forbes was born on February 23, 1813, in Bordeaux, France.[1] His father, Ralph Bennett Forbes, was a member of the Forbes family, descended from Scottish immigrants who attempted unsuccessfully to start a trade from Bordeaux.[1] His mother, Margaret Perkins, was a member of the Boston Brahmin Perkins family merchant dynasty involved in the China trade. Among his siblings was older brother was Robert Bennet Forbes, sea captain and China merchant.[2]

His paternal uncle was John Murray Forbes, lawyer and diplomat, and his maternal uncle was merchant Thomas Handasyd Perkins. Among his cousins was the botanist Francis Blackwell Forbes.[2]

In 1814, his parents moved back to the Captain Robert Bennet Forbes House in Milton, Massachusetts. Forbes attended school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, then at Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1823 to 1828.


Forbes was one of three brothers sent by their uncle to Canton, China, and achieved some financial success during a short time spent trading in Canton trading in opium. However, unlike his brother Robert, who devoted himself to the China trade, Forbes returned to Boston and became an early railroad investor and landowner.

As with Jay Gould and E. H. Harriman, Forbes was an important figure in the building of America's railroad system. From March 28, 1846, through 1855, he was president of Michigan Central Railroad, and he was a director and president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, he helped with the growth of the American Middle West.[3] In addition, he founded J.M. Forbes & Co., an investment firm in Boston in 1838.[1]

In 1860, he was an elector for Abraham Lincoln. He served as the Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the administration of President Abraham Lincoln.[4] Staunchly pro-Union, he is given credit for founding the New England Loyal Publication Society in early 1863 (Smith 1948).[5] After the Civil War, Forbes was elected as a 3rd Class (honorary) Companion of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.[2]

Forbes was a delegate to the Republican conventions of 1876, 1880 and 1884, he eventually became displeased with the Republican party and worked successfully to get Democrat Grover Cleveland elected president.


He supplied money and weapons to New Englanders to fight slavery in Kansas and in 1859 entertained John Brown.

Forbes's many philanthropic activities included the re-establishment of Milton Academy, a preparatory school south of Boston, Massachusetts in 1884.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Forbes at 68

Forbes married Sarah Swain Hathaway (1813–1900). They resided in Milton, Massachusetts, and summered on Naushon Island in Dukes County, Massachusetts.[4] They had two sons and four daughters:[7]

Forbes died of pneumonia on October 12, 1898, in Milton, Massachusetts.[4]


His cousin Francis Blackwell Forbes (1839–1908) is the great-grandfather of 2004 U.S. Democratic presidential candidate John Forbes Kerry. His 4x great-grandson is Jonathan Meath, a renowned Emmy award-winning television producer.[10]


In the September 1899 issue of Atlantic magazine, Edward Waldo Emerson (Ralph Waldo Emerson's son), published Forbes' biography. The Emerson and Forbes families were close as Forbes' son, William, married Ralph's daughter, Edith Emerson. In Letters and Social Aims, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of Forbes:

"Never was such force, good meaning, good sense, good action, combined with such domestic lovely behavior, such modesty and persistent preference for others. Wherever he moved he was the benefactor... How little this man suspects, with his sympathy for men and his respect for lettered and scientific people, that he is not likely, in any company, to meet a man superior to himself," and "I think this is a good country that can bear such a creature as he."[11]

The small community of Forbes, Missouri, is named for him.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d "History of J.M. Forbes & Co". J.M. Forbes & Co. Retrieved March 24, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c Smith, George Winston. "Broadsides for Freedom: Civil War Propaganda in New England." The New England Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3. (Sep., 1948), pp. 291–312.
  3. ^ Pearson, Henry. An American Railroad Builder: John Murray Forbes, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1911.
  4. ^ a b c d "John Murray Forbes Is Dead. Wealthy New Englander Passes Away At Milton, Mass". Chicago Inter Ocean. Boston, Massachusetts. October 13, 1898. p. 5. Retrieved March 24, 2022 – via open access
  5. ^ Historical Note: In 1863, John Murray Forbes, served as a 'confidential agent' of Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, in Paris, France. Source: Office of Naval Records and Library, Record Group 45, indicating a 'gift of personal papers'. Citation: "The Union", A Guide to Federal Archives Relating to the Civil War, 1986, edited by K.W. Munden and H. P. Beers, 452.
  6. ^ Hughes (editor), Sarah Forbes.Life and Recollections of John Murray Forbes, Two Volumes, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1899.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Edith Emerson Forbes and William Hathaway Forbes Papers and Additions, 1827-1969". Massachusetts Historical Society. Retrieved July 19, 2018.
  8. ^ "William Hathaway Forbes". The Norfolk Virginian. October 24, 1897. p. 10. Retrieved March 24, 2022 – via open access
  9. ^ Pier, Arthur. Forbes: Telephone Pioneer, 1953.
  10. ^ "Mary Stewart Hewitt". Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. January 10, 2010. Archived from the original on February 21, 2010. Retrieved November 14, 2010. She is survived by her husband, Peter M. Hewitt; two daughters, Margaret F. Meath of Lorton, Va., and Sarah M. Tibbetts of Scituate, Mass.; two sons, James S. Huntington-Meath of Chapel Hill, N.C., and Jonathan G. Meath of Cambridge, Mass.
  11. ^ White, John H. Jr. (Spring 1986). "America's Most Noteworthy Railroaders". Railroad History. 154: 9–15. ISSN 0090-7847. JSTOR 43523785. OCLC 1785797.
  12. ^ Eaton, David Wolfe (1916). How Missouri Counties, Towns and Streams Were Named. The State Historical Society of Missouri. p. 174.

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