Forbes House Museum
Updated: Jan 5, 2020
Scotland is not the only location of castles and mansion houses associated with the House of Forbes. The United States can boast the Forbes House Museum, located in Milton, Massachusetts. This was the home of the “Boston Forbeses” who married into the “Boston Brahmins,” the traditional upper class who were generally descendants of the earliest English colonists from the Mayflower and associated with Harvard University and Anglicanism.
This branch of the House of Forbes is descended from William Forbes, 5th Lord of Newe, as noted in the section "Forbes of Deskrie" in Chapter XXIX Cadets of Newe in the House of Forbes. His fourth son, John Forbes, purchased the Estate of Deskrie, a parish of Tarland, probably after his father’s death in 1698. John married Margaret Farquharson of Belenach in 1699 and died in 1739. His son Archibald’s first marriage is not recorded but his marriage to his second wife Agnes Lumsden in Newbigging is recorded. In 1776, Archibald sold Deskrie to Alexander Mitchell, merchant of Aberdeen. Archibald died in 1793. His eldest son was the Reverend John Forbes, who was appointed minister at St. Augustine in East Florida in 1763 and he emigrated the following year. In 1769, he traveled to Boston, where he married Dorothy Murray (1745-1837), daughter of James Murray. The couple returned to St. Augustine and had three children: James Grant Forbes (1769-1825), John Murray Forbes (1771-1831), and Ralph Bennet Forbes (1773 – 1824) Dorothy Murray Forbes eventually returned to Boston with the children. From 1763 to 1783, John Forbes served in a variety of governmental positions, including on Governor's Council and various judgeships, including the position of chief justice. During the American Revolutionary War, John Forbes remained loyal to the English Crown and returned to England in 1783 when Florida was ceded to Spain in the Treaty of Paris.
His youngest son Ralph married Margaret Perkins (1773-1856) and had three sons Thomas Tunno Forbes (1802-1829), Capt. Robert Bennet (Ben) Forbes (1804-1889), and John Murray Forbes (1813-1898). The three brothers built their initial fortunes working with their uncle Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854). Thanks to bequests from his grandfather and father-in-law, Perkins amassed a huge fortune as a slave trader in Haiti, a fur trader from the American Northwest to China, and then a major smuggler of Turkish opium into China when the port of Canton was opened to foreign businesses in 1785. In 1817 at the age of 13, nephew Robert Bennet (Ben) joined the crew on his uncle Thomas' Canton Packet and made his first voyage to China, the first of the three brothers to do so. After more than 10 years at sea, he was promoted captain. When his uncle’s company merged with Russell & Company in 1830, Captain Ben took command of the opium storehouse vessel Lintin. He supervised the repacking of the opium and negotiated trades with drug smugglers. He visited China several times and became the American vice-consul at Canton. His oldest bother Thomas followed him into the business but died in a typhoon in China in 1829.
His younger brother John first joined him in the business but then shifted his efforts to the railroad business. He became president of both the Michigan Central railroad and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad in the 1850s. In 1860, he was an elector for Abraham Lincoln and served as the Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the administration of President Abraham Lincoln. John was elected as a delegate to the Republican conventions of 1876, 1880 and 1884. However, he eventually became displeased with the Republican party and worked successfully to get Democrat Grover Cleveland elected President.
Captain Ben Forbes and John Forbes built the mansion in 1833 for their mother Margaret Perkins Forbes. At first, the house was used only in spring and fall, since the family wintered in Boston and summered in Maine. Margaret shared the residence with her four daughters, Emma Perkins, Margaret Perkins, Mary Abbot, and Cornelia Frances. With the exception of Mary Abbot, none were married, and all remained at the mansion for their lifetimes. In 1871, Captain Ben’s son, James Murray Forbes (1845–1937), came to live at Forbes House with his new wife, Alice Francis Bowditch Forbes (1848–1929), and made considerable renovations to the home. His daughter, Mary Bowditch Forbes (1878–1962) was the last family member to live permanently at the mansion.
In 1962, Mary bequeathed the property to her nephew, Dr. H. A. Crosby Forbes who converted the estate into a museum two years later. Today, the Forbes House Museum is furnished with the family's furniture, art, and American, European, and Old China Trade heirlooms. The museum also contains Mary’s large collection of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia and a replica of Lincoln's birthplace cabin. She wrote, “I am providing this trust as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, in the hope that the opportunity to the public from time to time…to visit the Cabin and see its contents will help to foster a strong and active appreciation of what our nation owes to Abraham Lincoln as a man and as an inspiration to the maintenance of our ideals of citizenship.”
Tours are available twice a day every Thursday, Friday and Saturday throughout the year, excluding special holidays. The museum also offers group tours if reserved at least four weeks in advance. Tours cover the 1870’s kitchen and the first and second floors of the house, and they last about 1 hour. Admission is $10 per person for adults and $8 for seniors (age 62 and over) and students; members and children under age 5 are free. The museum grounds are open to the public free of charge daily from dawn to dusk. For more information, please contact the Forbes House Museum, 215 Adams Street, Milton, Massachusetts 02186, at the website www.forbeshousemuseum.org, via telephone at (617) 696.1815, and via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information:
Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes, edited by his daughter Sarah Forbes Hughes (1899)
Robert Bennet Forbes Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society
Personal Reminiscences: Rambling Recollections Connected with China, by Robert Bennet Forbes (1878)
Letters from China: The Canton-Boston Correspondence of Robert Bennet Forbes, 1838-1840 (Maritime), edited by Phyllis Forbes Kerr