What was behind a great benefactor’s fortune

Princeton benefactor Moses Taylor Pyne in conversation at Drumthwacket, which he purchased in 1893. Today it is the official residence of the governor of New Jersey.
Collection of the Historical Society of Princeton

When the heat of the first summer of the 20th century settled over campus, a 45-year-old New York lawyer drafted a check for the ceiling fans that would soon turn overhead in the new wing of the Chancellor Green library. The payment of $37 that offered relief to the students was by far one of the smallest contributions that Moses Taylor Pyne, Class of 1877, made to his beloved alma mater. Since joining the Board of Trustees 16 years earlier, the lawyer had contributed anonymous donations with such frequency that when he died in 1921, obituary writers dared not even venture an estimate.

Indeed, by that summer of 1900, Pyne’s support for the new library stacks adjacent to Chancellor Green had accrued to a sum that would alone be worth nearly $14 million today. During his tenure as trustee, Pyne’s financial contributions subsidized not only the new library, but also the construction of two undergraduate dormitories on Nassau Street, a slew of new faculty and graduate housing, and endowments for initiatives ranging from a history seminar to a professorship. Today, the Pyne family name graces some of the most iconic buildings on campus, as well as the résumés of celebrated graduates who have received the Pyne Prize, Princeton’s highest undergraduate honor.

Despite the prominence of Pyne’s financial support to Princeton, the complex roots of that support have remained largely out of view. Pyne’s fortune is most often explained with broad references to either his success as a commercial lawyer in New York or his inheritance of a large estate from his grandfather, Moses Taylor, usually described in his capacity as a successful merchant and founding president of a New York bank.

A return to the leather-bound account book in which Pyne or his clerk inscribed the payments for the library fans that July of 1900, however, reveals the beginnings of a more complicated story. These records show that Pyne’s payments stemmed directly from an estate whose earliest foundations lay not simply in the financial industry of New York, but in the daily work of carrying the produce of the continent’s largest sugar plantations to the markets of the world.

During his tenure as trustee, Pyne’s financial contributions subsidized not only the new library, but also the construction of two undergraduate dormitories on Nassau Street, a slew of new faculty and graduate housing, and endowments for initiatives ranging from a history seminar to a professorship.

Those foundations began to be constructed in the early spring of 1832, in a Manhattan counting house up the road from the city’s bustling wharves. That March, Pyne’s grandfather — 23-year-old Moses Taylor — drafted a handwritten circular announcing the launch of a new commission firm at 44 South St. The letter was succinct and to the point. For a percentage of the profits, Moses Taylor and Co. would transport and sell the produce of the continent’s richest soils to the markets of the world.

Over the next four decades, as Taylor’s son-in-law Percy Rivington Pyne took over the firm’s day-to-day management, the fledgling business grew to become one of the most successful firms in the global sugar trade. By the eve of the Civil War, the firm had secured control of nearly one-fifth of the commercial exchanges between Cuba, the world’s largest sugar exporter, and the United States. In doing so, it created the foundations of an estate whose roots lay inextricably entangled with the rise of the largest sugar plantations in North America, fueled by the labor of the enslaved.

From the outset, the geographic scope of the firm’s shipping business made clear that neither Taylor nor his son-in-law had any aversion to carrying the produce harvested by the enslaved. Like many ship owners in New York starting out in the commission business in the 1830s, Taylor originally cast a broad net, offering to carry the produce of plantations that ran along the full length of the southern Atlantic Coast and the Gulf Coast, from the rice of the Carolinas to the cotton of the Mississippi Delta. Taylor’s incoming correspondence in the opening decade of business teemed with letters and reports listing the most current prices of produce from Charleston to Savannah to New Orleans.

By the mid-1830s, the firm had focused its shipping enterprise on a zone of production that would become the last great bastion of slavery in North America: the island of Cuba, where newly constructed railroads promised a route into the less-depleted interior and where the recently enacted laws of neighboring islands abolishing slave labor did not apply.

READ MORE from PAW’s special issue on Princeton and Slavery

For centuries, the great slave ships had arrived from the coast of Africa in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, each laden with chained men and a handful of women to work the fields on the archipelago of small islands. The English called the region by its produce: the “Sugar Islands.” By the eve of the American Revolution in 1774, this archipelago had become one of the densest slave societies in the Americas.

Beginning in the early 1800s, however, the fleet of slave ships that arrived from Africa had begun to sail past these smaller islands. Instead, they converged on the ports of Cuba: a place where the slave traders could still find a welcome market for their cargos and where, for the first time, in 1837, iron rails leading out from Havana along the old cart roads into the deep valleys of the interior promised the conquest of some of the most fertile soils in the hemisphere.

Eager to capitalize on the opening of this last sugar frontier, under Percy Pyne’s management, Moses Taylor and Co. began to construct a portfolio of partnerships with some of the island’s most powerful planters — some of whom were engaged in the slave trade itself.

One of the first and most prominent members of the firm’s network was the Havana-based firm of Drake Brothers, said to be responsible for two-thirds of all sugar exported off the island. Although the business was primarily a mercantile firm, its head, Carlos Drake, proudly introduced himself as “... a proprietor ... of a sugar plantation” with some 400 slaves. Other key partners in the portfolio included Tomás Terry, a planter with so much sugar to his name he did not even always know how much of it was held in Moses Taylor’s warehouse. Terry — who reportedly had made his initial fortune buying sick slaves and then reselling them for profit — first began doing business with Moses Taylor as early as 1838. By 1865, Terry was consigning more than $1 million worth of sugar and molasses to the firm on an annual basis, from his property holdings in Cuba that grew to include seven of the largest plantations on the island. Indeed, by the time of the American Civil War, the firm had built a network that encompassed at least 24 estates on the island and that profited directly from the labor of thousands of enslaved men and women.

As the ships of Moses Taylor and Co. sailed for the island with ever-increasing frequency, so too did an ever-growing number of ships arrive in Havana from Africa, carrying hundreds of chained men and women who had been sold into slavery. Within the first decade of the first arrival of Taylor’s fleets, 180,000 enslaved people had been brought to the island to work the booming plantation economy.

Those who visited the new estates of the interior returned with stories recounting the horrors they had witnessed. Nine years after Moses Taylor and Co. opened for business, for example, one abolitionist declared the conditions on the island to be “more destructive to human life ... than in any other slave-holding country on the face of the habitable globe.” Later visitors would remember the bloodhounds who lay in wait at the gates of the estates. Slaves who survived recalled the endless work of turning the forests of cane into sugar, moving as if imprisoned in a state of half-consciousness, harvesting the sugar soon to be sent down to the docks where the cargo ships lay waiting.

The firm’s connection to slave labor was not limited to these formal transactions of carrying the produce of the plantations to market. Increasingly, Moses Taylor and Co. began to offer financial services to the island’s planters, investing the profits from their sugar estates in the United States’ growing number of industries and corporations. In November of 1851, for example, the firm purchased 120 shares of a coal company in Pennsylvania on behalf of Tomás Terry. By 1872, the firm had invested almost $3 million in American securities on behalf of Cuban planters.

The continuous stream of handwritten letters that arrived from the island in the firm’s Manhattan offices, moreover, suggests that beneath these financial transactions lay a series of intimate and long-standing relationships, particularly between the planters and Percy Pyne, who undertook painstaking efforts to learn Spanish. In 1864, for example, the wealthy planter Ramón Fernández Criado, who owned the Ingenio Neda estate and nearly 400 slaves, sought Pyne’s help in resolving a sensitive matter. As he explained in his letter, he had decided to write to Pyne “and not to Moses Taylor because as you know Spanish, it is not necessary for an interpreter to enter into this business, which is very confidential and especially entrusted to you for my protection.”

This level of intimacy appears in the nature of the requests that Pyne fielded from the island, ranging from requests for help with urgently needed financial loans to hosting friends who were planning to visit New York. The planter F.G. Rolando wrote to request the firm’s help in securing machinery for his plantation; nearly 20 years later, the planter’s widow, Mariana Rolando, wrote to request a loan, to be repaid in sugar.

Indeed, amid the firm’s records, one finds the will of a planter named Lorenzo Jay dated 1866 — the year after Congress ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States. In neat cursive, the will lists both the 220 slaves who worked on Jay’s plantation at the time of his death, as well as a statement of the $322,435 he had on account with Moses Taylor and Co.

READ MORE essays at slavery.princeton.edu

On the strength of these networks, Taylor accumulated one of the largest fortunes in the country. By the autumn of 1882, when the estate lawyers assembled in an office in Manhattan to take stock of the recently deceased man’s estate, they calculated his assets at a sum worth the equivalent today of $750 million. And there, amid the paperwork listing the names of the heirs to the estate and executors of the trust was that of Taylor’s grandson: a young lawyer named Moses Taylor Pyne, who at the age of 27 found himself as the guardian of a fortune that could transform a small college in New Jersey into one of the world’s leading universities. 

This article was adapted from a longer essay that can be found at https://slavery.princeton.edu.

Legal historian Maeve Glass *16 is an academic fellow at Columbia Law School.