Maine: An Encyclopedia
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Bowdoin, James II

(1726-1790) was an investor in the Kennebec Purchase Company, which owned substantial property in Maine. His son, James III, arranged for the establishment of Bowdoin College, naming it for his father, James II. He owned several thousand acres in Bowdoinham at his death.

Born in Boston on August 7, 1726, he was well placed in Boston society as the youngest son of James Bowdoin I, one of the richest merchants in town. His biographer, Gordon Kershaw, characterizes him as an “intellectual, scientist, humanitarian, moderate revolutionist, governor, and, above all, child of the Enlightenment.” (p.2)

In 1753 he was first elected to the Massachusetts General Court and in 1757 he was elected to the Council where he remained until 1769. In the “House” of the General Court, he gained early recognition and influence. He supported Governor Shirley’s preparations for the French and Indian War and helped the recently displaced Acadians deported to Massachusetts.

As a member of the Council, the “upper house” selected by the General Court subject to approval of the Governor, Bowdoin began his service as a moderate but by 1774 he was a leader of the opposition to royal rule, in fact, a revolutionary.

An active patriot, he rose in political stature but generated political enemies, the greatest of whom was John Hancock. Over Hancock’s opposition, Bowdoin was elected governor in 1785.

As a result of his inheritance from his father, he owned a substantial amount of land in both Massachusetts and Maine, including a portion of the Kennebec Purchase. By 1764 he, and Dr. Sylvester Gardiner, were the two main forces behind the Kennebec Purchase Company.

“In spite of many setbacks, including costly lawsuits waged against competing land companies in the region, the continuing expense of development which included the building of forts Frankfort and Western and the Pownalborough Court House, as well as the hazards of Indian attacks during the French and Indian War, the Kennebeck Purchase Company continued its expansion, establishing no less than a dozen towns in the region.” (Kershaw, p. 68)

Bowdoin, a graduate of Harvard, supported that institution and general scientific inquiry. He collaborated with Benjamin Franklin on several projects and contributed to Franklin’s second scientific treatise. He also amassed a substantial library of scientific and historical materials.

After Bowdoin’s death on November 6, 1790, his son, James Bowdoin III, got the Massachusetts General Court to pass a bill incorporating Bowdoin College in 1794. He gave $1,000 and 1,000 acres of Maine land to the College, named for his father, James Bowdoin II.

Additional resources

Jenks, William. An Eulogy Illustrative of the Life and Commemorative of the Beneficence of the late Hon. James Esquire: with notices of the his family, pronounced in Brunswick, (Maine) at the request of the trustees and overseers of Bowdoin College on the annual commencement, Sept. 2d, 1812. Boston, MA. [The College] 1812. (Printed by John Eliot,jun.)

Kershaw, Gordon E. James Bowdoin II: Patriot and Man of the Enlightenment. Brunswick, Me. Bowdoin College. 1976.

Manuel, Frank Edward. James Bowdoin and the Patriot Philosophers. Philadelphia. American Philosophical Society. 2004.

Volz, Robert L. Governor Bowdoin & his Family; a guide to an exhibition and a catalogue. Brunswick, Me. Bowdoin College. 1969.

Walett, Francis G. James Bowdoin and the Massachusetts Council. 1948. (Thesis (Ph. D.)–Boston University) [University of Maine, Raymond H. Fogler Library, Special Collections]

Winthrop, Robert C. An address delivered before the Maine Historical Society: at Bowdoin College, on the afternoon of the annual commencement, September 5, 1849. Boston, Ma. Ticknor, Reed, and Fields. 1849.

Winthrop, Robert C. Washington, Bowdoin, and Franklin, as Portrayed in Occasional Addresses. Boston, MA. Little, Brown, and Company. 1876.

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