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James Hartwell Williams (1809–1881)

by Annette Potts

This article was published:

James Hartwell Williams (1809-1881), consul and merchant, was born on 22 June 1809 at Augusta, Maine, United States of America, only son of Hartwell Williams, master mariner, and his wife Sarah, née Bridge. After the death of his father he was cared for by his uncle Reuel Williams, an influential lawyer and United States senator in 1837-43; at 14 he began his mercantile career, and late in 1834 left Boston for Sydney to act as a commission agent. In 1836 his uncle secured his appointment as the first United States consul to an Australian colony. His exequatur from the British government was delayed, partly due to a change in American presidents, and he returned from a visit to the United States on 15 January 1839 in the Tartar to open the consulate.

Williams's duties involved recording American shipping in Australian waters for Washington and acting as arbitrator in disputes on American ships. In 1842 he pointed out to the British government the advantages to Sydney trade if American whalers could bring in oil free of duty. Conditions which made it costly for foreign vessels to refit and victual in Sydney were alleviated. With the discovery of gold in California in 1848 relations were strained by the treatment of some Australians at the hands of the Committee of Vigilance in San Francisco; when Williams denounced the 'wholesale slanders of the Sydney people by the California press', he was regarded by some of his countrymen as 'to all interests and purposes an Australian'.

Connexions with the Sydney Banking Co. and James Kenworthy & Co. ended in the depressed 1840s but Williams's fortunes revived after he joined the Boston firm of Wilkinson Bros & Co., at whose premises in Macquarie Place the American consulate was housed in 1850. Active in the Sydney community, he represented his country on important social occasions in a manner applauded in the press; by 1844 he was a member of the Australian Club. On 10 December 1850 he married Helen Mary, daughter of Prosper de Mestre, at Terara on the Shoalhaven and spent much time there. The American Whigs supplanted him as consul with Frederick W. Clarke for about six months in 1853-54, the ascent of a Democrat to the American presidency resulting in his reinstatement. In 1857 he bought 250 certified merino ewes and 14 rams from James Macarthur for shipment to California on his own behalf.

On 1 January 1858 Williams resigned: recent Acts of congress had modified consular powers, colonial courts were intervening too much in American shipboard disputes and the cost of the office was not being met. Unlike James M. Tarleton, consul in Melbourne from 1854, he was unpaid. By 1860 Wilkinson Bros & Co. had set up steam sawmills in Liverpool Street, as well as the 'American Warehouse' in Hunter Street; on 11 November 1861 he was naturalized as he was 'desirous of holding land and ships in his own name'. His partnership with W. H. Wilkinson declared insolvent in 1866, by 1870 he was trading as J. H. Williams & Co. In 1874 he took over the United States commercial agency in Sydney after H. H. Hall had decamped. Down-graded for a number of years due to the stagnant state of Australian-American trade, the agency became a consulate again in 1876. According to Williams, for his naturalization he 'was not required to foreswear allegiance to my own Government but simply to render allegiance to the Queen'.

He died in office of heart disease on 31 December 1881 at St Leonards, Sydney; buried in the local Anglican cemetery, he was survived by his wife and two sons. The Sydney Morning Herald observed that he had 'oratorial powers of no mean order' and 'considerable literary attainments'. Intestate, his personalty was valued at £81.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. North, The History of Augusta (Augusta, Maine, 1870)
  • Select Committee on Intemperance, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1854, 2, 53, 1855, 2, 1081
  • E. D. & A. Potts, ‘The first American consul to the Australian colonies. Some unpublished letters of James Hartwell Williams’, JRAHS, 61 (1975)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Jan 1882
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Reuel Williams papers (Maine Historical Society)
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sydney consular dispatches, applications and recommendations for office (U.S. National Archives & Records Administration).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Annette Potts, 'Williams, James Hartwell (1809–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1809
Augusta, Maine, United States of America


31 December, 1881 (aged 72)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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