Forbes, John Murray

Life Span
    Full name
    John Murray Forbes
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Free State
    No. of Siblings
    No. of Spouses
    No. of Children
    Ralph Bennet Forbes (father), Margaret Perkins Forbes (mother), Sarah Hathaway (wife)
    Relation to Slavery
    White non-slaveholder
    Political Parties

    John Murray Forbes (American National Biography)

    In the decades that bracketed the Civil War, Forbes served as the financial wizard on a team of specialists in western railroading. Attorney Joy and engineer Brooks mastered the legal, political, and technical aspects while Forbes lined up investors, floated securities, and plotted commercial strategies. Forbes's team gathered together four small Illinois lines and in 1856 organized the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q), which became the flagship of their railroad empire in the post-Civil War era. To the west stretched the Hannibal & St. Joseph in Missouri and the Burlington & Missouri River in Iowa--both lines pushing ahead of demand, force-fed on government land grants--which Forbes picked up for the CB&Q to secure feeder traffic from the next tier of states. Forbes hated such defensive investments in hypothetical railroads because they flooded security markets, deranged settlement patterns, and prematurely introduced competition and rate distortions. Nevertheless, he learned to play an aggressive game of competitive railroad building that continued for decades after the Civil War.

    The Civil War tested Forbes's energy and convictions in behalf of American liberty. Ideologically disposed to believe in a free entrepreneurial society, Forbes despised plutocrats as unproductive parasites; accordingly, he saw black slavery as an evil tending to perpetuate an antimodern planter aristocracy that stifled ambition and opportunity for white Americans in the South. In the 1850s Forbes drifted into abolitionist circles, funneling money and arms through the New England Immigrant Aid Society, helping to organize the new Republican party in Massachusetts, and once sheltering the fugitive John Brown.
    John Lauritz Larson, "Forbes, John Murray," American National Biography Online, February 2000,

    John Murray Forbes (Pearson, 1911)

    Forbes's alliance with the young Republican party in this its first presidential campaign, besides separating him from his former associates, the merchant Whigs, gave him, through sympathetic activities, new friends among Abolitionists and Free-Soilers, men outside the pale of Boston conservatism. It is curious and significant to read letters to him from that knight of the radicals, Dr. S. G. Howe, proposing a meeting between himand John Brown; it is still more curious and significant to know that the meeting actually took place. Brown, coming to Forbes's house in Milton, filled a long evening with a recital of the deeds in Kansas that make the word Ossawatomie so memorable, and departed the next morning not without aid. On the following night, says the host in his Reminiscences, with an eye for contrasts, railroad business brought to Milton Hill as an occupant of the same guest-room the pro-slavery governor of Missouri, who had set a price of three thousand dollars on John Brown's head! When the Senate investigation into the Harper's Ferry raid caused a flurry among Massachusetts Abolitionists, Forbes stood by them, at this time becoming fast friends with the radical and philanthropic lawyer, John A. Andrew. His value as an asset to a radical party fighting in a conservative community was publicly recognized in the presidential campaign of 1860 when, being free of his railroad entanglements in Missouri, he allowed his name to be used on the Republican ticket for the position of elector at large.
    Henry Greenleaf Pearson, An American Railroad Builder, John Murray Forbes (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 112-113.

    John Murray Forbes (Notable Americans)

    FORBES, John Murray, merchant, was born in Bordeaux, France, Feb. 23, 1813; son of Ralph Bennet and Margaret (Perkins) Forbes, and grandson of the Rev. John and Dorothy (Murray) Forbes. His father was temporarily engaged in mercantile business in Marseilles and his wife with two children joined him in 1811, having taken passage from Boston in a merchant vessel which was captured and detained by a British man-of-war. Three months after John Murray was bom the family set .sail for Boston, were again captured, put under a prize crew and carried to Corunna, Spain. Sailing thence they were again captured and carried to Portugal and on the third trial they reached Boston in August, 1813. John Murray was educated at the Round Hill school, Northampton, Mass.. where he had as instructors George Bancroft and Joseph G. . Cogswell. He left school to take a position in the counting room of his uncles, James and Thomas H. Perkins, and in 1830 went to China as clerk in the house of Russell & Co. He returned to America in 1833 for the benefit of his health and on Feb. 8, 1834, he was married to Sarah S. Hathaway of New Bedford, Mass. In March, 1834, he returned to Canton, China, and became a partner in the house of Russell & Co. He returned to the United States in 1837 with a fortune gained in trade. He acted as agent lor the Canton house and engaged in business on his own account. In 1861 he used his influence in averting civil war and was appointed a peace commissioner by Governor Andrew. Finding no possibility of securing a peaceful solution to the troubles between the north and south he advised preparation for a long war and aided Governor Andrew in recruiting and equipping the troops from Massachusetts. He advised the issue of bonds and favored making them payable after a long term of years as a permanent loan and not for a short term as a passing emergency. He also advised transporting the first troops sent to Washington by boat rather tlian take the risk of passing through the border states on the railroad. He was sent to England by the government to try and prevent the fitting out of ironclad rams. He was largely interested in western railroads from 1846, and was a director of the most important railroads having a terminus at Chicago. He was a presidential elector in I860, 1868 and 1872, and a personal friend of President Grant. He supported the candidacy of Grover Cleveland in 1884 and was an advocate of free ships to sail under the American flag. He had a home at Milton, Mass., and as a summer home owned Naushon island off the southern coast of Massachusetts, which he made a model American estate. Mr. Forbes died at Milton, Mass., Oct. 12, 1898.
    Rossiter Johnson, ed., "Forbes, John Murray," The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, vol. 4 (Boston: The Biographical Society, 1904).
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Pearson, Henry Greenleaf. An American Railroad Builder, John Murray Forbes. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "Forbes, John Murray," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,