Thomas Hancock had two nephews. John Hancock was the one with the outsized signature on the Declaration of Independence. Ebenezer Hancock was John’s younger brother.
While they were just boys in Braintree, John and Ebenezer’s father died. Uncle Thomas adopted John, four years Ebenezer’s senior, to ease the financial burden on their mother.
Thomas Hancock was, of course, the money in the family. An experienced trader and wholesaler with connections around the world, he took John under his wing. Uncle Thomas sent him to Harvard and trained him for business.
Once he launched John into business, Thomas turned some attention toward Ebenezer. The young man planned to enter the ministry. But Thomas invited 18-year-old Ebenezer to Boston and gave him a taste of working in his firm.
Older brother John liked the fact that Uncle Thomas steered his brother toward business.
“I am glad to find that my brother’s conduct is so pleasing to my Uncle,” wrote John Hancock in a letter. “[C]lergymen have not the deference paid to them nor are they supported as they deserve, which is but poor encouragement to a young fellow.” He well knew the fortunes of ministers. His father had been one and his mother married another.
Ebenezer did please Thomas Hancock, but that didn’t help him all that much. According to legal tradition in 1760, the bulk of a family estate went to the firstborn son of each generation.
The practice would soon end in the United States after the American Revolution. But Thomas Hancock, who died in 1764, willed John the bulk of his fortune–his warehouses and properties in Massachusetts as well as his cash. Nevertheless, he staked Ebenezer to a start in business with a small amount of cash and several thousand acres of land in Maine. The results were less than stellar.
A Less-Than-Successful Career
London School of Economics Professor W.T. Baxter took a dive into Hancock’s papers to explore the less-than-successful career of Ebenezer Hancock in his 1951 research paper, A Colonial Bankrupt: Ebenezer Hancock, 1741-1819.
Ebenezer soon launched himself on his own, leaving the firm that now belonged to his brother. He attempted to set himself up as an importer and wholesaler to smaller stores around New England – essentially, John’s business. John supported his brother, sending letters to his suppliers urging them to do business with him and his new partner Edward Blanchard.
The new firm of Blanchard and Hancock also decided to underwrite a shipping venture. Thomas Hancock made a good deal of his fortune by launching ships abroad carrying New England wares. They would make their way north to Canada, unload goods there and then proceed to Europe or the Caribbean, buying and selling to bring back the most profit.
Blanchard and Hancock bought a half-share of the ship Neptune and sent it on its way, laden with New England livestock, meat and farm goods. In Newfoundland it offloaded its contents in return for cod, then crossed to England and sold off the cod. The Neptune then went on to Portugal to take on a load of salt and returned to Boston.
This first voyage produced a modest profit and the Neptune launched on the ocean once more. This journey proved disastrous. The market in Canada had weakened and the ports were full of competing New England vessels. Blanchard and Hancock sold the cargo for a slim profit.
Ill winds, storms and poor prospects kept the vessel at sea far longer than planned. At one point in February of 1768 the captain nearly abandoned ship when it got locked in ice. Finally the Neptune headed to the Caribbean, stuffed with cod from Canada.
For weeks the poor captain tried to unload his cargo. In one instance he thought he had it sold only to find the harbor suddenly swollen with ships offering better cod at lower prices. In the end, he unloaded the cod at a loss.
Three years after launch, English creditors were sending dunning letters to Blanchard and Hancock. Soon some of Ebenezer’s trading partners were shipping his orders of goods to John Hancock’s warehouses. The wholesalers thought that if John Hancock accepted delivery, he would have to pay for the goods if his brother Ebenezer would not.
By 1768 John Hancock was warning his suppliers not to send Ebenezer’s orders to his warehouse; he would not pay for them. Meanwhile, John had his own problems. British officials had accused him of smuggling wine into Boston without paying duties.
With the British pressing John Hancock, Ebenezer’s firm folded. While John paid some of his debts (those to suppliers that John relied on), many of Ebenezer’s creditors lost out.
For the next several years Ebenezer would struggle as a small-time shopkeeper, importing household goods from England. He also bought imports from John and sold them retail, with John keeping a tight leash on his brother.
During the American Revolution, John helped his brother again by getting him a job as deputy paymaster. Soldiers would queue up to get their pay at Ebenezer’s store at 10 Marshall St. in Boston.
If he was jealous of John, Ebenezer would get some satisfaction. He outlived his sometimes imperious brother by more than 25 years. When John died without a will in 1783, Ebenezer inherited one-third of his estate. And while John’s mansion on Beacon Hill was sold to the state and demolished, Ebenezer’s storefront and home still stands. The house was bought and restored by a law firm in 1976.
This story about Ebenezer Hancock was updated in 2022.