James Arnold (1781-1868)
The son of Thomas and Mary (Brown) Arnold, James was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on September 9, 1781. He came to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to work for William Rotch, Jr., a merchant of the city, whose family had established the whaling industry in New England prior to the American Revolution. Arnold later became a partner and married Rotch’s daughter Sarah on October 29, 1807.
Arnold was among a number of successful businessmen from the area who became interested in agriculture and horticulture and he was one of the founders of the New Bedford Horticultural Society in 1847. In 1821 he erected a Federal style brick mansion in New Bedford and established extensive gardens. He opened his private gardens to the public, at the time an unusual and highly regarded act. In 1868, Unitarian minister William J. Potter called the Arnold mansion “a home the most conspicuous among all our homes for culture, for hospitality, for charity.”
James Arnold died in 1868 in New Bedford, outliving both his wife and daughter. Arnold’s will specified that $100,000 of his fortune should be used to advance agriculture and horticulture. The trustees of his will (Francis E. Parker, trust lawyer, managed charities; George Barrell Emerson, teacher, philanthropist; John James Dixwell, merchant, bank president and Jamaica Plain resident) suggested the sum be transferred to the President and Fellows of Harvard College to found an organization devoted to that purpose. In 1872 the Arnold Arboretum was founded on a portion of the land in Jamaica Plain willed to Harvard by Benjamin Bussey.
Although his extensive gardens are gone, the Wamsutta Club, founded in 1866 for the affluent of New Bedford’s community who came from not only the whaling industry, like Arnold, but the new textile industry, purchased the Arnold Mansion in 1919 and added two large wings on the north and south.
Raup, Hugh M. “The Genesis of the Arnold Arboretum.” Bulletin of Popular Information, series 4, Vol. VIII, no. 1. April 26, 1940 [pdf].
Hay, Ida. “George Barrell Emerson and the Establishment of the Arnold Arboretum.” Arnoldia 54(3), Fall 1994 [pdf].
Archives of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Arnold Family Collection [pdf].