Alexander, Mary Spratt Provoost 1693–1760

Mary Spratt Provoost Alexander entered life as the daughter of an immigrant and became a leading merchant, prominent citizen, and one of the most influential women of the colonial period. As she grew up in New York City, one of the main centers of colonial commerce, it was natural that, later in life, she herself would become a merchant. Dutch women colonists had a tradition of merchandising and trade, even though women in Europe and the other North American colonies generally were not involved in business; in some cases, they were not even allowed to own property. Born on April 17, 1693, Mary was the daughter of John Spratt, a Scottish immigrant merchant who rose to become an alderman for the City of New York, and Maria DePeyster, an heiress of a prominent Dutch family of goldsmiths, merchants, and politicians. When Spratt died in 1697, his widow remarried, this time to David Provoost, who had an established reputation as both a merchant and a smuggler. After the death of her mother in 1700, Mary and her siblings acquired a sizable inheritance. In 1711, she married Samuel Provoost, her stepfather’s younger brother who also was an importer, and they had three children together. Mary invested much of her inheritance in her husband’s enterprises and acted as his business partner. What she accomplished was to build a trading empire of stores throughout New York City for which it was said she imported so many goods that most ships arriving in New York port had a consignment for her. Sometime in 1719, or perhaps early 1720, Samuel Provoost died. Mary immediately assumed full control of all of his business affairs. With her increased fortune and reputation as a successful merchant, she married again in 1721. Her new husband, James Alexander, was a direct descendant of the Scottish Earls of Stirling, as well as one of New York’s leading attorneys and politicians. With her second husband, Mary Alexander had seven more children, of whom five lived to adulthood. Perhaps the most prominent of her children was her son William Alexander, who later assumed the title Lord Stirling. He served as an aide and secretary to General William Shirley during the French and Indian War and later served as a successful general under George Washington during the American Revolution. For the rest of her life, Mary continued to raise her family, assist them with their business affairs, and directly manage the Provoost mercantile business. She sold goods in her own store, which she had built, along with a row of counting house offices, in front of her mansion on Broad Street. Her imported inventory was frequently augmented by goods that her husband received as payment for his legal services. The Alexander’s store and home quickly became a meeting spot and salon for many of New York’s elite politicians and businessmen, and Mary was reputed to be an informal adviser to many of them, including Andrew Hamilton, the attorney for John Peter Zenger. The stock of goods within the Provoost system of stores was so extensive that during the French and Indian War, they supplied General William Shirley’s Fort Niagara expedition with provisions. Mary Alexander died on April 18, 1760, in New York City. Both she and her husband James are buried in the Trinity Church cemetery in lower Manhattan. Arthur E. Chapman See also: Merchants; Trade; Widows and Widowers. Bibliography James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607 1950; a Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. Van Rensselaer, John King. The Goede Vrouw of Mana-ha-ta at Home and in Society, 1609 1760. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898. The Top 5 Best Blogs on Anna Faith Carlson The Top 5 Best Blogs on Anna Faith Carlson The Project Gutenberg eBook of Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’ (Vol. 1), by …

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