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R.I. Union Bank, Newport

Established in 1804 with a capital of $150,000, the Rhode Island Union Bank was Newport’s fourth bank. It was formed after complaints that the other institutions in town refused to lend money on the security of farm land. According to historian Howard Kemble Stokes, the charter of the bank prohibited it from owning ships or vessels or being involved in the trading or selling of goods. In many ways, this institution could be referred to as a “country bank,” one created to service the needs of the agricultural community as opposed to mercantile interests. (For more information, see S.K. Whitfield, “Rhode Island’s ‘Country’ National Banks,” Paper Money, Vol. XVI, No. 5, Whole No. 71, September/October 1977, p. 293.)

The first president of the bank was Samuel Elam (1750-1813), who had also founded the Newport Insurance Company in 1799. Elam was born in Leeds, England and settled in Rhode Island after the death of his uncle Gervais Elam. Samuel inherited 50 acres on the Sakonnet River in Portsmouth, which he later expanded into a 400-acre estate. Named “Vaucluse” after the village in France where medieval Italian humanist Petrarch spent much of his time, the home and grounds cost $80,000 to construct.

As one contemporary account noted, Elam’s opulent lifestyle stood in stark contrast to his Quaker beliefs:

“I have pleasant recollections of Mr. Elam, and of his weekly visit to the town in an English phaeton, very lofty, and of yellow color, to attend the directors’ meeting of the Rhode-Island Union Bank, of which he was president, I believe, from its incorporation until his death, Oct. 24, 1813. His dress was that of the ‘old English gentleman,’ of the Quaker type. He never wore any other than a drab-colored coat and small clothes, and white satin vest. He gave princely entertainments at his country seat, which he named Vaucluse, situated off the East Road, on the island, about five or six miles from Newport. His library, from its superior excellence, attracted much notice. No one was ever more ready to benefit a poor student, by loan of his best books, than Mr. Elam; but he exacted their punctual return, and that they should be entirely free from blemish. He was fond of having young persons at his hospitable board, whom he relieved from all needless constraint, by a most cheerful and encouraging manner. His tumblers and wineglasses were highly ornamented, and bore his initials.” — George G. Channing, Early Recollections of Newport, R. I., From the Year 1793 to 1811. Boston: Nichols and Noyes, 1868.

Between 1817 and 1818, noted architect Asher Benjamin built a federal style building, which the bank occupied, at 264 Thames Street (photo below). The structure was demolished in the 1950s.

In 1861, William C. Cozzens was elected president of the Rhode Island Union Bank. Cozzens was a well-known figure in the area, having been a successful dry goods merchant early in his career and later Mayor of Newport, Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island and finally Governor (from March to May, 1863). During the financial panic of 1837, Cozzens even attempted to introduce his own scrip to keep Newport’s merchants in business. Many of the notes below bear Cozzens’ impressive (but stamped) signature.

Rhode Island Union joined the national banking system rather late. On August 12, 1881, it changed its name to the Union National Bank of Newport and was granted charter #2554. Union National was bought by Aquidneck National on October 17, 1912.

Four of the banknotes below exhibit handwritten cancellations in red ink dating from 1884 to 1888 across their face. In an article entitled, “State Bank Notes Redeemed by National Banks” in the journal of the Society of Paper Money Collectors, Forrest W. Daniel notes that this is a late date for such redemptions and speculates that these pieces may have come from a hoard (possibly held by another institution?). This would explain why these notes survived in such decent condition. (Paper Money, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, May – June 1997.)














Built by Asher Durand at  264 Thames Street, the Rhode Island Union Bank called this building home for many years.

Built in 1817 by Asher Benjamin at 264 Thames Street, the Rhode Island Union Bank called this building home for many years.

union national bank

An antique postcard showing the bank’s location next door to the People’s Library.

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