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Sylvia Ann Howland

New Bedford Whaling Museum

Once described as the wealthiest woman in New Bedford, philanthropist Sylvia Ann Howland (1806-1865) provided a legacy that benefited not only family members, caretakers, and charitable organizations, but also the residents of New Bedford through trusts to support education and business. Upon her death in 1865, approximately half of her estate was distributed to her niece Hetty Robinson Green, but the Residual Estate was held until after the resolution of Hetty’s challenge to Aunt Sylvia’s will.

Sylvia Ann Howland (1806-1865) was better known after her death than while she lived. She was born with a curvature of the spine and lived, the greater part of her life, physically dependent on the care of others. After her death in 1865, she was seen as a philanthropist. She provided a legacy that benefited not only family members, caretakers, and charitable organizations, but also the residents of New Bedford, primarily through trusts to support education and business. Once described as the wealthiest woman in New Bedford, Sylvia’s estate spotlighted the ability of a woman to inherit and substantially increase the value of an estate. Previously estates had been primarily given to the males of wealthy families.

Sylvia Ann used her business and financial expertise, garnered on her own initiative, to enrich the Howland Family Trust. In the Twelfth Clause of her final will she directed that distributions be to “all the lineal descendants then living of Gideon Howland” (Senior). The Howland genealogical record appears to be the first such document created solely for the purpose of properly distributing a fortune.

Gideon and Mehitable Howland, parents of Sylvia Ann (1806) and Abby (1809) Howland, lived in Dartmouth at their Round Hill farmhouse. Abby was born with a delicate constitution and died at the age of 24. Their mother Mehitable died when Abby was only four months old and Sylvia Ann three years old. The children lived with their maternal grandparents, Isaac and Abigail in New Bedford. Sylvia Ann loved books, being read to or reading, but her inability to live a normal life was determined by her physical health. Her father Gideon Howland died in 1847. She never married, never travelled further than to the Round Hill farm, and in later years was dependent on nurses, friends, house staff and family. After her married sister Abby Howland Robinson died in 1860, her only child, Hetty Robinson, always had a bedroom in Aunt Sylvia Ann’s homes.

Sylvia Ann enjoyed the running of her New Bedford home at the corner of Eighth and William Streets and her summer home in Dartmouth which overlooked Buzzards Bay. Many large family reunions were held annually providing wonderful memories during her many periods of loneliness and inactivity.

As a partner in the Isaac Howland Jr. & Co., Sylvia Ann invested her money in business ventures and real estate with the assistance of friend and advisor Thomas Mendall. Her hard work would not be realized until after she died in 1865 with her personal physician and caretakers at hand. Approximately half of her estate was distributed to her niece Hetty Green but the Residual Estate was held, and increased, until after Hetty had challenged Sylvia Ann’s will, holding up its final distributions until 1918.

It was Sylvia Ann’s specific public and charitable bequests that greatly benefited New Bedford. A marble tablet in New Bedford Free Public Library commemorates the gift of $200,000 to the city of New Bedford by Sylvia Ann Howland – $100,000 to supply the city with pure water and the other $100,000 for the benefit of the library.

Ivy S. MacMahon

Information from

  • Ancestry. https://www.ancestry.com/.

  • Bristol County, Massachusetts Probate Records 1690-1881. Register of Probate.

  • Emery, William M. The Howland Heirs: Being the Story of a Family and a Fortune and the Inheritance of a Trust Established for Mrs. Hetty H. R. Green. E. Anthony & Sons, 1919.

  • Pease, Zephaniah W. History of New Bedford. The Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1918.

  • Slack, Charles. Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon. HarperCollins, 2005.

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