John Russell Bartlett, boundary commissioner, was born on October 23, 1805, in Providence, Rhode Island, to Smith and Nancy (Russell) Bartlett. The family moved to Kingston, Ontario; Bartlett was educated in the common schools there and at Lowville Academy in upstate New York. His schooling brought him a knowledge of accounting and a love of history and literature that gave his writings a romantic turn. In addition, he also was an artist of considerable competence.
In 1824 he returned to Providence, where he clerked in a dry-goods store and entered banking in 1828. In 1836 he moved to New York City. There he and Charles Welford opened a shop, Bartlett and Welford, to sell literary and scientific publications; the store became a gathering place for literary figures and scientists. Bartlett was a founding father of the American Ethnological Society in 1842 and wrote The Progress of Ethnology in 1847. His most famous work was his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), which went through four editions before 1900.
On June 15, 1850, thanks to his standing in the Whig party, Bartlett was appointed United States boundary commissioner to carry out the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Despite his ignorance of the Southwest he accepted this post because he wanted to travel, because he wanted to see Indians, and because he needed the money.
Bartlett left New York with a large party on August 3, 1850, and landed at Indianola, Texas, twenty-seven days later. After traveling overland, he arrived at El Paso del Norte (Juárez) to begin work with the Mexican boundary commissioner, Pedro García Conde. The point where the southern boundary of New Mexico was to begin on the Rio Grande proved difficult to determine because of inaccuracies in Disturnell's 1847 "Map of the United Mexican States," and Bartlett allowed the boundary to be set forty-two miles north of El Paso. When American boundary surveyor Andrew B. Gray refused to agree to this, Bartlett departed for a tour of northwestern Mexico. He arrived in California, he then traveled east through Arizona and New Mexico to Texas, where he learned that Congress had rejected the Bartlett-García Conde line. Because of Bartlett's error, the United States in 1853 had to negotiate the Gadsden Purchase, which set the boundary of New Mexico at 31°47' north latitude. The Gadsden Purchase, which transferred mainly desert lands to the United States, was viewed as essential for establishing a southern route for the transcontinental railroad.
Bartlett returned to Rhode Island and wrote a two-volume Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, Connected with the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission, during the years 1850, 51, 52, and 53 (1854), which became a standard early source of information about Texas and the Southwest. From 1855 to 1872 he was secretary of state for Rhode Island. He helped put together the collection that is the nucleus of the John Carter Brown Library and published numerous books, including a Bibliography of Rhode Island (1864), Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation (10 vols., 1856–65), The Literature of Rebellion (1866), Bibliographic Notices of Rare and Curious Books Relating to America . . . in the Library of the Late John Carter Brown (4 volumes, 1875–82), Letters of Roger Williams, 1632–1682 (1874), and Letters of Roger Williams to Winthrop (1896), in addition to various monographs and bibliographies of lesser importance.
Bartlett married Eliza Allen Rhodes on May 15, 1831, and they had seven children. She died on November 11, 1853. Bartlett married Ellen Eddy on November 12, 1863. He died on May 28, 1886, in Providence, Rhode Island. See also BOUNDARIES, and GEOLOGICAL SURVEYS OF TEXAS.