She Merchants: Elizabeth Murray

by Alycia Asai

Think of the history makers in business. Who comes to mind? Magnates such as Rockefeller and Ford? Now think of women business owners and leaders. Name anyone? If you found yourself stuck, you are not alone. Most would be hard-pressed to name a woman known for her role in developing a business. Most women in history are known for their activism: Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Ida B Wells. History tends to ignore the women who developed their businesses and contributed to their local economy. A perfect example is the life of Elizabeth Murray.

Born in Scotland in 1726, Murray immigrated to the United States with her brother James after being orphaned at the age of eleven. She lived with James for several years, working as the manager of his household. This responsibility taught her how to keep accounts, direct the work of servants, and purchase items required to run the home. Murray decided at the young age of twenty-two to strike out on her own and open a shop in colonial Boston.  

Portrait of Elizabeth Murray by John Singleton Copley, 1769
(image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Women merchants were not uncommon, especially in large port cities like Boston, but Murray is exceptional in that she began her business as a single woman. Many merchants were widows, maintaining their husband’s shops until they remarried or relied on running the business for financial security later in life. Elizabeth chose independence; in both her personal and professional worlds throughout her life. 

Though she was willing to take on the risks of opening her shop, there were limitations. Unable to obtain credit as a single woman, Elizabeth relied on her brother James for help with procuring inventory. He facilitated the sale of her minor inheritance of three enslaved individuals to raise the necessary capital and secure a line of credit.

Murray struggled in her initial business adventures, unable to keep her shelves fully stocked. Saddled with the nickname the “broken shopkeeper” Murray devised a clever way to fool potential buyers by placing boxes all around her shop. Marked with a series of letters and numbers, Murray convinced her customers she wasn’t lacking inventory but was so flush with delectable goods that she had not yet had an opportunity to unpackage everything.  

Murray learned hard lessons about the pitfalls of coverture during her first marriage. Coverture was the practice whereby women lost their legal rights to things such as owning property, giving all authority to decide financial and other legal matters to their spouse. Marrying Thomas Campbell in 1755, Elizabeth no longer held the status of an independent shop owner. Her business, and her wealth, now belonged to her husband, who as a coastal trader had no understanding of how to run a shop. Murray regained her status when Thomas died of measles in 1759, but faced severe criticism of her handling of the estate. 

Armed with the knowledge of what losing her financial independence meant, Elizabeth exercised greater caution when entering into matrimony the second time. James Smith, Elizabeth’s second husband, was unique in agreeing to sign a prenuptial agreement; not only did the agreement specifically relinquish any control over her business he would assume upon their union but also guaranteed portions of his estate for her use in the event of his death. 

Achieving a sense of security with the promise of a large estate upon her husband’s death, Elizabeth gave up her life as a merchant and switched into the role of mentor, assisting other women of her community with opening their shops. 

Murray extended her line of credit to several women shop owners who had no other means to secure the assets needed. Dedicated to financial independence for women, Murray assisted in nonfinancial ways too, working with several of her nieces to develop what she felt were the basics to successfully running a business: ledger keeping, basic arithmetic, and writing. 

Murray’s wealth also put her in the middle of the political turmoil of the colonies. Owning large estates in the Boston area, Murray’s property was in the crosshairs, continuously at risk for seizure by the British army during the Revolution. As tensions ran high and Elizabeth committed to staying behind to protect her farm, she faced charges from rebels and British officials of playing both sides. In a time when most women had nothing to lose and therefore escaped the dangers of Boston, Murray stayed to fight and safeguard her interests. 

While Murray did not reach a level of wealth that would make her synonymous with the likes of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, she did succeed in achieving financial success uncommon in her time and extended her success by funding the careers of other women. Her uniqueness underscores exactly why she should be better known. She combated substantive challenges and obstacles to make a place for herself in a community unsupportive of a woman’s financial independence. Women like her deserve to be remembered for their achievements and accomplishments. As history shows us, it is the ordinary citizen doing extraordinary things that make change possible. 


About the Author

Alycia holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History and believes the study of history can be fun and exciting. She tries to bring history to the masses in bite sized pieces through her weekly history podcast, Civics and Coffee. Find Civics and Coffee wherever you get your podcasts and follow the pod on Instagram or Twitter. You can also reach her through her website at www.civicsandcoffee.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s