Robert Bowne Minturn (born New York, 16 November 1805; died New York, 9 January 1866) was one of the most prominent American merchants and shippers of the mid-19th century. Today, he is probably best known as being one of the owners of the famous clipper ship, Flying Cloud.
MINTURN, Robert Bowne, merchant, born in New York City, 16 November, 1805; died there, suddenly of paralysis, 9 January, 1866. The son of wealth, he received an English education, and, though compelled by the death of his father to leave school at the age of fourteen and enter a counting-house, spent his leisure in study, so that he gained an extensive acquaintance with general literature. He was received into partnership in 1825 with Charles Green, whose clerk he had been, and in 1830 entered the firm of Fish and Grinnell, which was from 1832 afterward known as Grinnell, Minturn and Co. after the deaths of the two original partners. He declined all public office except the post of Commissioner of Emigration, which he supposedly accepted from a wish to secure the rights of emigrants.
In 1846, at the time of the Irish Potato famine, Minturn's fortune was estimated at $200,000. He was an active manager of many charitable associations in New York City, aided in establishing the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and was a founder of St. Luke's Hospital. Robert Minturn was active in the Ireland famine relief effort as well. He served as Commissioner of Emigration at New York to improve the condition of incoming foreigners and was part of a U.S. committee that pledged three thousand pounds sterling and food for delivery to Ireland in 1847.
At the same time, Minturn was among a select group of merchant-kings (most of the shareholders of Grinnell and Minturn) who claimed philanthropy but profited heavily from the trade in human cargo.
At one point, Minturn noted that the $5 million spent by emigrants on ship fares in 1847 substantially reduced the cost of carrying freight, and thus lowered the cost of American cotton and grain to English buyers. The profit motive rather than humanitarian impulses drove the business of immigration, and because government regulatory agencies and private philanthropies were unwilling or unable to exert much control over that business, 19th-century emigrants were often literally treated as human freight.
Nevertheless, Robert Minturn was among a small group of wealthy New York civic visionaries instrumental in the development of the world famous Central Park, which was based on Birkenhead Park, Merseyside, near Liverpool. He was described as a tall, handsome man, who was generous, modest and humane--his sense of social responsibility growing with his fortune. His son, Robert Bowne, is the author of New York to Delhi (New York, 1858).