Collection Scope and Content Note
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The Ezra Cornell papers consist of correspondence, financial and legal records, court
proceedings, and other documents pertaining principally to the Cornell family, the
telegraph industry, and the founding of Cornell University. The papers also show
Cornell's career as a farmer, New York State legislator, entrepreneur, and
philanthropist, and include subsequently printed materials collected in support of
his various affairs and enterprises.
After leaving the DeRuyter, New York pottery business of his father Elijah, Ezra
Cornell moved to Ithaca to work as a mechanic, engineer, millwright, and
dam-builder; soon after, he sold plows and their patent rights in New England, the
Mid-Atlantic states, and in the Deep South. During his travels, letters home and
closely kept diaries described his view of America in the 1840s and 1850s. During
the test-laying of the telegraph cable between Washington and Baltimore, Cornell's
ingenuity and industry resulted in his affiliating himself with the new enterprise.
Again, diaries and letters home recount in detail the difficulties of procuring
equipment, convincing the public of the telegraph's utility, selling subscriptions,
managing laborers, and accruing stock. Travels in the midwest provide a view of the
special problems in the less well-settled mid-prairie states.
The Civil War was observed by Ezra Cornell as a contributor to the Ithaca
Journal. His brother and several cousins and nephews participated in the
conflict for both causes, and they wrote many letters to Cornell. It was prior to
and during this period that the consolidation of Western Union provided Cornell with
enormous stock dividends. Conversations with fellow legislator Andrew Dickson White
concerning Cornell's desire to contribute money for an altruistic enterprise led to
the founding of the University. Cornell had been cash-poor and far from home for
many years; when he announced the establishment of the Cornell University, he was
deluged with appeals for help, from close and distant relatives, from needy
sufferers and cranks. As a New York State legislator, he received hundreds of
letters of appeal from constituents on local and state issues.
Family correspondence occurs throughout the collection. The Cornell family was large,
located throughout the United States, and involved in many endeavors and
enterprises. The correspondence also documents his farming interests and the
establishment of the Cornell family's Forest Park farm, the establishment of the
Cornell Public Library in Ithaca, his work in the coal oil business, the
photo-lithography business, agricultural supplies and science, and his interest in
New York State canals and railroads. In addition to the correspondence, diaries, and
letterbooks, the papers also contain documents pertaining to Cornell legal cases,
finance, estate records, and family memorabilia.
Phil McCray and Maggie Hale, assisted by Lisa Sasaki, June 1995