Skip to main content

About the Ezra Cornell Papers

Collection Description

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