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John Bigelow papers

Identifier: SCA-0022

Scope and Contents

The John Bigelow Papers consist of the extensive correspondence of Bigelow and his family, his scrapbooks and his writings, records and correspondence detailing his professional activities, diaries and journals belonging to Bigelow and other family members, genealogical documents and records of the Bigelow family, and a variety of photographs.

The Correspondence series includes around 24,000 letters from noteable figures, including Andrew Carnegie, Charles Dickens, John Jay, J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and Thurlow Weed. The letters detail Bigelow’s activities such as the U.S. Consul to France during the Civil War, his position on the boards of the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the building of the Panama Canal, the 1888 Brussels International Exhibition, the Second Franco-Mexican War (1861–1867), and Lincoln’s assassination. There are also many letters from family members and friends to Bigelow, as well as letters between family members and friends.

The diaries of his wife, Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow, make up the majority of the Diaries and Journals series. Like her husband, Jane was an important figure in the New York literary and social scene. Her diaries details their life and travels. Some especially delightful tidbits are her entries wherein she writes about Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde when they stayed with the family during their trips to New York City. Journals from John Bigelow and John Bigelow Jr. are also found in the collection.

The Scrapbooks series offers a comprehensive view of the life of John Bigelow. John Bigelow, and his family after his death, collected a plethora of newspaper clippings, letters, pamphlets, and other ephemera related to both his private and professional lives. The scrapbooks include materials written in English, French, German, and Spanish and range from 1801-1916. Some notable items include newspapers from Haiti and Panama. There are also government documents such as New York City Chamber of Commerce letters, Senate letters of the 2nd session of the 41st Congress, and Congressional records of the 43rd Congress. The majority of the items are newspaper clippings about Jane Bigelow's death, articles about the relationship between Russia and the U.S., items relating to the Panama Canal and the New York Canal system, maps related to Seward's Folly and the Alaska Purchase, Cuban political cartoons from the newspaper La Discussion, articles related to the building of the New York Public Library, the Bigelow Memorial at Union College, articles and pamphlets on women's suffrage, and the death of King Edward VII of England.


  • Creation: 1593 - 1955
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1840 - 1911


Biographical / Historical

John Bigelow (November 25, 1817 - December 19, 1911) lived a dynamic life during a period of social and industrial change. He was an American author, diplomat, lawyer, and distinguished man of letters who was involved in significant historical events such as discouraging France from building ships for the Confederacy during the Civil War and helping to expose the political corruption of Tammany Hall’s William “Boss” Tweed in New York City. A browsing of his collection reveals that his acquaintances, business associates, and friends represented an extensive list of the leaders of his time, with these leaders steering literary, political, and social movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Born in Malden-on-Hudson, New York to Asa and Lucy Isham Bigelow, John Bigelow studied at Washington College in Hartford, Connecticut, and then at Union College, where he was a member of the Sigma Phi Society and the Philomathean Society. He graduated in 1835. From 1835-1837, he studied law in New York City, first at Dey and Bonney, and then at Robert and Theodore Sedgwick. It was during this time where he first made the acquaintances with poet Fitz-Green Halleck, politician Samuel J. Tilden, and poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant, with whom Bigelow would become co-owner and co-editor of the New York Evening Post. Admitted to the New York City Bar in 1838, Bigelow’s career moved from practicing law to writing and editing for the next ten years, contributing to The Plebeian, the New York Review, and the Democratic Review. He also assisted Josiah Gregg in writing Commerce of the Prairies, published in 1844. From 1845-1856, Bigelow’s experiences led to myriad accomplishments, such as becoming the inspector at Sing-Sing Prison, becoming acquainted with authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and William Gilmore Simms, visiting Jamaica and Haiti, helping to create the Republican Party, and publishing the biography of John C. Frémont. Bigelow’s first trip to Europe in 1858 allowed him to further entrench himself in artistic and literary circles upon meeting William Thackeray, William Hargreaves, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, among others.

From 1860-1861, Bigelow supported the nomination of Abraham Lincoln by the Republican Party and was appointed by Lincoln to be the Consul-General at Paris, serving under William L. Dayton. Seven years later, he edited and published his edition of the Benjamin Franklin autobiography. As the Consul-General to Paris, he was instrumental in preventing the British and French from building ships for the Confederacy and persuading Napoleon II from annexing Mexico. After returning to New York in 1867, Bigelow began working on his edition of the Benjamin Franklin Autobiography in 1868 after he found the manuscript in Paris. He also edited Franklin’s complete works, wrote a biography of U.S. presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, and wrote several works on the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg. From 1870-1900, Bigelow was involved in New York State politics as he was elected Secretary of the State of New York, bolstered Samuel J. Tilden’s Presidential candidacy, and was appointed the Commissioner of the U.S. Section 5 at the Brussels Exposition of 1888. After Tilden’s death in 1886, Bigelow was elected as the President of the Board of Trustees for the Tilden Trust, and he was steadfast in helping to make Tilden’s dream to create a public library in New York City a reality. Because of his unwavering loyalty to Tilden’s vision, Bigelow became the first President of the New York Free Public Library. In addition, Bigelow was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; president of the Century Association; an honorary corresponding member of the New York Historical Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Maryland Society; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Bigelow also played an important role in supporting Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla in constructing the Panama Canal, a role for which U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was thankful. Bigelow died at the age of ninety-five on December 19 in 1911.

John Bigelow married Jane Tunis Poultney (1829-1889) on June 11, 1850. They had nine children, seven of which lived to adulthood: Grace Bigelow (1852-1932), John Bigelow Jr. (1854-1936), Poultney Bigelow (1855-1954), Jenny Bigelow Tracy, (1859-1955), Annie Bigelow Harding (1863-1922), and Flora Bigelow Dodge Guest (1868-1964). Two of their sons died as young children: Poultney Bigelow (1851-1853) and Ernest Bigelow (1861-1865).

John Bigelow authored many historical, biographical, sociological, and economic works. Some of his celebrated works include: "Jamaica in 1850 or the Effects of Sixteen Years of Freedom on a Slave Colony" (1856); "Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" (1868); "France and Hereditary Monarchy" (1871); "The Life of Benjamin Franklin" (1875); "Wit and Wisdom of the Haytians" (1877); "Molinos the Quietist" (1882); "France and the Confederate Navy" (1888); "Some Recollections of Edouard Laboulaye" (1889); "The Bible that was Lost and is Found" (1893); "Life of William Cullen Bryant" (1893); "Life of Samuel J. Tilden" (1895); "The Mystery of Sleep" (1897); "Lest we Forget Gladstone, Morley and the Confederate Loan of 1863" (1905); "Letters and Literary Memorials of Samuel J. Tilden" (1908); "Retrospections of an Active Live" (1909-1913); and "The Folly of Building Temples of Peace with the Untempered Mortar" (1910).


167.56 Cubic Feet (58 containers) : The entire collection is split into two separate locations within the institution. During the first accession, the majority of the correspondence was put into chronological order in 10 filing cabinets in one location, while the rest of the collection was put into document boxes in another location. After a rearrangement was completed in 2021-2022, an 11th filing cabinet was added.

45 Boxes (Boxes are numbered 1-45 and correspond with the series arrangement.)

44 Drawers (The correspondence in these filing cabinet drawers is arranged chronologically from 1816-1955. Cabinet 22, Drawer 4 has files with irregular dates, some of which have no year, no month and year, or are completely undated.)

2 Drawers (Two flat file drawers hold a map (Drawer 49) and an oversized stock board portrait of John Bigelow (Drawer 30).)

Language of Materials






Spanish; Castilian



The collection is organized into the following series:

Series I: Biographical Materials, 1656-1929, undated

Series II: Correspondence, 1780-1955, undated

Series III: Journals and Diaries, 1850-1911, undated

Series IV: Writings, 1593-1911, undated

Series V: Professional, 1845-1906, undated

Series VI: Scrapbooks, 1801-1916

Series VII: Subject Files, 1864-1926, undated

In 2017, volumes cataloged in the Vault Collection (UT B592n, UT B592pr, UT B592sc) were added to the collection and interfiled with similar materials.

Physical Location

The materials are located at Schaffer Library.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Additional volumes of archival material were included in the thousands of books in the Bigelow library collection donated by Bigelow's granddaughter Charlotte Harding Conrad in 1952. The bulk of the library has John Bigelow's bookplate on the items. After her death, her husband Brigadier General Bryan Conrad donated a large portion of the collection between 1958 and 1964, mostly in the form of correspondence, as was specified by John Bigelow's will. A small number of additional items were donated or purchased at later dates.

Processing Information

Processed in 2022 by Amanda Greenwood.

Created in 2022 by Amanda Greenwood
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Arranged and described as part of a National Historical Publications & Records Commission grant awarded from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in 2021. Some items in the Diaries and Journals Series were digitized as part of a 2020 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant. Other items were digitized because of support from Betsy and John Nickles (Union College class of 1960).

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections and Archives Repository

Union College
807 Union Street
Schenectady NY 12308 United States