Office of the President. Joseph R. Williams Papers

Summary Information

Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections
Creator - Correspondent
Whittier, John Greenleaf, 1807-1892
Williams, Joseph R.
Joseph R. Williams papers
Date [inclusive]
0.5 Cubic feet

Preferred Citation

Researchers wishing to cite this collection should include the following information: "Item title, Collection title, Collection Identifier, Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan."

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Biographical Note

The first president of the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), Joseph Rickelson Williams, was born at Taunton, Massachusetts on November 14, 1808. Soon after his birth his parents moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Williams was the oldest son of Captain Richard and Rebecca (Smith) Williams and a lineal descendant on his father's side of the Puritan Governor Winslow. Richard Williams was a highly respected shipmaster and after his retirement from the sea, he held the office of Postmaster of New Bedford.

At the age of sixteen, after an unfulfilling two year apprenticeship in a Boston counting house, Williams entered Sandwich Academy where he studied under Luther Lincoln. Mr. Williams graduated from Harvard in 1831 with distinguished honors. After leaving college he studied law in the office of John Paris of Worcester, was admitted to the Bar, and began practicing law in New Bedford.

Because of ill health he relinquished his profession and came to Toledo in 1835 as the agent of a New England company seeking land investments. He remained in Toledo until 1839 when he moved to Constantine, Michigan where he invested heavily, particularly in the construction and operation of flour mills. While in Constantine, Williams became actively involved in politics; was a member of the state constitutional convention of 1850; twice the Whig candidate for Congress, and twice the Whig candidate for the United States Senate against Lewis Cass. In May 1853 he returned to Toledo and purchased the Toledo Blade, a local newspaper. Under his management the  Blade became the leading advocate of Republican principles in Northern Ohio. He took prominent and influential positions in public affairs, especially in political matters. In 1856 Williams sold the  Blade to Clark Waggoner and G.T. Steward and became President of the Michigan Agricultural College.

After holding this position for three years he was compelled to resign due to neuralgia, a painful nervous disease.

After spending a few months in the Bahamas, Williams returned in 1860 and was elected to the State Senate of Michigan, of which he was made the presiding officer. With the resignation of Lieutenant Governor, Hon. James Birney, Williams became the acting Lieutenant Governor of the State. He held this position until his death from a hemorrhage of the lungs on June 15, 1861 in Constantine, Michigan at the age of 52.

He left a wife, Sarah Rowland Langdon Williams, whom he had married on May 28, 1844 at Buffalo, New York. She was a daughter of John Langdon. Three daughters survived Williams: Charlotte Langdon, the wife of John F. Kumler; Sibyl, the wife of Kent Hamilton; and, Rebecca, the wife of William H. Cooper of New York.

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Scope and Contents note

The first seventeen folders of this collection contain letters of correspondence with Joseph R. Williams prior to his acceptance of the presidency of the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). Many of these letters are from his father and other family members. Additionally, there are letters to Williams, operating as a land speculator in Ohio and Michigan, from friends and business associates in Massachusetts and New York. The letters reflect a precarious economic system in the 1830s and 1840s, and they also discuss local and national politics in some detail. Folders 26 through 37 contain letters of application to M.A.C. during the years 1857 and 1858. The remainder of the collection includes speeches, legal documents, patent materials, and biographical and autobiographical material.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections April 1965

Conrad Hall
888 Wilson Road, Room 101
East Lansing , MI, 48824

Revision Description

 R. Viol, January 1979 February 2007

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Legal Status note

Copyright: Michigan State University. Property Rights: Michigan State University.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to publish material from this collection must be obtained from University Archives & Historical Collections, Michigan State University.

Custodial History

Papers were transferred by Madison Kuhn and Jeffrey Staines. Other materials were the gift of Kenneth Priestly, 1959-02-22. Transferred by Michigan State University Museum. One copy of a letter was donated by John B. Pickard.

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Controlled Access Headings

Corporate Name(s)

  • Agricultural College of the State of Michigan. Dedication. (1857)
  • Michigan Agricultural College.
  • Toledo Blade (Newspaper).


  • Legal instruments
  • Letters (correspondence)
  • Photographs
  • Speeches, addresses, etc.

Geographic Name(s)

  • Massachusetts -- Politics and government
  • New York (State) -- Politics and government
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 19th century

Personal Name(s)

  • Pickard, John B
  • Priestly, Kenneth


  • Economics -- Michigan
  • Patents

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Collection Inventory


Box Folder

 1827, 1830, 1833 

871 1


871 56


871 2


871 3


871 4


871 57


871 5


871 6


871 58


871 7


871 8


871 59


871 9


871 10


871 11


871 12


871 13


871 14


871 15


871 16


871 17

B-F 1857 

871 18

G-L 1857 

871 19

M-R 1857 

871 20

S-W 1857 

871 21


871 22


871 23


871 24


871 25

John McKinney correspondence 1857 

871 54

John Greenleaf Whittier (poet) correspondence [typed copy of response to request to write poem for opening of M.A.C.] April 29, 1857 

871 55

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Letters of Application 

Box Folder

A-F 1857 

871 26

G-J 1857 

871 27

K-N 1857 

871 28

O-S 1857 

871 29

T-Y 1857 

871 30

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Box Folder

Answers to applicants' letters 1857 

871 31

Letters of Application 

Box Folder

A-C 1858 

871 32

D-F 1858 

871 33

G-J 1858 

871 34

K-N 1858 

871 35

O-S 1858 

871 36

T-W 1858 

871 37

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Box Folder

A Literary Discussion: On Presenting Science and Literature in Popular Form 1831 

871 38

Oration - Antislavery Sentiment 1835 

871 39

Deed of Trust 1848 

871 40

Petition to the College 1854 

871 41

Agricultural Periodical requests 1857 

871 42

Agricultural College Lyceum Philomathian Society 1857-1858 

871 43

Stump Machine Material 1857-1858 

871 44

Patent Material 1857-1858 

871 45

Address by President Williams 1858 

871 46

Address on Agricultural Education 1858 

871 47

Petition of student for increased wages 1860 

871 48

Speech of Senator Williams 1861 

871 49

Out-of-state students and army list 1867 

871 50

Historical information concerning flour mills in Constantine, Michigan and letter from Sarah R. Williams Undated 

871 51

Biographical and Autobiographical material Undated 

871 52

Photocopy of a photograph of Williams' gravestone; table of content of a magazine publishing his article on whaling Undated 

871 53



People. Williams, Joseph R. 

People Photographs

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