The Correspondence of John Bigelow
Letters from the Bigelow files,
Union College Schaffer Library

This website is an interactive version of a card-based index to over 20,000 letters in the John Bigelow Collection housed in the Special Collections Department of Schaffer Library, Union College. John Bigelow (1817-1911) was a member of the Union College Class of 1835 and went on to a distinguished career as an editor, writer, statesman, and tireless advocate for the public good. The letters, which range in date from 1833 to 1935, were gifted to the College on behalf of the family in the mid 20th century by Bryan Conrad (widower of Bigelow’s granddaughter Charlotte Kenner Harding). Also included in the gift were other personal papers belonging to Bigelow and thousands of books from his personal library. These documents collectively form one of the two largest archives of John Bigelow’s papers in the world, the other being at the New York Public Library. Most are original autographed signed letters (or in some cases copies of letters) sent directly to John Bigelow; some are copies of letters written by Bigelow himself or forwarded to him by others; several thousand are letters sent among members of his immediate family and their descendents. They cover all aspects of Bigelow’s personal life and public career and include the hundreds of condolence letters sent from around the world to Bigelow’s daughter Grace after his death.

Bigelow correspondence files,
Union College Schaffer Library

Immediately upon receipt of the gift, College library staff set about ensuring the preservation of the letters by transferring each item into its own acid-free folder. These folders are now housed chronologically in some 80 linear feet of file cabinets in the Special Collections Department. During the early 1960s an index to the letters was also created by typing two cards for each letter, one of which was filed under the sender’s name and the other under the recipient’s name in a single alphabetical sequence. Both cards indicated the date of the letter. Staff members did their best to identify correspondents, who often addressed and signed letters with a first or last name or even initials only; they also sometimes had to guess at the date a letter was written. Any assumptions or guesses made by the staff at the time were indicated by the use of brackets or parentheses on the typed cards. The resulting index, available on-site in Special Collections, served as the sole access point to the Bigelow letters at Union for some 50 years.

For this interactive version, information has been transcribed from the index cards into a database now available to researchers worldwide. The forms of dates and, where possible, of names found on the typed cards have been clarified and updated to current standards for metadata to ensure consistent searching and retrieval. Work continues on consolidating variant forms of names found on the cards, but the choices and assumptions made by the original indexers in the 1960s have been preserved and may be accessed by clicking on the “note” link associated with many correspondence records in the database. Links to PDF images of the letters themselves are also being added selectively to the database and in future will be the means by which researchers unable to travel to Union may view the actual correspondence. In addition, the website provides background information on Bigelow and on his family, and further information on selected individuals and the nature of their correspondence with Bigelow is featured in the “Search by … Area of Renown” link on the navigation bar to the left as well as through the “about” link associated with the featured names in the database.

Index cards for Bigelow files (circa 1960)

The creation of this website is part of a broader project at Union College celebrating Bigelow’s accomplishments called “Remembered First Citizen” in reference to the title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Bigelow written by Margaret Clapp (Forgotten First Citizen: John Bigelow. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947). It is the product of many hands working together in Schaffer Library since the summer of 2010. Annette LeClair, Head of Technical Services, serves as the project coordinator. Systems Librarian David Fuller developed the database structure and the interfaces for data entry and for searching via the website. Transcription of information from the cards into the database was overseen by Adam O’Brien, former Added Volumes Assistant in the Cataloging Department, who also conducted preliminary research on the forms of names for consistency with the Library of Congress Name Authority File. Data entry was by O’Brien and student assistants Rachel Beaulac (Union College Class of 2012), Kim Brookman (Class of 2013), and Mcolisi Dlamini (Class of 2012). The website design is by the Digital Services team of Librarian Gail Golderman, Specialist Jennifer Goodwin, and former Specialist Jennifer Carr, with the assistance of student assistant Teresa Crasto (Class of 2014). Preliminary research for the “Area of Renown” section of the website has been conducted by student assistants Helen Willis and Sarah Bacon (Class of 2012) and continued by Digital Projects Specialist Matthew Connolly, who finalized the text for the featured correspondents, researched and formatted images for presentation on the website, and prepared the biography and bibliography of John Bigelow. The staff of the Special Collections Department including the College Archivist Ellen Fladger and Library Specialist Marlaine DesChamps, in whose care the Bigelow materials are kept, provided counsel and constant support throughout the project.

Requests for further information or access to the Bigelow letters indexed here may be directed to

Image Sources:
All images: Union College Schaffer Library, Special Collections, Digital Picture File.