Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Riley Family Papers, 1835-1910

Finding aid created by
Clements Library Staff and Philip Heslip, May 2011

Summary Information
Title: Riley family papers
Creator: Riley family
Inclusive dates: 1835-1910
Extent: 4.5 linear feet
The Riley family papers (2,902 items) document the personal and business activities of Ashbel Wells Riley and his son George Stillson Riley of Rochester, New York. The papers concern family relationships and society in western New York, as well as the Riley family's participation in the temperance movement, and George Riley's involvement in the Grand Council of the Iroquois.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1991, 1996, 2009. M-2704c, M-2748, M-3230.5, M-4730.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

Riley Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


This collection is organized into seven series:

  • Series I: Personal Correspondence
  • Series II: Business Correspondence
  • Series III: Personal Papers
  • Series IV: Financial Records
    • Subseries I: Receipts and Accounts
    • Subseries II: Account Books
    • Subseries III: Taxes
    • Subseries IV: Insurance
    • Subseries V: Stocks
    • Subseries VI: Miscellaneous
  • Series V: Documents
    • Subseries I: Legal Papers
    • Subseries II: Real Estate Papers
    • Subseries III: Grand Council of the Iroquois Papers
    • Subseries IV: Temperance papers
  • Series VI: Photographs
  • Series VII: Printed Material


The Riley family papers document the family of Ashbel Wells Riley and his children George S., Ashbel, Jr., and Anna.

Ashbel Riley (1795-1888) was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut. In 1816, he settled in Rochester, New York, and worked as a builder; he eventually became a prominent landholder and city government official. Riley was one of the first aldermen on the Rochester city council and served on the board of health during a devastating cholera epidemic in 1832. Riley also had a distinguished military career, beginning in 1818 when he became an orderly sergeant of the local militia regiment, the Penfield Rifles. In 1820, he received a commission as lieutenant colonel of a second local regiment, the Rochester Rifle Guards, and became colonel of the 22nd Rifle Guards in 1831. He was promoted major general in 1834, and in 1838 took command of the 3rd New York Rifle Division. Riley, a Presbyterian, became an active temperance lecturer, delivering over 8,000 temperance speeches throughout the United States, Great Britain, and Europe, and actively promoting the formation of total abstinence societies throughout New York State. In addition to temperance, he supported other progressive causes such as antislavery, penal reform, and care for the mentally ill. He used much of his personal wealth to promote these causes and to build churches and schools in the Rochester area.

Riley married Betsey Ann Stillson (d.1823) in 1819; they had two children including George S. Riley. In 1827, he married Betsey's sister, Charlotte Stillson (d.1870); they had three children: Ashbel Wells, Jr., Justin Gamalie (d.1873), and Anna H. Riley. He married for a third time in 1871 to Mary E. Hoyt. He died in 1888.

George Stillson Riley (1822-1919) was a Rochester attorney, landowner, and, like his father, involved in temperance activities. He was a member of the Genesee Valley Club, president of the Rochester Athenaeum Association, and a board member for the Industrial School of Rochester. Along with Lewis Henry Morgan, George was a founding member of the Grand Order of the Iroquois, which held Indian rituals and politically supported the needs of the Iroquois nations. George Riley inherited his father's vast Rochester land holdings, and speculated in land interests in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa, as well as in railroad corporations, coal mining, and other investments. He suffered financial problems during the 1870s and 1880s, and, when he did not pay his property taxes, the city of Rochester claimed much of his land.

Ashbel Wells Riley, Jr. spent some time in 1841 in Cuba, and later served as an engineer in the construction of canals in upstate New York.

Anna H. Riley (d. 1908) was educated at the Utica Female Seminary. In 1853, she married a lawyer named Cyrus Bentley, and lived with him in Chicago. They had a son named Cyrus Bentley, Jr., in 1861.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Riley family papers (2,902 items) document the personal and business activities of Ashbel Wells Riley and his son George Stillson Riley of Rochester, New York. The papers concern family relationships and society in western New York, as well as the Riley's participation in the temperance movement, and George Riley's involvement in the Grand Council of the Iroquois.

The Personal Correspondence series (356 items) consists primarily of letters to Ashbel W. and George S. Riley, from friends and family members. Included are several letters from Charlotte to her husband Ashbell, when he was traveling in Europe in the 1840s; letters from Ashbel Riley, Jr., to George during his travels in Cuba and around New York; and letters from Anna H. Riley to her family from the Utica Female Seminary and while living with her husband in Chicago. Of particular interest are letters, written in the 1840s by George's cousin Caleb Hutton Hammond, in which he relayed family news and commented on social happenings in Rochester. These include his criticisms of several wealthy acquaintances who follow the Graham System (September 13, 1840); a description of a lecture and demonstration by Dr. Reid of Philadelphia, who studied phrenology; and a discussion of a lecture on American Antiquities that claimed that Egyptians must have settled Central America and built pyramids there (February 26, 1841). The majority of the letters spanning 1892-1917 are from Belle Hart ("Aunt Belle") to George Riley. She wrote from hotels in New York City and Rochester; the content is personal in nature.

Visual material includes letters on hotel letterhead that feature engraved depictions of the hotel, and a December 25, 1849, letter from Ashbel Riley, Jr., to George Riley that contains a diagram of his invention for a device that holds writing paper.

The Business Correspondence series (494 items) documents the Rileys' business communications, largely concerning property transactions and debts. Both Ashbel and George invested heavily in land but struggled to pay back debts throughout their lives. The bulk of these papers ranges from 1840 to 1895. In addition to letters requesting repayments for loans, the series contains copies and drafts of outgoing letters from George S. Riley to business partners and debtors, with many sent o S. P. Ely concerning property in Diamond, Utah, and in Michigan.

The Personal Writings Papers series (189 items) is comprised of non-correspondence writings, including notes, speech drafts, and fragments (1841-1908). Included are two bundles of items, which are kept in their original order, entitled "Scribblings & odds & ends -- t. c. in reference written mostly 1841, 2, & 3" and "Temperance Convention" from October 1845. These primarily relate to temperance activities with some material concerning the Seneca Indians.

The Financial Records series (1481 items) consists of receipts and accounts, account books, tax records, insurance records, stocks, and other miscellaneous items related to the Rileys' finances. The bulk of these records dates from between 1850 and 1880. In addition to the family's detailed business accounts, the series conatins a 1844 house expense book.

The Documents series (226 items) consists of legal papers (62 items), real estate papers (131 items), Grand Council of the Iroquois papers (14 items), and temperance-related papers (13 items). The legal papers concern Ashbel and George's financial problems related to land owning and paying taxes. It also contains George's patent certificate for "Improvements in smoke consuming furnaces." The real estate papers document the Riley's land holdings, mostly in upstate New York, consisting of land agreements and details on values. The Grand Council of the Iroquois papers are comprised of documents and letters relating to meetings of the Grand Council between 1842 and 1846. These include a description of a Seneca fort and a burial ground that Timothy Sullivan destroyed during his raids in 1779, a petition to Congress concerning Seneca landholdings, and a heavily edited description of a meeting. The Temperance papers contain documents related to various temperance meetings held in Rochester in 1845.

The Photographs series (1 item) contains a photograph of a bearded man, likely George S. Riley, taken by Notman & Fraser of Toronto, Ontario.

The Printed Material series (91 items) is comprised of the following:

  • Newspaper clippings (71 items), mostly from Rochester papers containing topics such as death notices, scientific and philosophical articles, poetry, and news of the day
  • Pamphlet (1 item) entitled, "Inquiries, Respecting the History, Present Condition and Future Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States" [1847]
  • Invitations (9 items) for formal and religious events such as lectures, plays, memorials, weddings, and a piano recital
  • Miscellaneous material (10 items), including a voter registration reminder, and a constitution for the Christian Reform Association of Monroe County, New York.
Subject Terms

    • Canals--New York (State)
    • Iroquois Indians.
    • Real property--New York (State)
    • Rochester (N.Y.)--History.
    • Seneca Indians--New York (State)--History.
    • Temperance--New York (State)
    • Temperance and religion.
    • Ely, Samuel P.
    • Hammond, Caleb Hutton, 1800-1875.
    • Morgan, Lewis Henry, 1818-1881.
    • Riley, Anna, d. 1908.
    • Riley, Ashbel Wells, 1795-1888.
    • Riley, Ashbel W., Jr.
    • Riley, Charlotte.
    • Riley, George S., 1822-1919.
    • Taylor, Elisha, 1817-1906.
    Genre Terms:
    • Account books.
    • Clippings (information artifacts)
    • Financial records.
    • Insurance records.
    • Legal documents.
    • Letters (correspondence)
    • Photographs.
    • Receipts.
    • Stocks.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Personal Correspondence [series]
    Box   1 Folders   1-32
    Box   2 Folders   1-22
     1851-1917 and  undated
    Business Correspondence [series]
    Box   3 Folders   1-24
    Box   4 Folders   1-24
    Personal Papers [series]
    Box   5 Folders   1-17
    Financial Records [series]
    Receipts and Accounts [subseries]
    Box   5 Folders   18-34
    Box   6 Folders   1-31
    Box   7 Folders   1-26
    Box   8 Folders   1-11
     1875-1914 and  undated
    Account Books [subseries]
    Box   8 Folder   12
     1844,  1845-1846,  1847-1848,  1857
    Taxes [subseries]
    Box   8 Folders   13-15
    Insurance [subseries]
    Box   8 Folders   16-17
     1850-1888 and  undated
    Stocks [subseries]
    Box   8 Folders   18-21
     1857-1879 and  undated
    Miscellaneous [subseries]
    Box   8 Folder   22
    Documents [series]
    Legal Papers [subseries]
    Box   9 Folders   1-6
     1835-1905 and  undated
    Real Estate Papers [subseries]
    Box   9 Folders   7-24
     1835-1908 and  undated
    Grand Council of the Iroquois Papers [subseries]
    Box   9 Folders   25-26
     1842-1846 and  undated
    Temperance Papers [subseries]
    Box   9 Folders   25-26
     September-October 1845 and  undated
    Photographs [series]
    Box   10 Folder   1
    Printed Material [series]
    Box   10 Folders   2-3
    Newspaper Clippings
    Box   10 Folder   4
    Box   10 Folder   5
    Box   10 Folder   6
    Miscellaneous Printed Items
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    The University of Rochester Library has a collection of George S. Riley papers


    Peck, William F. Semi-centennial History of the City of Rochester: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Syracuse, N.Y.: D. Mason & co., 1884.