Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
King Family Papers, 1844-1901

Finding aid created by
Shannon Wait, March 2010

Summary Information
Title: King family papers
Creator: King family
Inclusive dates: 1844-1901
Bulk dates: 1844-1895
Extent: 0.5 linear feet
The King family papers document the business activities of the King brothers, three of whom worked as traders with Russell & Company in China in the mid-19th century, and the subsequent institutionalization of William King.
Language: The material is in English andFrench
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:

1996. M-3277.4.

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:

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


The papers arranged into two series: correspondence and documents.


The King Family papers primarily concern the King brothers, who were the children of Dr. David King, Sr. (1774-1836), and his wife, whose maiden name was Gordon. The eldest of the brothers was George Gordon King (1807-1870), followed by David King, Jr. (1812-1882), Edward King (about 1817-1875), and William King (about 1819-1897). All four brothers were born in Newport, Rhode Island, and graduated from Brown University.

While George studied law and served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1849-1853), Edward, William, and David went to China and made large fortunes as traders, dealing primarily in tea, but also in silks and essential oils. Each of the three in turn was a partner in Russell & Co., the largest and most important trading house in China during the period. Their correspondence shows that they were particularly active in Macau and Canton (Guangzhou). By 1851, William H. King, now a millionaire several times over, had returned to the United States and was doing business around Syracuse.

William King had apparently always been eccentric, but in the 1850s, his mental health began to unravel. In 1864, his brothers attempted to intervene by limiting his access to alcohol and tobacco, but with little success. The same year, King purchased a mansion in Newport, which he named Kingscote. On July 1, 1866, he planned to marry an unknown woman in Troy, New York, but his brothers halted the proceedings and had him committed to the McLean Asylum for the Insane in Belmont, Massachusetts. Though he outlived all his brothers, King’s condition never improved and was characterized by outbursts of violence, paranoid delusion, and, eventually, seizures.

In 1893, a woman named Eugenia Webster Ross petitioned for King’s release from the Asylum. She claimed that the real William King had disappeared in China, and another man, Pelatiah Webster Gordon, was impersonating him in order to avoid prosecution in Boston. She maintained that Gordon was her uncle, and was not actually insane, and that she was heir to his large fortune. The Massachusetts Supreme Court found no truth to her claims, and King died on March 6, 1897, at the Hotel Brunswick in Boston. In February 1898, Ross dropped her request for a new trial, and King’s fortune stayed within the family.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The correspondence series contains 69 letters. The earliest are from William King to his brothers, while in China in the late 1840s. They mainly concern trade conducted by Russell & Co., and frequently contain figures and purchasing instructions. During early 1850s, King writes several letters from New York discussing stocks and business matters.

A major shift occurs in the mid-1860s, when the most frequent topic of correspondence becomes William King’s mental health. One letter, from N.P. Russell, urges David King, Jr., to make William “obedient…to the stronger will of others” or else face “a public disgrace” and “wreck of both mind and frame” (October 16, 1864). Letters document several unsuccessful attempts to keep King’s behavior in check, including instructions from a physician to King, prescribing a healthier lifestyle (July 21, 1865), but by July 1866, the King brothers were corresponding with the McLean Asylum, where William had already arrived.

The few letters between 1867 and 1895 reveal more about King’s condition, mentioning “delusive fancies,” “acts of violence,” and a belief that “other patients are here as spies upon him” (July 29, 1870). Reports from doctors and friends during this period document a gradual worsening of King’s health and faculties. No correspondence documenting the legal case with Eugenia Webster Ross survives. The two folders of undated correspondence contain several letters in French as well as some unusual ruminations on women, night, and other topics, which appear to be in William King’s handwriting, and may have been addressed to a female love interest.

The documents series contains 36 items, including legal documents such as David King, Sr.’s will, tax documents, land indentures, and lease, loan, and rental papers, dating from the 1840s to 1900. Of particular interest is a printed 1893 Massachusetts Supreme Court record concerning William King’s condition, and Eugenia Webster Ross’ petition.

Subject Terms

    • Boston (Mass.)
    • China--Commerce.
    • Guangzhou (China)
    • International Trade.
    • King, David, 1774-1836.
    • Macau (China)
    • McLean Asylum for the Insane.
    • Mental illness.
    • Mental illness--Treatment.
    • Mentally ill--Commitment and detention.
    • New York (N.Y.)
    • Newport (R.I.)
    • Paris (France)
    • Real property--Rhode Island--Newport.
    • Russell & Co.
    • Tea trade.
    • United States--Commerce--China.
    • Agnew, Cornelius Rea, 1830-1888.
    • King, David, 1812-1882.
    • King, Edward, 1817-1875.
    • King, George Gordon, 1807-1870.
    • King, William Henry, ca. 1819-1897.
    • Silliman, Benjamin D. (Benjamin Douglas), 1805-1901.
    • Correspondence.
    • Legal documents.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   1  
    Correspondence [series]
    Folder   1  
     1844 February 19-1846 February 25
    Folder   2  
     1847 April 12-1854 September 7
    Folder   3  
     1854 September 11-1865 July 21
    Folder   4  
     1865 October 23-1870 July 26
    Folder   5  
    1870 July 29-1870 August 3
    Folder   6  
    1870 August 4-1870 August 11
    Folder   7  
     1875 October 13-1895 July 11
    Folder   8  
    Folder   9  
    Documents [series]
    Folder   10  
     1845 November 17-1858 May 21
    Folder   11  
     1860 January 4-1863 November 11
    Folder   12  
     1864 September 6-1893 August 24
    Folder   13  
     1894 May 10-1900 January 19
    Folder   14  
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Alternate Locations

    Ten land indentures and one broadside are physically located in Oversize Manuscripts.