Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Joel Munsell Collection, 1848-1913

Finding aid created by
Shannon Wait, June 2011

Summary Information
Title: Joel Munsell collection
Creator: Munsell, Joel, 1808-1880
Inclusive dates: 1848-1913
Bulk dates: 1848-1866
Extent: 31 items
The Joel Munsell collection contains two distinct groups of materials. The first series comprises letters and printed material related to printer and antiquarian Joel Munsell’s 1847-1850 investigation of the 1777 murder of Jane McCrea, and the second series consists of 19 letters from Munsell to Elias Nason, primarily concerning historical publications.
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:

1987, 1999. M-2335, M-4046.

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:

Joel Munsell Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


The materials are into two series:

  • Jane McCrea research
  • Letters to Elias Nason


Joel Munsell was born in Northfield, Massachusetts, on April 14, 1808, the son of wagon-maker Joel Munsell, and his wife, Cynthia Paine. In 1825, he began an apprenticeship in a printing shop in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and two years later, became associate editor of the Albany Microscope, a newspaper that he later purchased. In 1834, Munsell married Jane Bigelow, with whom he had three children before her 1854 death. He remarried, to Mary Ann Reid, in 1856, and had six additional children with her.

By the 1840s, Munsell had acquired another printing plant. His publications increasingly emphasized American history, genealogy, and the history of printing. He became interested in the circumstances surrounding the 1777 murder of Jane McCrea, which had attained mythic proportions during the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Around 1847, he began investigating the truth of the many conflicting accounts of McCrea’s death, most of which blamed a Mohawk named Le Loup. He solicited further information from several historians who had written about the murder, including Charles Neilson and Epaphras Hoyt, and publicized his research through the New York Historical Society, in which he was active. During the period of 1861-1864, he published the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Munsell’s voluminous output and contributions to American history and the study of typography earned him a reputation as one of the most important printers of his time. He died January 15, 1880.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Joel Munsell collection contains 26 letters, 2 essay fragments, a pamphlet, a clipping, and several transcriptions of letters, which the library acquired in two distinct groups. The groupings have been preserved as two series, within which items are arranged chronologically.

The Jane McCrea research series documents Munsell’s 1847-1850 investigation into the 1777 murder of Jane McCrea with correspondence, writings, and printed matter. The eight letters in the series concern the conflicting accounts of the murder by Epaphras Hoyt and Charles Neilson, including Munsell’s letters to each man, soliciting more information, and their responses. In his 9-page letter, dated January 30, 1849, Hoyt purported to describe the exact location of the murder, described the sources of his information, and gave his opinion on Neilson. Neilson’s much briefer letter of January 25, 1849, contradicts Hoyt’s claim that McCrea was "called by any other name than Jane" and describes gathering the information from his parents and other locals. Additionally, the collection contains a 1913 letter by J.T. Holmes that concerns reports of the McCrea murder. Also of interest are two short drafts that Munsell wrote; they shed light on his interest in the matter and express pity for McCrea, "consigned…to the tender mercies of the scribbles in all after ages, at whose hand she has been cruelly maltreated, for more than half a century." Rounding out the series is Hoyt’s version of the McCrea murder story, printed in the Proceedings of the New-York Historical Society (June 1847), and a newspaper clipping containing an 1851 eulogy for Hoyt by Luther B. Lincoln.

The Letters to Elias Nason series contains 19 letters written by Munsell to historian and Congregational minister Elias Nason between 1862 and 1866. Seven of the letters relate to various aspects of the New-England Historical and Genealogical Register, which Munsell published. Topics related to the serial include the inclusion of Dutch-Americans in the register (January 18, 1862), the publication's coverage of Boston (March 15, 1862), and the appropriateness of its commentary on current events (August 19, 1862). The remaining letters primarily concern the publication of two works by Nason, Sir Charles Henry Frankland, Baronet: or Boston in the Colonial Times (1865) and A Memoir of Mrs. Susannah Rowson (1870). Munsell wished to print the works but lamented the poor market for biographies, noting, "I have found it advantageous to disguise such books under some other name" (September 28, 1863). He also discussed errors in Nason's manuscripts (February 21, 1865), the financial concerns of printing Frankland (June 3, 1865), and the flaws in several atlases published by rival firms (November 2, 1865). Other subjects mentioned in Munsell's letters are the poor market for antiquarian books (January 18, 1862) and his views on social history: "I desire to rescue every man's memory from oblivion who has a history , and am garnering up names with facts attached to them…" (March 19, 1862).

Subject Terms

    • Historians--United States--Correspondence.
    • McCrea, Jane, 1753-1777.
    • Mohawk Indians.
    • Murder--Investigation.
    • Printing--United States--History--19th century.
    • Publishers and publishing--United States--History--19th century.
    • United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783.
    • Women.
    • Hoyt, E. (Epaphras), 1765-1850.
    • Munsell, Joel, 1808-1880.
    • Neilson, Charles.
    Genre Terms:
    • Letters (correspondence)
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   2, Small Collections  
    Letters to Elias Nason [series]
    Folder   27  
     January 18-August 19, 1862
    Folder   28  
     November 20, 1862-February 21, 1865
    Folder   29  
     March 21, 1865-September 19, 1865
    Folder   30  
     November 2, 1865-February 3, 1866,  undated
    Box   2, Small Collections  
    Jane McCrea research papers [series]
    Folder   31  
    Folder   32  
    Additional Descriptive Data

    Edelstein, David Simeon. Joel Munsell: Printer and Antiquarian. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1950.

    Case, Wheeler, and Asa Fitch. Revolutionary Memorials. New York: M.W. Dodd, 1852.

    Harvey, George, and J.M. Burdick. An Interesting Relic of the Revolution: The Subscriber, Being Censured Through the Public Prints for Cutting Down the Famous Jane McCrea Tree.... New York: Baker, Godwin & co., printers, 1 Spruce St., 1853.

    Wilson, David. The Life of Jane McCrea: with an Account of Burgoyne's Expedition in 1777. New York: Baker, Goodwin & co., printers, 1852.

    The Clements Library also holds a number of books by Joel Munsell and Epaphras Hoyt.