Wilson family papers  1704-1884
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Wilson family papers contains over 4,000 letters relating to the lives and fortunes of three generations of the family of William Wilson, residents of Clermont, N.Y, in the mid-Hudson River Valley. Virtually all of the letters in the collection were received by members of the Wilson family, with only a very few out-going drafts. Together, these present an impressively detailed perspective on many aspects of family life, political culture, agriculture, commerce, and the economy of Columbia and Dutchess County, N.Y., in the fifty years following the end of the American Revolution. As well being educated, energetic members of the social elite, the Wilsons engaged in a variety of pursuits, from the legal and medical professions, to land proprietorship, farming, and politics, and they commented extensively at every turn. A genealogical chart of the Wilson family, detailing the relationships of all those mentioned in the collection can be found in box 42:11.

The core of the Wilson papers consists of the letters received by William Wilson, who shouldered a wide variety of responsibilities in Columbia and Dutchess counties and knew their residents intimately. The breadth of his interests brought him into contact with many of the state's leading citizens, but also with the tenant farmers, medical patients, merchants and clerks. William's major pursuit in life was medicine, and his surviving papers contain seven medical daybooks (40:3; 47:9-14), providing a chronological record of his visits, diagnoses and prescriptions, as well as his fees. He also kept two notebooks dealing with the causes and symptoms of various diseases (47:15, 16), and scattered throughout his papers are letters from patients discussing their illnesses. Of particular importance are the letters relative to the deaths of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and his wife, for whom Wilson was the attending physician (18:6-10; 19:15, 21, 23). Wilson was also a founding member of the Medical Society of Dutchess and Columbia Counties in 1796, and was associated with the founding of the New York Medical Society, as well as with the effort to establish a medical college (15:69; 16:17, 24, 44, 46, 52, 66, 70, 76, 80; 17:3, 13, 17, 23, 29; 45:19).

William Wilson was also employed as an administrator of landed property, usually for members of the Livingston family, and particularly Henry Livingston (1752/53-1823). The wide-spread unrest among "General Livingston's" tenants is discussed in many of the letters, along with more general discussions of land tenure, proprietary power, and tenant satisfaction. Wilson also served as administrator for the property of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, especially during the latter's appointment to France, for two absentee landlords from New York City, Walter Rutherford and J. Stark Robinson (41:1, 2); and he was an executor or administrator for the estates of Robert Cambridge Livingston (1742-1794) (42:1), Peter Robert Livingston (1737-1794) (42:7), and the Chancellor (42:6). The materials relating to Livingston rental properties consists largely of receipts for rents received, but also include lease agreements, about twenty account books relative to the Chancellor's lands, and negotiations for the sale of land, especially the Chancellor's property in New Jersey after his death.

In 1791, Wilson added the office of Deputy Postmaster to his collection of responsibilities, becoming the first such agent for the town of Clermont. He was reappointed in 1803, and continued at his lucrative post until surrendering it to his son in 1825. As with everything else, Wilson saved all of his papers (42:12-15), and this the collection includes Wilson's original appointment commissions, signed by Post Master General Timothy Pickering (1:46 and 12:72), as well as the postal accounts and other records, which are generally of an administrative and bureaucratic nature. There are a few scattered items from correspondents critical of the speed and unreliability of the mails.

William Wilson also filled various political appointments in the county, and was active in state politics. As a Jeffersonian-Republican, befitting a friend of Chancellor Livingston, he played an important local role as judge of the county court, yet while many of his letters are addressed to "Judge" Wilson, virtually nothing pertaining to his official judicial activities survives in the collection apart from a series of receipts from various sheriffs and a few examinations of a woman for illegitimacy (43:44; 41:19). However Wilson corresponded with other judges and lawyers in the region, a fair amount of which has been preserved, especially from Peter Van Schaack and members of the prominent Van Ness family. Wilson's role as one of the first school supervisors in the area is represented by some scant records (41:22), as is his position as a commissioner for the granting of tavern licenses (41:23).

Wilson was involved in two other county-wide projects that had an important impact on Columbia County, and for which there is excellent material. One of these was the construction of the Highland Turnpike, which ran from Westchester County to near Albany, with gates in Columbia County. Wilson sat on its Board of Directors, and was a frequent and regular correspondent with its president, Joseph Howland (43:1, 2). Howland's are among the few letters that bear on broader national issues, and are in many ways the most interesting series of letters in the collection (see especially 17:87). Secondly, Wilson was instrumental in the establishment of the Agricultural Society of Dutchess and Columbia Counties, or the "Farm Club," as it was usually called. As (variously) president, vice president, secretary, or treasurer, Wilson was intimately involved in the operation of the organization. Of particular interest is the material relative to the annual county fairs held by the club, and the notifications from potential participants, the standards for awards, and the lists of winners (41:3-11). These records, together with the information to be gathered from the receipts from merchants, presents a detailed picture of agricultural life in the rural Hudson Valley.

In sum, those portions of the Wilson Papers that deal directly with William Wilson and his many activities provides a comprehensive picture of rural life in Columbia County and the state of New York in the forty years after the American Revolution.

The letters from Wilson's children offer insights into other aspects of life in early nineteenth-century New York. Alexander Wilson wrote many letters to his father while a student, and it is from his papers that one gets a good idea of the nature of legal education at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Alexander's early death means there is little material relating to his career as a practicing attorney, but what is lacking from Alexander is more than made up for by the papers of his younger brother, Robert. Robert kept extensive records of his practice, including a register of cases covering the entire period of his independent practice in New York, 1823-1830 (46:17), and his day books and account books, which list his professional duties preformed on behalf of clients, and his expenses, fees, and collections (40:1; 46:15,16). The Wilson Papers also includes file papers for many of the cases in which Robert participated (43:5-30), providing a broad, and occasionally deep insight into one man's legal practice in the early 19th century.

The letters of Wilson's other sons are less numerous than those of Alexander and Robert. William H. spent most of his life in Clermont, and so wrote less often, and Stephen B. was a secretive man, who simply did not write many letters. William H. wrote several letters during his tour of duty on the Lake Champlain frontier during the War of 1812 (18:43, 52; 19:18, 26, 36, 47, 56, 60, 68; 20:16, 18), but these are preoccupied with descriptions of camp life and military "politics" rather than strategy or the social impact of the war. William succeeded his father as Deputy Postmaster in 1825, and kept the same copious records as his father (42:12-15). He was not, however, as active in politics as his father, and except for a few letters relating to his run for a seat in the state senate in 1839, and some candidate lists and election return broadsides (41:25-27), there is little of political interest in William's papers. Stephen's letters are the more interesting for their rarity. When he does write, it is well worth the reading.

In addition to the letters written and collected by William, William H., and Robert L. Wilson, the Wilson Papers contain a vast quantity of documents. The largest category of this material contains an enormous number of accounts and receipts from merchants with whom the Wilsons did business. In terms of the number of items, fully half of the Wilson Papers is comprised of these accounts. Approximately 800 individual laborers, craftsmen, merchants, and business firms are represented as having done business with one or another member of the Wilson family, and the collection includes accounts for nearly every kind of household goods, from furniture to food to building materials, agricultural supplies, from seeds to fruit trees to sheep, and personal goods, from cheap "segars" to an "invalid chair" for Robert L., to wine.

The accounts (box 44 and 45:1-16) are arranged alphabetically by creditor. A complete list of merchants and firms represented in the collection is included under "Merchants" in the subject index. The accounts are a particularly valuable resource for social historians. For example the accounts of Samuel Haner (44:12) document aspects of blacksmithing; those of the Clermont grocers Bonesteel and Broadhead (44:4) reveal aspects of diet and nutrition; those of Thomas Beekman (44:2) document medicine and medical supplies; and those of Peter Outwater (45:6) provide information on transportation and commerce on the Hudson River. Receipts for payment that do not include goods or services are filed by surname (45:20-23). The collection also includes a number of the Wilsons' account books, especially William's and Robert's, which offer a view of the other side of the ledger (40:5; 46:18; 47:1, 2).

A second subdivision of the collection, and one closely related to the merchant accounts, deals with land administration. In addition to the correspondence of Henry Livingston with William Wilson mentioned above, the collection contains several subject files related to this important issue in Hudson River Valley history. Most important are the folders containing information on absentee landlords (41:1, 2); deeds (41:4); land grants (43:4); leases (43:31, 32); mortgages (45:17); various rental accounts (46:1-7); surveys and surveying (46:8); as well as William Wilson's rental account books (46:17-20).

Finally the collection contains a small body of material of an essentially genealogical or local history value, and a wide, if not very deep, collection of letters of the Livingston family. William Wilson was an executor for some of the Livingston family estates, most notably for Robert Cambridge Livingston (42:1, 2) and Robert R. Livingston (42:3-6), as well as for other estates (41:29; 42:7-10). The information included in the "genealogy" folder (42:11) is particularly helpful in interpreting the material relating to estate settlement and administration.

The local history of the town of Clermont and Columbia County appears throughout the collection, ranging from arrest warrants to local taxes, and including a very important group of papers relating to the establishment of Clermont Academy (41:16-23). As for the Livingstons, while the famous Chancellor does not overpower the collection, the Livingston family does play an important part. Over sixty members of the family are mentioned in some significant way in the Wilson Papers. Some -- like "General" Henry with his tenant problems, the administration of the estates of Walter T. Livingston (1772-1827) and the Chancellor (42:3-7), or the letters of Edward Philip Livingston (1779-1843) concerning his trip to France -- are meaningful parts of the collection (9:78, 86, 98; 10:8, 64). Other Livingstons are merely the signers of documents or letters, such as Janet Livingston Montgomery's (1743-1828) announcement that she plans to enter the Farm Club fair, a request from Mary Thong Livingston Wilson for financial assistance after the birth of Wilson's grandson, or the Chancellor's grandson, Clermont Livingston, who signed a quit claim deed for the benefit of Clermont Academy.

In sum, the Wilson papers are primarily a collection of family papers. While some members of the family participated in significant activities, and while the letters relating to those activities are important, there is a strongly personal aspect about them, and whatever broader historical significance that can be gotten from them must be gotten in the mass.

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