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Joseph R. Williams papers

 Record Group
Identifier: UA-2.1.1

Scope and Contents

The first seventeen folders of this collection contain letters of correspondence with Joseph R. Williams prior to his acceptance of the presidency of the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). Many of these letters are from his father and other family members. Additionally, there are letters to Williams, operating as a land speculator in Ohio and Michigan, from friends and business associates in Massachusetts and New York. The letters reflect a precarious economic system in the 1830s and 1840s, and they also discuss local and national politics in some detail. Folders 26 through 37 contain letters of application to M.A.C. during the years 1857 and 1858. The remainder of the collection includes speeches, legal documents, patent materials, and biographical and autobiographical material.


  • Creation: 1827 - 1867


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to publish material from this collection must be obtained from University Archives & Historical Collections, Michigan State University.

Biographical Note

The first president of the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), Joseph Rickelson Williams, was born at Taunton, Massachusetts on November 14, 1808. Soon after his birth his parents moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Williams was the oldest son of Captain Richard and Rebecca (Smith) Williams and a lineal descendant on his father's side of the Puritan Governor Winslow. Richard Williams was a highly respected shipmaster and after his retirement from the sea, he held the office of Postmaster of New Bedford.

At the age of sixteen, after an unfulfilling two year apprenticeship in a Boston counting house, Williams entered Sandwich Academy where he studied under Luther Lincoln. Mr. Williams graduated from Harvard in 1831 with distinguished honors. After leaving college he studied law in the office of John Paris of Worcester, was admitted to the Bar, and began practicing law in New Bedford.

Because of ill health he relinquished his profession and came to Toledo in 1835 as the agent of a New England company seeking land investments. He remained in Toledo until 1839 when he moved to Constantine, Michigan where he invested heavily, particularly in the construction and operation of flour mills. While in Constantine, Williams became actively involved in politics; was a member of the state constitutional convention of 1850; twice the Whig candidate for Congress, and twice the Whig candidate for the United States Senate against Lewis Cass. In May 1853 he returned to Toledo and purchased the Toledo Blade, a local newspaper. Under his management the Blade became the leading advocate of Republican principles in Northern Ohio. He took prominent and influential positions in public affairs, especially in political matters. In 1856 Williams sold the Blade to Clark Waggoner and G.T. Steward and became President of the Michigan Agricultural College.

After holding this position for three years he was compelled to resign due to neuralgia, a painful nervous disease.

After spending a few months in the Bahamas, Williams returned in 1860 and was elected to the State Senate of Michigan, of which he was made the presiding officer. With the resignation of Lieutenant Governor, Hon. James Birney, Williams became the acting Lieutenant Governor of the State. He held this position until his death from a hemorrhage of the lungs on June 15, 1861 in Constantine, Michigan at the age of 52.

He left a wife, Sarah Rowland Langdon Williams, whom he had married on May 28, 1844 at Buffalo, New York. She was a daughter of John Langdon. Three daughters survived Williams: Charlotte Langdon, the wife of John F. Kumler; Sibyl, the wife of Kent Hamilton; and, Rebecca, the wife of William H. Cooper of New York.


0.5 Cubic Feet

Language of Materials


Custodial History

Papers were transferred by Madison Kuhn and Jeffrey Staines. Other materials were the gift of Kenneth Priestly, 1959-02-22. Transferred by Michigan State University Museum. One copy of a letter was donated by John B. Pickard.

Legal Status

Copyright: Michigan State University.

Property Rights: Michigan State University.

Office of the President. Joseph R. Williams Papers
4 Published And Cataloged
April 1965
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Repository Details

Part of the University Archives and Historical Collections Repository

Conrad Hall
943 Conrad Road, Room 101
East Lansing MI 48824 US