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Emmons family papers

Call Number: WA MSS S-1306

Scope and Contents

The Emmons Family Papers, consisting of the personal and official papers of George Foster Emmons and George Thornton Emmons, document the history of the United States Navy in the nineteenth century and of early ethnological research on the native peoples of Alaska. The material spans the period 1821-1925, but the majority of the papers fall in the period 1830-1900.

The Emmons Family Papers have been arranged into seven series. Series I-III contain letters to George Foster Emmons. Series IV, Family Correspondence, consists of letters to and from Francis Anthony Thornton, George Foster Emmons, Antonia Emmons, and other members of the extended family as well as the personal and professional letters to George Thornton Emmons. Records of their naval careers kept by George Foster Emmons and George Thornton Emmons are arranged in Series V, Naval Service Material. Series VI, Alaskan Papers of George T. Emmons, is divided into four sections: Scrapbooks, Photographs, Subject Files, and Writings. Series VII, Family Papers, contains material related to George Foster Emmons, George Thornton Emmons, and Kittie Emmons, arranged according to person.

Series I-IV contain the contents of twenty or more letterbooks which were assembled by George Foster Emmons and George Thornton Emmons. The volumes have been dismantled to preserve individual letters and to permit a more accurate chronological arrangement of their contents, but the distinct identity of each letterbook has been maintained. The original arrangement of the letterbooks is laid out in lists prepared by the Eberstadt firm (See folders labeled "Dealer's listing of material"). The titles of the letterbooks are those assigned by the two Emmons. George Foster Emmons identified his letterbooks as either "personal-official" or "official," and this distinction is the basis of Series I and II. Series III, Additional Correspondence of G. F. Emmons, consists of material removed from letterbooks some years ago by persons unknown. It is difficult to discern from which volumes these letter came or who arranged the letters into "court martials" and "California real estate." In Series IV the letterbook "1821-5- Letters of F. A. Thornton, U.S. Navy" was probably constructed by George Thornton Emmons, whose grandmother had given him Thornton's letters (See Box 14, folder 246, note on front cover of letterbook). The other volumes in Series IV were probably assembled by George Foster Emmons. The only correspondence which was not originally in letterbook format is that of George Thornton Emmons. Most of the letterbooks contain sporadic annotations by both Emmonses, although there are more notes by the son. Additional material, such as reports on ships and congressional bills, are scattered throughout the letters. (A portrait of George's brother F. W. Emmons can be found in Box 3, folder 56.)

Series I, G. F. Emmons Personal Correspondence (Boxes 1-7), consists of letters to Emmons from family, friends, and naval colleagues. George Foster Emmons married into the Thornton family, a navy family, as were many of Emmons's blood relatives. George Emmons had cousins named Sawyer, Cummings, and Emmons, who were naval officers. His wife's sister, Betty Thornton, married Thornton Jenkins, who would become head of the Washington Navy Bureau, and Emmons was related by marriage to John B. Marchand, also of the United States Navy. The letters of these correspondents, therefore, contain a mixture of family and naval news, with some discussion of national politics and events. Topics include South America, the Civil War, and the North Pacific Squadron of the late 1860s.

Thornton Jenkins and John B. Marchand were constant sources of news, particularly about pay which depended on federal legislation. Since both were stationed in Washington during the 1850s and 1860s, they were often privy to information before it was publicly announced. Samuel Mercer and Daniel Ammen discussed naval politics with Emmons, while H. B. Sawyer tended to focus on his own career. Although many correspondents touched on family affairs, the letters of F. W. Emmons, George Foster Emmons's brother, are the best source on such matters throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

Emmons, when stationed in Washington and South America, corresponded with officers of the fleet. Daniel Ridgely was in the south Atlantic 1855-56, while Mercer served there in 1856 and 1860-61. Ammen and Jenkins also touched on South America in their letters. Correspondents comment on naval expeditions in the south Atlantic, South American politics, and relations with the United States.

The Civil War is a major topic in Series I. Jenkins was in Washington at the beginning of the war and passed information from the Navy Bureau to Emmons. Most of Emmons's colleagues commented in their letters on the resignation of southern officers and the effect of the war on the navy. F. W. Emmons wrote regarding the Fugitive Slave Law, the Emancipation Proclamation, and national politics.

During the Civil War the navy set up a blockade in the Gulf of Mexico. Emmons, Marchand, Ammen, and Mercer all served on the West Gulf Blockade Squadron or the South Atlantic Blockade Squadron. Starting in 1861, Emmons's correspondents discussed daily life in the blockade fleet, court martials, prize ships, and prize money.

From 1866 to 1869, Series I contains information on the North Pacific Squadron serving off the California coast. Emmons commanded the U.S.S. Ossipee and received letters from officers of the squadron. By the 1870s, Emmons was near retirement, as were most of his friends, and his correspondence concerns social invitations, death notices of naval colleagues, and requests for Emmons's help in promotion.

Series II, G. F. Emmons Official Correspondence (Boxes 8-12), contains letter from naval officers, many of whom were friends or relatives, writing on official business. The letters can be divided into four periods: 1856-60 and 1866, duty off the South American coast; 1861-65, blockade squadron; 1867-68, duty off the California coast; 1872, Philadelphia Navy Yard. Printed circulars (general naval orders), newspaper clippings, and ship records, can be found throughout the correspondence. There are also some letters concerning Emmons's private business investments.

The official letters covering Emmons's South American tour of duty focus on supplying and maintaining the frigate Savannah, which he commanded. Many of the 1857 letters from the purser's office and the navy bureau discuss Emmons's pay. With his letters for 1858, Emmons bound newspaper clippings and printed notices regarding the case of Henry Morris, who brought suit in the Court of Claims in Washington, D.C. over the rate of pay for officers promoted in 1857. The letters from Emmons's return to the South American waters in 1866 again discuss supplies, but also comment on Peruvian politics and prize ships.

Starting in 1863, when Emmons served on the blockade squadrons, his official correspondence contains orders from Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy, and from successive commanders of the squadron, William Kean, D, G. Farragut, J. S. Palmer, and H. K. Thatcher. Most of the letters are to Emmons, although there are a few copies of letters by him. Supplies, crew, court martials, and prize ships are the major topics of discussion.

In 1867, Emmons joined the North Pacific Squadron, based at Mare's Island and under Thatcher's command. The bulk of the letters consist of inter-ship communication, as was often the case when Emmons was on active duty. Desertions posed a serious problem and many letters report breaches of discipline. Emmons added clippings from California newspapers to his letters for 1867-68.

The last group of letters in Series II date from 1872 when Emmons was commandant of the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The letters, which concern daily business, are a mixture of copies of Emmons's outgoing letters along with the incoming mail. Also included are newspaper clippings regarding contemporary Philadelphia.

Series III, Additional Correspondence of G. F. Emmons , (Box 13) consists of letters from family and colleagues arranged chronologically and covering the same period as Series I and II.

Series IV, Emmons Family Correspondence (Boxes 14-17), contains correspondence involving Francis A. Thornton, George Foster Emmons, Antonia Emmons, and George Thornton Emmons. Francis Thornton, who was a purser, received letters from Edward Fitzgerald and Samuel Hambleton concerning the purser's department, naval ordinance, and congressional bills. George Foster Emmons wrote to his father-in-law frequently, keeping him abreast of the latest naval news, as well as family affairs. After 1850, the correspondence becomes increasingly personal.

The second and third letterbooks in Series IV contain family letters to George Foster and Antonia Emmons along with correspondence between husband and wife. The letterbook "1828-58 Personal Letters Thornton & Emmons Family" contains letters exchanging family news, commenting on the Mexican War, and chronicling Emmons's early career. The third letterbook, "1860-67 Letters, G.F.-A. Emmons, During Rebellion," documents Emmons's role in the blockade of the Gulf of Mexico. It enhances the picture of blockade duty sketched by Emmons's official letters in Series II and other personal letters in Series I.

The last two sections of Series IV consist of the official and personal correspondence of George Thornton Emmons. These letters, which were not bound in a letterbook, have been divided into official orders or communications from the navy and letters from colleagues and friends. The orders document Emmons's career, while professional letters focus on his Alaskan activities. Although there is correspondence with American and British naval officers, the bulk of the personal-official correspondence are from scholars and government civil servants. These letters discuss Alaskan native peoples, wildlife, and environment, especially in relation to Emmons's special projects for the United States government. Letters for 1901-03 discuss the Alaskan boundary affair and include affidavits from natives and white settlers.

Series V, Naval Service Material (Boxes 18-22), contains naval records compiled by George Foster Emmons and George Thornton Emmons. The first subseries, Ship Journals and Letterbooks, houses chronologically arranged journals and captain's letterbooks. The journals begin with a brief autobiographical sketch of Emmons's career and a list of officers, followed by a daily log. The log recounts shipboard events, Emmons's duties, weather conditions, and nautical measurements; sometimes the last two elements are recorded in tables accompanying the text. Letterbooks contain copies of Emmons's letters to other officers and some miscellaneous material. These records complement Emmons's correspondence in Series I, II, IV.

The two journals of the frigate Brandywine span the ship's Mediterranean cruise 1830-33 and the South American expeditions of the barques Consort and Pioneer in 1836-38. There are notes on the naming of Gibraltar in the first volume, while newspaper clippings regarding the South American expeditions can be found in the second volume.

From 1843-46, Emmons served on the sloop of war Boston and the frigate Raritan, again on duty in South American waters. His journal follows the usual format, with newspaper clippings on the fleet and some notes on Paraguay. In the back of the volume there are two lists of nautical measurements for the cruises of the Consort and Pioneer. Emmons also kept an account of his correspondence for 1843-54 and 1847-64 at the back of the volume, noting the date, to whom he was writing, where he was, where they were, and how he sent the letter.

The cruise of the frigate Savannah is documented by Emmons's journal, 1853-56, and then his letterbook, 1856-58. The journal has detailed information on the crew and supplies. Emmons used the back of this volume to note missing letters, the letters he wrote 1853-57, and information on crew who were injured and sent home. There are also official letters and reports, obviously cut out of a letterbook, which have been placed within the journal. The letterbook contains copies of Emmons's letters to the fleet commander Samuel Mercer, other officers of the fleet, and junior officers of the Savannah. There are also copies of letters he received. The letters record the daily affairs, especially the equippage and condition of the ship, and problems with the crew.

The letterbook of the U.S.S. Lackawanna has copies of letters from and to Emmons in 1865. Gideon Welles figures prominently among the correspondents, although there are copies of letters from various fleet commanders. Newspaper clippings regarding prize ships can be found, as well as a section labeled "samples of circulars and Blockade Instructions," and about twenty pages of notes on the navy. The letterbook of the U.S.S. Ossipee follows the usual pattern and documents Emmons service in the North Pacific Squadron under H. K. Thatcher. There are copies of Welles's instructions and thoughts on the transfer of Alaska as well as two hand- drawn maps recording the Ossipee's route through Alaskan waters.

George Thornton Emmons served as an executive officer on the U.S.S. Pinta. At the beginning his journal are lists labeled "Ordinance Receipt Book," noting what supplies the Pinta received and from where. The bulk of the journal contains nautical readings for the ship's explorations of the inland passages along Alaska's coast. Occasionally, the cruises are illustrated with a hand-drawn maps.

The second subseries of Series V, Orders and Reports, is arranged chronologically, except for the printed navy regulations which are located at the end of the series (See Box 22, folders 390-91). "Circulars and Orders" is a scrapbook kept by George Foster Emmons of newspaper clippings, printed general orders, and photoreproduced and hand-written documents regarding military and civil law, especially court martials. "Reports on Navy Vessels, Prizes," also by George Foster Emmons, is a detailed account of the history of naval vessels for the Civil War period. Listed alphabetically, information regarding a ship's missions, weaponry, and if it was a prize vessel is recorded in hand notes and newspaper clippings. Emmons recorded the daily business of his command in "Reports from the Navy Yard, Philadelphia," chronologically arranged with notes for each day listed under the naval office or bureau which was involved.

George Thornton Emmons kept some records of the navy's administration of Alaska at the turn of the century. His "Accounts of the Government of the District of Alaska" include records of garrison supplies, a register of visitors, and a listing of government acts. A journal for 1900-01 details the administration of justice amongst the native Alaskans. Also included is a glossary of "Terms or Words in Current use in Alaska."

Series VI, Alaskan Material of George T. Emmons (Boxes 23-27), contains George Thornton Emmons's research material concerning Alaskan Indians, environment, and wildlife. The material is divided into four sections: Scrapbooks, Photographs, Subject Files, and Writings.

The first scrapbook "Alaska Work, Writings, Letters and Notes" contains a variety of material, from newspaper clippings documenting his marriage and Alaskan visits to correspondence with institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History. Newspaper clippings, letters, and a typescript article for the Department of Agriculture, "The Woodlands of Alaska," contain information on the special projects he undertook for the government. Emmons's investigation in 1901-04 of the Alaskan boundary markers is well documented in this scrapbook. There is even material related to his report on the conditions of the Alaskan natives, the focus of the second scrapbook.

The second scrapbook relates to Emmons's 1904 mission to assess the welfare of Alaskan Indians. Material includes letters, clippings, and a copy of his report to the United States Senate (Conditions and Needs of the Natives of Alaska. 58th Cong., 3d sess., 1905, S. Doc. 106) as well as correspondence showing his concern for the regulation of the salmon fisheries.

The subseries Photographs contains prints and some negatives of Alaskan Indians and artifacts, many of which were used in his publications.

Subject Files is divided into General Files and Tlingit Qwans. The General Files consist of notes, a few draft prose pieces, sketches, and other material relating to Tlingit and possibly the Tahltan Indians; the inter-relationships between these two groups makes it difficult to judge. The distinction is particularly difficult in regards to the folders labeled "Chapter...." Emmons published a lengthy article on the Tahltan in 1911, but he also wrote a sizable article about the Tlingit, which is being published for the first time from the manuscript held by the American Museum of Natural History. (The museum, in conjunction with University of Washington Press, is publishing Emmons's manuscript under the title The Tlingit Indians by George Thornton Emmons with annotations and additions by Frederica de Laguna.)

Tlingit Qwans, the second section of Subject Files in Series VI, contains research material on the qwans, a tribal sub-grouping, and the smaller family units within qwans. A list of Tlingit qwans is followed by information on each qwan, arranged alphabetically by name, which includes a list of families, notes on the origin and history of the qwan, and information on villages and houses. This material is followed by more detailed data about individual families, including a list of Wolf and Raven families (a common division of a qwan).

George Thornton Emmons's printed articles are arranged chronologically at the end of Series VI. He has inserted notes, correspondence, extra illustrations, and other material into his copies of "The Basketry of the Tlingit," "Extract from the New York Times," and "Tahltan Indians."

Series VII, Family Papers , consists primarily of artwork by George Foster Emmons, George Thornton Emmons, and his wife Kittie M. Emmons.

There are more extensive papers in Series VII for George Foster Emmons. Emmons's compiled a scrapbook of newspaper clippings regarding the land battles of the Civil War. One of the earliest documents for Emmons is a volume on "Seamanship," a combination of notes and sketches, which he composed after finishing his training at the Brooklyn naval school. A scrapbook of invitations for 1869-73 gives evidence of his social position toward the end of his career. Finally, the collection includes drawings he made while serving on the frigate Brandywine.

George Thornton Emmons, like his father, was an artist. His "Christmas Pamphlet" for 1886 contains a series of oil paintings depicting Alaskan scenery. The only other material related to George Thornton Emmons are two diplomas noting his involvement with a 1909 "Alaskan-Yukon-Pacific Exposition." The collection also holds a watercolor by Kittie Emmons.


  • 1821-1925


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research. Box 32: Restricted fragile material. Reference surrogates have been substituted in the main files. For further information consult the appropriate curator.

Conditions Governing Use

The Emmons Family Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers of George Foster Emmons and the letters of Francis Anthony Thornton were purchased from Edward Eberstadt and Sons. In 1953 Charles Eberstadt donated the 1909 diplomas of George Thornton Emmons; the rest of the George Thornton Emmons papers were donated to The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library by Lindley Eberstadt in 1973.

Associated Materials

Additional George Foster Emmons manuscripts came to Yale in the 1940s as part of William R. Coe's gift of his collection. Chiefly documenting Emmons's involvement in the Wilkes expedition of 1838-42, this material has been cataloged as follows: Western Americana Ms. 166, three journals of the cruise of the sloop of war Peacock; Western Americana Ms. 167, two sketchbooks from the same cruise; Western Americana Ms.168, letterbook of official correspondence for 1828-50; Western Americana Ms. 169, scrapbook of material regarding court martials of 1842.


14.5 Linear Feet ((32 boxes) + 1 broadside)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers, consisting of the personal and official papers of George Foster Emmons and George Thornton Emmons, document the history of the United States Navy in the nineteenth century and of early ethnological research on the native peoples of Alaska. The papers contain extensive correspondence of naval officers and the Emmons's family, ship's journals and captain's letterbooks, naval orders and reports, research notes and publications on Alaska, scrapbooks, and artwork by the Emmons family.


George Foster Emmons, a career officer, began training at the Brooklyn naval school in 1828. Upon completing his studies in 1834, he married Antonia Thornton, daughter of Francis Anthony Thornton, who was head purser of the United States Navy.

From 1830-33, Emmons served on the frigate Brandywine cruising in the Mediterranean. His next assignment took him to South America where Emmons would spend most of his career. He served on several ships before 1838 when he joined the Wilkes expedition exploring Antarctic. He returned to South America for most of the 1840s, although in 1847 he was sent to the Pacific division to patrol the California coast. In the 1850s Emmons alternated between commanding the frigate Savannah off South America and serving in the naval Bureau of Construction and Equipment, Washington, D.C. During the Civil War, Emmons guarded the Texas coast as part of the West Gulf Blockade Squadron. In 1866 he became captain of the U.S.S. Ossipee in the North Pacific Squadron and the following year escorted the American commissioners to take official possession of Alaska.

Emmons last duty was commandant of the Navy Yard in Philadelphia in 1870-72. He attained the rank of commodore in 1868; in 1872 he was promoted to rear admiral and retired from active service.

Emmons spent the early part of his career gathering data on the navy which was published The Navy of the United States, from the commencement, 1775 to 1853; with a brief history of each vessel's service and fate as appears upon record (1853).


George Thornton Emmons, son of George Foster Emmons, was a career officer who graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1874. His first posts were aboard ships attached to the European Station. Emmons attained the rank of master in 1881 and became a lieutenant in 1883.

In 1882, Emmons was transferred to the U.S.S. Pinta, which was stationed in Alaska. He continued on duty in Alaska until 1891 and served there again in 1894-96. In Sitka, Alaska, he met and married Kittie Baker in 1886. During this period, Emmons collected artifacts and compiled notes on the natives of southeastern Alaska, especially the Tlingit and Tahltan Indians. From 1891-93 Emmons was assigned to the Interior Department as a special agent to accompany the Alaskan exhibit in the World's Columbian Exposition. Most of Emmons's subsequent duty was determined by his Alaskan experience.

Emmons was retired from active service in 1899 and ordered on a series of special projects for various branches of the federal government. The State Department sent Emmons to Alaska in 1901 to locate Russian stone markers which were crucial to the resolution of a boundary dispute between Canada and the United States. He gathered evidence from Indians and white settlers through 1904. In 1902 the Department of Agriculture asked for Emmons's advice regarding Alaskan game and forests, while the Treasury Department requested information on Alaskan salmon fisheries. Starvation among the Copper River Indians led Emmons in 1904 to ask President Roosevelt for permission to investigate conditions among Alaskan natives. Roosevelt supported him, and in 1905 Emmons's report was presented to Congress.

Emmons's interest in Alaskan Indians brought him into close association with the American Museum of Natural History. He had amassed a large collection of Alaskan Indian artifacts which he sold to the museum in the 1890s, and continued to sell, donate, or exchange items with the museum for the next three decades. In 1896 F. W. Putnam, curator of the American museum, asked the navy for Emmons's help on a report about the Alaskan Indians. The following year the museum repeated its request, and this time the navy not only acquiesced, but officially ordered Emmons to write "Ethnological report on the Native tribes of Southeastern Alaska, elaborated from the museum collections" and detached him from active service. Emmons became a regular contributor to The American Museum Journal (forerunner of Natural History) and other scholarly periodicals. He corresponded regularly with Franz Boas, a member of the museum's anthropology department, and with P. E. Goddard, curator of ethnology.

Guide to the Emmons Family Papers
by Susie R. Bock
1991 September
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

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