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Morse Family Papers

Call Number: MS 358

Scope and Contents

The principal figures in this collection are Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) and his sons Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) and Richard Cary Morse (1795-1868). More than half of the collection is made up of correspondence (1779-1868) among members of the family. Also included are legal and financial papers, sermons by Jedidiah and Richard Cary Morse, travel journals, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, printed matter, and photographs.


  • 1779-1868


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Unpublished materials authored or otherwise produced by the creator(s) of this collection are in the public domain. There are no restrictions on use. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the Morse family, 1943-1950. The papers of Richard Cary Morse were given by Mrs. Lawrence C. Wilkinson in 1976.


8 Linear Feet (21 boxes, 1 folio)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

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

Persistent URL


The principal figures in this collection are Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) and his sons Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) and Richard Cary Morse (1795-1868). More than half of the collection is made up of correspondence (1779-1868) among members of the family. Also included are legal and financial papers, sermons by Jedidiah and Richard Cary Morse, travel journals, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, printed matter, and photographs.

Biographical / Historical

Jedidiah Morse was born on August 23, 1761 in Woodstock, Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1783, and remained in New Haven studying theology until 1785, when he was licensed to preach. After a year of preaching and teaching school in Norwich, Connecticut, he returned to Yale as a tutor in 1786. He was ordained on November 9, 1786, and proceeded to Midway, Georgia, where he preached for five months. On April 30, 1789, Morse became the minister of the First Congregational Church of Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he remained for the next thirty years. On May 14, 1789, he married Elizabeth Ann Breese.

Throughout his career as a minister, Morse defended Orthodoxy against Arminianism and Unitarianism. As a member of the board of overseers of Harvard College, he opposed the election there in 1805 of Henry Ware as Hollis Professor of Divinity, because Ware, he felt, was not sufficiently orthodox. From 1805 to 1810, he edited the orthodox periodical Panoplist. In 1808 he helped found Andover Theological Seminary, and in 1809, Boston's Park Street Church. Despite his efforts, Unitarian defection occurred in his own church, and after a few years of friction, he submitted his request for dismissal in 1819.

Morse was active in Evangelism and missionary work. He helped found the New England Tract Society in 1814 and the American Bible Society in 1816. From 1811 to 1819, he served on the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. He was most interested in the conditions of American Indians and the poor living on the Isle of Shoals. In the summer of 1820, the federal govenment commissioned him to study the Indians, and in 1822 he published a report of his findings.

He was a staunch Federalist, opposing republicanism and the prevalent "French influence." In 1801, he helped to found the Federalist periodical The Mercury and New-England palladium.

Morse is best known as the "Father of American geography." He wrote the first geography to come out the United States: published in 1784, it was entitled Geography made easy and it ran to 25 editions in his lifetime alone. He later expanded this work; both it and his other geographies became popular here and abroad, securing a virtual monopoly in America during his lifetime. In 1794 the University of Edinburgh presented him with its honorary S.T.D. degree.

Among his other publications were the article on America for the Encyclopedia Brit[illegible]anica's American edition (1790); a History of New England, (1804) with Elijah Parish, which led to a great literary controversy with Hannah Adams; and Annals of the American Revolution (1824). Morse returned to New Haven in 1819 to devote the remainder of his life to Indian affairs, writing, and preaching. He died on June 9, 1826.

Biographical / Historical

The eldest son of Jedidiah and Elizabeth Ann Morse, Samuel F. B. (Finley Breese) Morse, born on April 27, 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was an artist and inventor known also for his conservative political views.

Morse graduated from Yale in 1810, where he acquired a reputation for painting portraits on ivory. After graduation, he returned to Charlestown, where he met the painters Gilbert Stuart and Washington Alston. They approved of his work, and on July 13, 1811, Morse left for England with Allston, who was his mentor there for the following four years. While there, some of his paintings earned him recognition from members of the Royal Academy. In 1815, he returned to Boston and opened a studio, anxious to resuscitate the glories of the fifteenth century. But Boston was disappointing. Only portraits were in demand, and Morse had to travel widely in order to secure enough commissions to earn a living. He went to Concord, New Hampshire; New Haven; Charleston, South Carolina; and New York, where he remained for several years. His portraits were becoming popular, and he began to have some success. In 1826, he helped to found the National Academy of Design and became its first president, holding classes of instruction for aspiring painters and waging a pamphlet war against the rival American Academy of Fine Arts. He served as president until 1842.

In 1829, probably partially to escape the unpleasant memory of the deaths of his wife, father, and mother during the previous four years, Morse went to Europe to study, paint, and travel. He confined most of his travelling to Italy and Paris. While abroad, he cultivated friendships with James Fenimore Cooper and Horatio Greenough. After three years, he returned to New York, where he was appointed professor of painting and sculpture (later, also professor of the literature of the arts of design) in what is now New York University.

While returning from Europe in October of 1832, a fellow traveller named Charles Thomas Jackson showed Morse certain electrical apparatus he had acquired in Europe. Morse's interest in electricity, fostered earlier by the lectures and demonstrations of Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day at Yale and James Freeman Dana before the New York Athenaeum, was renewed; the following twelve years were spent in perfecting a crude but efficient model of the telegraphic apparatus for which Morse is best known. With the aid of Leonard Dunnell Gale (1800-1883), Joseph Henry, and Alfred Vail, the invention was ready by 1837; but seven years of disappointment and often hunger followed before the funds necessary to construct a working model were supplied. The English and the French were uninterested, and it was not until 1843 that the United States Congress voted the funds ($30,000) for an experimental line, to be built from Washington to Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, Morse sent the famous message "What hath God wrought!" over this line, and Vail in Baltimore returned it correctly. The telegraph was born.

Morse emerged as a leader of the anti-Catholic and Nativist movement in the 1830s and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City in 1836 on the anti-immigration Nativist ticket. By the mid-19th century, Morse was a nationally known pro-slavery supporter. He wrote several tracts during the later half of his life, including: Foreign conspiracy against the liberties of the United States (New York: Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1835); Imminent dangers to the free institutions of the United States through foreign immigration (New York: E. B. Clayton, printer, 1835); and An Argument on the ethical position of slavery in the social system, and its relation to the politics of the day ([New York]: [Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge], 1863).

Biographical / Historical

The son of Jedidiah and Elizabeth Ann Morse, Sidney Edwards Morse was born on February 7, 1794 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He received an A.B. degree from Yale in 1811, and from there went on to study law at Tapping Reeve's law school in Litchfield, Connecticut.

In 1813, he wrote a series of articles on the new southern states, to show "the injustice of erecting new states at the south", and in 1814, he published an explanation of the literary controversy between Hannah Adams and his father, Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826)

At his father's suggestion, Morse helped to establish the Boston religious paper, the Recorder; the first issue appeared on January 3, 1816. In 1817, he left the paper to study at Andover Theological Seminary, where he remained until 1820. He then moved to New York, where, with his brother Richard Cary Morse (1795-1868), he established another religious paper, the New York observer; the first issue appeared on May 17, 1823. Morse was senior editor and proprietor of this paper until 1858.

He assisted his father in revising the famous Geography of the elder Morse, and in 1822 the two edited a New system of modern geography. He made further advances in the field of geography when, in the 1830s, he and Henry A. Munson began working on a new method of printing maps: an engraving was made on wax, and from the engraving a plate to be inserted with the type. Morse had written atlases previously, the first being An Atlas of the United States in 1823, and the new method proved valuable in enabling him to print several more. The first production using the new method was his Geographic atlas of the United States, published in 1842.

He is credited with two other inventions. On October 3, 1817, he and his brother Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) were granted a patent for a "flexible piston pump", and on July 17, 1866, he and his son were granted one for a "bathometer", to be used in deep-sea exploration.

On April 1, 1841, Morse married Catherine Livingston, with whom he had one son and one daughter. He died on December 23, 1871.

Biographical / Historical

Richard Cary Morse, the fourth son of Jedidiah (Y. C. 1783) and Elizabeth Ann Breeze Morse, was born in Charlestown, Mass., June 18, 1795.

He was fitted for college at Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., and after graduating, the youngest member of his class, and spending a year with President Dwight as his amanuensis, he returned to Andover, completed the course at the Theological Seminary and was licensed to preach by the Union Congregational Association of Massachusetts, in October, 1817. During the winter of 1817 and '18 he supplied the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church on John's Island, S.C. Returning North, he was for some time associated with his father in geographical labor, and in editing a universal gazetteer. In 1823 he removed to the city of New York and engaged with his elder brother, Sidney E. Morse (Y. C. 1811), in founding the New York observer, the oldest religious newspaper in that state. He remained associate proprietor and editor till 1858, and then retiring from active life, continued to reside in New York till 1863, when he removed to New Haven. He left for a tour of foreign travel in May, 1868 and died while on tour at Kissingen, Bavaria, Sept. 22, 1868.

Mr. Morse was married Sept. 30, 1828, to Miss Sarah Louisa Davis of Claverack, N. Y., who died in Paris, France, Oct. 17, 1851. Together they had ten children. Four sons were graduates of Yale College, in the classes of 1856, 1862, 1867, and 1868. Mr. Morse married again, Aug. 12, 1856, Miss Harriot Hinckley Messinger of Boston, who survived him.

Biographical information taken from Yale College obituary record, 1859-1870, pp. 302-303.

Processing Information

This finding aid was revised in 2023 to address outdated and incomplete description. During that revision, description was changed in the four Biographical/historical summaries for Morse family members. Previous versions of this finding aid may be available. Please contact the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library for details. If you have questions or comments about these revisions, please contact the repository or the Archival and Manuscript Description Committee. For more information on reparative archival description at Yale, see Yale’s Statement on Harmful Language in Archival Description.

Guide to the Morse Family Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Staff of Manuscripts and Archives
July 1980
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Revision Statements

  • 2023-11-01: Finding aid revised to address outdated and incomplete description. See the processing note for more information.

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