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Samuel Wells Williams family papers

Call Number: MS 547
Description of the Papers

The collection covers three generations of the Williams Family: Samuel Wells Williams, 1812-1884, and his brother Robert Stanton Williams; Frederick Wells Williams, 1857-1928; and Wayland Wells Williams, 1888-1945. The correspondence covers the years 1824-1939, nearly two-thirds of which (10 boxes) relates to Samuel Wells Williams and his life in China and the U. S. In addition to its being the largest part of the collection, the Samuel Wells Williams's correspondence, is by far the richest part.

Throughout this collection there is a great deal of family correspondence. However, Samuel Wells Williams also corresponded with James Dwight Dana, Asa Gray, Anson Burlingame, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Hamilton Fish, Frederick Low, William Bradford Reed, and William Henry Seward. The collection contains few Frederick Wells Williams's letters and none from Wayland Wells Williams. In the later period there is one Pearl Buck letter and a few William Henry Brewer letters.

Samuel Wells Williams, missionary, diplomat, and sinologue sailed for China in 1833 and for nearly forty years this was his home. He first began his work in Macao with the missionary press and repository. He aided others in translating Chinese texts and himself compiled one of the first comprehensive Chinese-English dictionaries, A Syllabic Dictionary of the Chinese Language.

The very early years of the correspondence - 1824 to 1844 - represent a small part of the collection. However there are several letters to and from James Dwight Dana and Peter Parker. The next period which is quite extensive is 1845 to 1855. This part includes correspondence with Elijah Coleman Bridgman, James Dwight Dana and other members of the missionary family in China. An important part of the correspondence falls within the years 1853 and 1854, for it was in this period that Matthew C. Perry and Samuel Wells Williams met. Numerous letters pass between the two. Samuel Wells Williams accompanied Perry on his mission to open Japan and on his return visit in 1854. This trip resulted in some exceedingly interesting letters to friends and family on the progress made and the reception received. In addition, there are copies in Chinese of letters from Perry to the Chinese on Okinawa.

In 1856 Samuel Wells Williams became secretary and interpreter to the American Legation in China. He held this post until he left China in 1876. During this time he corresponded with Anson Burlingame, William Bradford Reed and William Henry Seward. The letters in this section make reference to the following events: 1858-revolution and riot in China and the struggle of foreign powers seeking greater freedom and toleration of missionaries; 1859-English, French and Chinese diplomatic conflict, new treaties with the U. S. and Claims; and 1862-rebel activity and destruction.

During the years 1871 to 1874 a great deal of the correspondence relates to Samuel Wells Williams's dictionary and the inadequacy of the American Legation in China.

The last eight years of Samuel Wells Williams's life were spent in the U. S. where he became the first professor of Chinese languages at Yale and president of the American Bible Society. He also revised his book, The Middle Kingdom. In this final stage there are many letters from missionaries remaining in China, the American Bible Society and voluminous correspondence from Scribners concerning the publishing of The Middle Kingdom.

The remaining correspondence (four boxes) covers the period 1885 to 1939. Personal Correspondence composes 90% or more of this section of the collection. The period from 1885 to 1890 contains more correspondence from Scribners and letters praising Frederick Wells Williams's book about his father. From 1903 the correspondence consists of letters from Wayland Wells Williams's mother, sister and friends. Frederick Wells Williams, the son of Samuel Wells Williams, was a professor at Yale and his son Wayland Wells Williams was a writer.

The collection also includes an annotated copy of the 1848 edition of Williams's The Middle Kingdom, along with a variety of letters, bills, clippings, and illustrations that were interleaved in the two volumes. There are also two journals, which appear to have been written by Williams after the events discussed. One chronicles Williams's trip to Japan with Commodore Matthew Perry, while the other records a trip to Peking in 1858-1859 and seems to be a compilation of extracts from his letters.

Information about Access

The collection is open for research.

Series I. Correspondence, 1824-1939, is available on microfilm. Patrons must use FILM HM 277 instead of the originals.

Series II. Samuel Wells Williams, Journal: trip to Japan with Commodore Perry, is available in digital form. Patrons must use digital use copies instead of the originals.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright status for collection materials is unknown, though much of the material in this collection is likely in the public domain. 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 note

Gift of Yale-in-China from the library of Frederick Wells Williams and of Mrs. Dalton V. Garstin, 1945-1946; and Cynthia G. Blackwell, 1980 (Accession 1981-M-002). Transfer from East Asian Curator, 2004 (Accession 2005-M-014). Gift of Huntington Williams III, 2009 (Accession 2010-M-027), 2012 (Accession 2013-M-006).


The collection is arranged in five series and two additions; all accessions received prior to August 2009 have been incorporated into this arrangement: I. Correspondence, 1824-1939. II. Samuel Wells Williams papers, 1828-1905. III. Frederick Wells Williams papers, 1876-1927. IV. Papers of others, 1831-1941. V. Oversize folios, 1826-1886.

Associated Archival Materials

Williams Family Letters (GEN MSS 761). General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Majority of material found within 1809 - 1941
23.83 Linear Feet (36 boxes)
Related Names
Williams, S. Wells (Samuel Wells), 1812-1884
Language of Materials