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John Hall Paxton papers

Call Number: MS 629

Scope and Contents

The Paxton Papers focus on John Hall Paxton's diplomatic career, 1925 to 1952. Except for several folders of Yale College manuscripts and essays from the years 1920 to 1922, the Papers contain no item dated before 1925.

The Paxton Papers are divided into four series. The first three series group materials around the three major phases of Paxton's diplomatic career. The fourth encompasses all personal material, miscellaneous material, and the papers of Paxton's second wife, Vincoe.

I. 1925 to 1929 (primarily from 1927 to 1929): The Nanking Incident and its Aftermath

The documents on this period focus on the Nationalist take-over of the American Consulate and Paxton's efforts to recover American property. These include thirty-three official reports, eleven memoranda, and several rough drafts or fragments of memoranda. Most are political or military analyses of the Nationalist regime after the Nanking Incident. Paxton's general correspondence (approximately 95 incoming and 60 outgoing) also focuses on the 1927-1929 period.

Although Paxton saved little family correspondence during this period, he did keep three letters (1927-1928) that reveal his deep dissatisfaction with the State Department's reaction to the Nanking Incident. He also saved approximately fifteen newspaper accounts of the crisis.

II. 1930 to 1943: Sino-Japanese War and American-Japanese Relations in China

Although this series concentrates on the years 1937 through 1942, it does contain some pre-1937 material. There are twenty-five memoranda on routine consulate procedures and financial records of the Nanking Consulate up to 1938. The series also contains five reports and memoranda on China's economy (1933-1934) as well as a letter from J.W. Ballantine on the banking crisis in Canton (1934). Paxton's correspondence includes a 1935 letter to Ambassador Nelson Johnson on "Sino-Japanese Relations in the Chefoo Consular District." But for the most part, few of the 560 (210 outgoing, 350 incoming) pieces of correspondence in this series concern the 1930-1936 period.

In contrast, most of the correspondence in this series and all of the thirty-four newspaper clippings deal with the Panay Incident and the internment of Americans at Nanking. There are also sixteen memoranda on the two events as well as Paxton's published account of internment in the Yale Alumni Magazine (October, 1942). Paxton's Papers also contain an anonymous diary of an American who shared Paxton's confinement. It now appears that the author was a secretary named Hilda Anderson.

Few papers survive from Paxton's brief stay in Tehran; most are letters (approximately 125) written to and from his mother about family matters. There is also one letter from his first wife, Ann, and another from his second wife, Vincoe.

III. 1944 to 1952: American Relations in Post-War China and Iran

For the years 1944 through 1946 there are seven memoranda and approximately eighty pieces of correspondence (35 outgoing, 45 incoming). Much of this material concerns U.S. foreign policy in chaotic post-war China. Three letters between Paxton and Everett Drumright (1946) and two letters between Paxton and Willys Peck (1946) reflect Paxton's disagreements with the State Department.

However, most of the material in this third series focuses on Paxton's tenure as Consul to Sinkiang and his dramatic escape from China. Memoranda from this period contain little information; most are evaluations of personnel in the Consulate. But Paxton did write an unpublished book entitled Consul to Sinkiang, and he did file a lengthy report on his escape. The Saturday Evening Post published Paxton's story of his trip out of China in an article entitled "I Escaped Over the Roof of the World" and U.S. Camera published a photo-essay of the journey. Paxton also recorded his adventures in fourteen personal letters to family and friends (1949).

Over two-thirds of the 1000 (380 outgoing, 620 incoming) pieces of correspondence in this series is dated after 1949. And much of it concerns the problems of refugees from Communist China—particularly the problems of refugees from the East Turkestan area. Paxton's correspondence also contains fourteen letters to and from Margaret Mackiernan, wife of American diplomat Douglass Mackiernan who died in northwestern China trying to escape to India. The Communist press accused Mackiernan and Paxton of espionage.

In addition to reports, correspondence, memoranda, and journalistic accounts of Paxton's experiences in Sinkiang, the papers include three valuable sets of photographs. The first set—mounted in a photo album entitled "Tihwa Area"—contains 427 black and white and 31 color photographs of the people and geography of Tihwa, Sinkiang. About one-half of the 458 photographs have captions. The second and third set record Paxton's trip over the Himalayas to escape advancing Communist troops. These two sets are virtually identical (93 color and 125 black and white photographs) and are mounted in near-identical photo albums. One album has captions; the other has a key to the photographs. Paxton also had sixty of the photographs blown up to 13 1/2" x 10 1/2" and mounted on cardboard.

There is little material on Paxton's work as Consul to Isfahan, Iran. An official report and a photograph album (122 black and white photographs) record Paxton's trip to Iran via Beruit. This and a smattering of newspaper clippings, notes on Iranian culture and language, and family correspondence are the only items in these papers that cover this phase of Paxton's career.

IV. Personal

This series contains personal material that rarely has any direct bearing on any one phase of Paxton's diplomatic career. There are three folders of Paxton's essays, poetry, short stories, and plays written at Yale (1920 to 1922). Two large folders contain lists and inventories of Paxton's personal belongings at various times in his career, and three folders hold financial correspondence between Paxton and the First National Bank of Danville, Virginia (1940-1943).

Most of the 172 pieces of family correspondence (79 outgoing, 93 incoming) comes from Paxton or his mother, Una, and most of it does not concern Paxton's work. There are, however, several significant exceptions. Three letters by Paxton written after the Nanking Incident (1927-1928) and another letter written after the Panay Incident (1937) deal with Paxton's reaction to crisis. Fourteen more letters written during Paxton's escape from China (1949) are also revealing.

This series contains the writings of others which include radio scripts, articles, pamphlets, and a bibliography. There are also seven maps of various portions of the world.

The sub-series miscellaneous includes a guest book with signatures (1929-1955), Paxton's autograph book from the Brethren of Pearl River Lodge, passports, various autobiographical notes, certificates, fifty "Sound-scriber" recording discs, miscellaneous photographs, and a watercolor painting by Una Paxton.

Vincoe Paxton's writings in these papers include two items—a published article entitled "Among Men of Asia" (1954) and a plan for nursing education in Illinois (1961). The bulk of her 255 pieces of correspondence (1950-1958)-1961) deals with John Hall Paxton. Many letters to Vincoe Paxton are condolences following her husband's death, and many outgoing letters concern her efforts to publish her husband's book, Consul to Sinkiang.


  • 1920-1961


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright status for 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 Mrs. Vincoe Paxton, 1972.


Arranged in four series: I. 1925-1929. II. 1930-1943. III. 1944-1952. IV. Personal.


9 Linear Feet (22 boxes, 1 folio)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

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

Persistent URL


Correspondence, writings, photographs and printed materials of John Hall Paxton, American foreign service officer. The papers reflect primarily Paxton's service in China from 1925 to 1949, broken only by a year in Teheran in 1943. He made a dramatic escape from China (1949) and returned to the United States. He broadcast for the Voice of America, and returned as Consul to Isfahan, Iran in 1951, where he died in 1953. His papers include reports on Chinese economic and political conditions, memoranda on Nanking and the Nationalist takeover in 1927; an account of the U.S.S. Panay incident in 1937, to which he was an eyewitness; a record of his internment in Nanking by the Japanese in 1942, and articles and letters on his escape from China in 1949. An unpublished manuscript, Consul to Sinkiang, is among the papers, as are extensive collections of photographs of China and Iran. Correspondents include Everett Drumright, Margaret Mackiernan, wife of Douglass Mackiernan, and Willys Peck.

Biographical / Historical

John Hall Paxton spent the first twenty-three years of his life living alternately in the United States and China. Born July 28, 1899, in Galesburg, Illinois, Paxton was the eldest son of Presbyterian missionaries to China home on leave after the Boxer Rebellion. In 1901 Paxton left with his parents for China but returned to America in 1912 to attend Pittsburgh's Brookline Public School. One year later he returned to China, entered the Shanghai American School, and graduated with a high school diploma in 1917. Paxton came back to the United States once more in 1917 to attend Phillips Academy and then Yale College. He graduated from Yale with a B.A. in 1922.

In the fall of 1922 Paxton matriculated at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but soon moved to France where he gained admission to L'Ecole libre des Sciences Politiques in 1924. Along with V.C.C. Collum, he spent his time translating Jacques de Morgan's Prehistoric Manand other French scientific works.

The young graduate student did not remain long in France, for in late 1924 he sailed for New York to take the Foreign Service examination. After passing the test in 1925, he spent several months in training and then received an assignment to Nanking, China. Although never destined to be a major policy maker, John Hall Paxton did become a skilled reporter for the State Department during the next twenty-five turbulent years of Chinese history.

From 1925 to 1929 Paxton served as Vice-Consul to Nanking, watching four Chinese governments rise and fall within two years. Nanking finally returned to a semblence of political stability in 1927 after the bloody "Nanking Incident" when Nationalists looted foreign property and took over the city. Paxton helped evacuate foreigners during the crisis and afterwards worked to restore American property and prestige.

From 1930 to 1942 Paxton held a variety of posts in China, including Language Attaché at Peiping (1929-1931), Cousul at Canton (1932-1934), Consul at Chefoo (1934-1936), Second Secretary of the Embassy at Nanking (1937), and Consul at Shanghai on assignment to Nanking (1938-1942). In each of these positions he watched Sino-Japanese tensions escalate into open warfare.

On several occasions Paxton was more than just an observer. He directed the evacuation of foreigners from the Chinese city of Sian in 1936 and then found himself caught in the cross-fire between Chinese and Japanese forces in 1937 while aboard the U.S.S. Panay. Japanese bombers accidentally sank the American gunboat, an act which only worsened an already poor American-Japanese relationship. Paxton continued to monitor events in China until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Japanese troops interned the entire American Consulate at Nanking. Six months later he and his co-workers were repatriated by a Japanese exchange ship.

After a brief assignment to Tehran, Iran (1943), Paxton returned to China as a Cultural Attache (1944-1946) and later became the American Consul to Sinkiang, China's northwest province (1946-1949). From his frontier post he recorded the efforts of various Communist factions—Chinese and Russian—to win military and political control of the area. And in 1949 he gained national attention by fleeing over the Himalayas to escape advancing Communist troops.

Returning to the United States, Paxton made radio broadcasts to Asia for the Voice of America until being reassigned as Consul to Isfahan, Iran, in 1951. During this time he corresponded with many refugees from China and helped with their resettlement.

Paxton died suddenly of a heart attack on June 23, 1952 at the age of 53.

Guide to the John Hall Paxton Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Peter J. Bollier
April 1976
Description rules
Finding Aid Created In Accordance With Manuscripts And Archives Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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