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Ebenezer Alfred Johnson family papers

Call Number: MS 1246
Scope and Contents

The Ebenezer Alfred Johnson (1813-1891) Family Papers focus on three interrelated families: the Johnsons and Gibbs of New Haven and the Van Cleves of New Jersey. Housed in nineteen Hollinger boxes and one small folio, the collection is arranged in five series.

Series I, E.A. JOHNSON, five boxes, contains the papers of Ebenezer Alfred Johnson, the focal point of this collection of papers. It includes both personal and professional papers and is divided into two sections, Personal Correspondence and Professional Papers. Personal Correspondence contains all letters to and from Ebenezer Alfred Johnson. Correspondence is arranged in chronological order and subject files follow correspondence. The vast majority of letters in Personal Correspondence, Boxes 1-4, folders 1-85, is between Johnson and his relatives.

Ebenezer Alfred Johnson, usually called Alfred, was the fourth child and second son of Ebenezer and Sarah Bryan (Law) Johnson of New Haven. See FAMILY CHARTS for delineation of family relationships. He attended Mount Pleasant Classical Institution in Amherst, Massachusetts and Yale, graduating in the class of 1833. Alfred taught school for two years and then returned to Yale to study law and serve as a tutor in Latin. Johnson was admitted to the bar on January 11, 1837 but a year and a half later accepted the position of assistant professor of Greek and Latin at the University of the City of New York. Two years later he was appointed Professor of the Latin Language and Literature, a position he held until his death. For many years Johnson served as rector of the University Grammar School. The university recognized Professor Johnson's services in 1867 by conferring an LL.D. upon him and after fifty years of service in 1888 an L.H.D. His published works are an edition of Cicero's "Oration for Cluentius," published in 1844, Cicero's "Select Orations," and Cornelius Nepos' "Lives" with exercises in Latin composition.

Johnson married twice, first to Margaret Fox Van Cleve in 1842 and then to Harriet Gilley in 1851. Two children, Frances Henrietta and Alfred Van Cleve Johnson, survived infancy. The papers contain extensive correspondence between husband and wives and father and children, but Alfred also corresponded regularly with a substantial number of relatives, friends, and professional colleagues. Johnson's father, four sisters, two brothers, in-laws, cousins, nephews, and nieces are all represented. The letters of his father Ebenezer Johnson typically concerned New Haven business matters, but those of his brothers, Sidney Law and Charles Andrew, and sisters were normally personal in character. Mary Ann Johnson and Sarah Bryan Johnson, spinster sisters, kept Alfred informed of family doings, the activities of New Haven friends, family business affairs, and the sickness and death of loved ones. Of the two brothers, Charles is the more important correspondent. A lawyer in Louisiana, the subjects of his letters included news of family and friends, some discussion of his practice, his travels, business activities, his difficult position in New Orleans during the Civil War, and, in his later years, family history. Personal Correspondence also includes letters written to Alfred from Margaret's brothers, sisters, cousins, and in-laws. Of particular interest are a dozen letters written by Professor Josiah W. Gibbs, Johnson's brother-in-law, and by his nephew J. Willard Gibbs, the famous scientist. News of the family is discussed along with business matters. Much of this correspondence is routine in nature.

This section also exhaustively documents the romance and marriage of Alfred and Margaret. The young couple saw little of each other before marriage and both travelled after marriage, providing further opportunities for exchanges of letters. In addition, they were usually separated at the time of the birth of their children, because on these occasions Margaret returned to the home of her sister Mary Anna Gibbs. These letters are long and suffused with normal nineteenth century sentimentality.

Letters from friends are also included in Personal Correspondence. The two most important friends are Thomas A. Thacher (1815-1886) and Louis Janin (1803-1874). Thacher was professor of Latin at Yale. He married Elizabeth Day (1820-1858), daughter of President Day and Margaret's closest friend. Common professional interests and the activities of mutual acquaintances are the subjects chiefly discussed in this correspondence. Louis Janin was a lawyer from New Orleans who married Juliet Covington, a sister of the wife of Sidney Law Johnson. Scattered throughout Personal Correspondence (and the Frances H. Johnson section of Series II) are several letters from and occasional references to members of the Delafield family. Richard Delafield (1799-1863), West Point 1818 and twice superintendent of the military academy, married Harriet Covington, probably another sister of Sidney Law Johnson's wife.

Professional Papers, found in Boxes 4 and 5, folders 86-127, focus on Johnson's career at the University of the City of New York, now New York University. This section includes correspondence arranged chronologically, printed materials, and subject files arranged alphabetically. Everything in Professional Papers relates to the professional activities of Professor Johnson or the University of the City of New York, except for one folder of material on Yale University.

Correspondents include students, colleagues at the university, and other professional acquaintances. Among Johnson's associates at the university were the Reverend Cyrus Mason, John C. Green (1800-1875), Elias Loomis (1811-1889), George J. Adler (1821-1868), George S. Parker, John T. Johnston (1820-1893), Chancellor Isaac Ferris (1798-1873), and Chancellor Theodore Frelinghuysen (1787-1862). Frelinghuysen was the Whig candidate for vice-president in 1844 and chancellor of the University of the City of New York from 1839 to 1850. Other important correspondents were Taylor Lewis (1802-1877), Ethan Allen Andrews (1787-1858), author of several Latin textbooks and Latin instructor for at least one of Johnson's sisters, and several members of the Yale faculty, most notably James Luce Kingsley (1778-1852), Johnson's mentor at Yale, and Edward C. Herrick (1811-1862). The collection also contains six letters written by George E. Day (1815-1905), one by President Theodore Dwight Woolsey (1801-1889), and one by Lyman Abbott (1835-1922). Many of the letters relate to the running of the university and the hiring of new professors. In one letter, for example, written in June 1852, Josiah W. Gibbs recommends a candidate for a vacancy in philosophy and rhetoric. Some letters concern the publication of Johnson's books and in still others, particularly those from E.A. Andrews and J.L. Kinglsey, the correspondents discuss Latin language and literature.

Series II, FAMILY PAPERS, Boxes 6-13, contains the correspondence and other papers of Ebenezer Alfred Johnson's two wives, two children, and other family members. The series is divided into six sections, Margaret Johnson, Harriet G. Johnson, Frances H. Johnson, Alfred V.C. Johnson, Other Johnson, and Van Cleve. The first section, Margaret Johnson, contains all correspondence to and from Margaret (Van Cleve) Johnson except that between her and her husband, which is found in Series I. The Harriet G. Johnson section in similar manner excludes all letters to and from Ebenezer Alfred and Margaret Johnson. Section 3, Frances H. Johnson, contains all correspondence of the older child of Alfred and Margaret Johnson except that between father and daughter, mother and daughter, and step-mother and daughter. All correspondence to or from a given named family member is filed with the first listed family member. It is possible, therefore, to find letters to or from a person in several different places in Series I and II. For example, correspondence of Louisa (Van Cleve) Daveiss can be found in Series I and three sections of Series II, Margaret Johnson, Harriet G. Johnson, and Van Cleve. Within each section, correspondence is arranged chronologically and subjects alphabetically following the correspondence.

The first section of Series II is Margaret Johnson, Boxes 6-8, folders 128-170. Until the early 1850s, more than one half the letters in the entire collection were written by Margaret Fox Van Cleve and other members of her family. Margaret, the youngest of six children who lived to adulthood, was left an orphan at age seven and was thereafter brought up in the home of her older sister Mary Anna in New Haven. She was the wife of Yale professor Josiah W. Gibbs and was Margaret's second mother.

Margaret's major correspondents, aside from her husband, were sisters Mary Anna Gibbs and Louisa, who married Camillus Cecil Daveiss; brothers Churchill Houston, Horatio Phillips, and John Woodhull Van Cleve; and a large number of relatives and childhood friends. In addition to news of family and friends, conditions in raw, semi-frontier Michigan, life at Forts Howard and Winnebago in Wisconsin, and the difficulties of farming in a slave state are all discussed in the letters written by Louisa (Van Cleve) Daveiss and the three brothers. Louisa, left a widow at twenty-nine, had to face the task of raising a family in distant Missouri, a problem made more difficult by the terms of uncle Churchill Houston's will. He left sizeable inheritances to his nieces and nephews, but Louisa's was given on the "condition, however, that she shall not having [sic] any thing to do with holding slaves either directly or indirectly."

Other correspondents (some of whose letters are also found in Series I) include uncle Churchill Houston; uncle Reverend Isaac Vanarsdale Brown and his wife Mary (Houston) Brown; their sons George Houston and William C.H. Brown; and cousins Mary B. Gibbs, William C. Houston, Eliza (Houston) Este and her husband David K. Este, Jane Woodhull, Matilda G. (Woodhull) Nuttman, Ellen H. Green, and J.D. Phillips. The Margaret Johnson section also includes correspondence with friends. Margaret's closest friend was Elizabeth Day, but she also corresponded with childhood friends Antoinette Geisse, Sarah Tucker, and Susan A. Fitch (1800-1846), second wife of E.T. Fitch (1791-1871) who was a professor of divinity and homilectics at Yale.

The second section of Series II is Harriet G. Johnson. The papers of Harriet (Gilley) Johnson (excluding those located in Series I and the Margaret Johnson section of Series II) are in folders 171-186 of Box 8. Harriet was Alfred's second wife and a friend of Margaret's. She nursed Margaret during her final illness, which quickly followed the death of a premature son. One particularly touching letter was writting to Harriet Gilley by Louisa (Van Cleve) Daveiss in August 1849, in which Louisa writes "to express the deep obligation I feel to you for your devoted attention to my beloved sister." In another letter written in September 1850, Mary Anna Gibbs responds sympathetically and offers encouragement to Harriet in her uncertainty on whether she should marry Alfred or not. They were married in July 1851, two years after Margaret's death.

The Johnson Papers also contain a small amount of Gilley family correspondence. Harriet's major correspondents were her older sister Martha Ann (Gilley) Codman, her husband William Codman, and their daughter Harriet, "Hattie," Codman. Aside from family members, Harriet received several letters from a school friend, Amelia W. Lichtenthaler.

The two other major figures in Series II are Alfred and Margaret's children, Frances Henrietta Johnson and Alfred Van Cleve Johnson. The Frances H. Johnson section is one of the largest in the entire collection, filling part of Box 8, all of Boxes 9 and 10, and three-quarters of 11, folders 187-258. Frances, usually called Fanny, was named after Alfred's youngest sister, who died at the age of twenty. A spinster, Fanny corresponded extensively with brother Alfy; a large number of relatives, in particular Anna L. Gibbs, Julia (Gibbs) Van Name, and the California cousins; and with many friends. One of Fanny's most interesting correspondents was Emmie Wendt, who fell in love with and eventually married a divorced man, Emil Werckmeister, in November 1883 in Berlin, Germany. Fanny so disapproved of such behavior that after the marriage she never wrote Emmie again. The last letter exchanged between the two was written by Emmie in November 1884 in which she almost begs Fanny to renew their friendship.

The Alfred V.C. Johnson section of Series II, folders 259-265, is extremely small, because almost all of his correspondence is located in Series I and earlier sections of Series II. Alfred Van Cleve Johnson, usually called Alfy, was valedictorian of his class at New York University, received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School in 1871, and was a Presbyterian minister in Chatham, New Jersey 1873-1877 and Parsipinny in 1880. Alfy married Laura Mott in December 1880. Their only surviving child was Grace Mott Johnson. Twenty months after Laura's death Alfred in August 1885 married Ellen Marcia Doty. Alfy corresponded extensively with his father, step-mother, and sister throughout the 1870s and 1880s. One large group of letters chronicles Alfred's grand tour of Europe between December 1877 and June 1879, a trip undertaken in the hope of improving his health. The flood of letters between brother and sister discussing family matters, Alfy's travels, and his religious sensibilities ended in 1889, as Alfred and his growing family moved to Yonkers, where his father and sister lived. Later the two had a bitter disagreement and the last letter Alfred wrote to his sister is dated January 24, 1896.

The fifth section of Series II is Other Johnson. It is in folders 266-290 of Box 12. The chief correspondents are E.A. Johnson's brothers and sisters. In addition, this section contains several letters written by Laura Mott to members of her family. Other items of interest include an article "Ascent of Mount Etna, February, 1832" by Sidney L. Johnson that appeared in The American Journal of Science; a brief written by Charles Andrew Johnson pleaded before the Supreme Court of Louisiana in 1847; the program of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans of December 1, 1957 on the occasion of the dedication of the bust of J. Willard Gibbs; and a subscription for an organ for the Church of the United Society in 1822. One of the subscribers was Ebenezer Johnson.

The final section of Series II is Van Cleve, Box 13, folders 291-309. Louisa Van Cleve was the recipient of most of these letters, the vast majority of which were written between 1831 and 1836, before her marriage to Camillus Cecil Daveiss. In addition to letters from her sister Mary Anna Gibbs, brothers, and cousins, Louisa received correspondence from such girlhood friends as Clara Miller, Sarah L. Hudson, Mary Smith, and Letitia Smith. Van Cleve also contains one unfinished letter that was probably written by William Churchill Houston, Margaret's grandfather, in January 1781. There are also two diaries which, based on internal evidence, appear to have been written by Margaret Van Cleve's great-grandfather, the Reverend Caleb Smith (1723-1762). Smith, Yale 1743, was minister of the Presbyterian Church of Mountain Society in Newark, New Jersey. He was tutor and trustee of the College of New Jersey. The diaries, covering parts of 1760 and 1761, describe his daily activities.

The best known of the three families represented in this collection is the Gibbs family. J. Willard Gibbs was one of the greatest scientists of his age and has been the subject of three major biographies. Information about his family can be discerned from the letters of several Gibbs and the New Haven Johnsons. In terms of volume and content, however, the letters of Mary Anna Gibbs and daughters Anna and Julia are far more important than those of Josiah. W. or J. Willard Gibbs. Little, if any, information about the lives or thinking of father or son can be derived from their own correspondence. The Gibbs correspondence found in Series I and Margaret Johnson, Harriet G. Johnson, Frances H. Johnson, Alfred V.C. Johnson, and Van Cleve sections of Series II is largely personal in nature, like that of most letters throughout the entire collection.

The subjects covered in the personal correspondence of Series I and II are largely the expected ones, the activities of friends and family and the tragedies of life. Between 1843 and 1851, for example, the Johnsons suffered from the death of five loved ones. In December 1843 Elizabeth Day Johnson, infant daughter of Alfred and Margaret Johnson, died at the age of five months. Frances Henrietta Gibb Johnson, the youngest of Ebenezer and Sarah Johnson's children, passed away in September 1845, a day after her twentieth birthday. Alfred's wife Margaret died in June 1849 and three months later Margaret's niece Eliza P. Gibbs succumbed. Finally in March 1851, Charlotte (Johnson) Morris, another sister died. Margaret's final illness is chronicled in a series of letters written by Mary Anna Gibbs and her four daughter between January and June 1849. Margaret's nieces' cheery letters attempted to stave off the inevitable course of the disease, probably tuberculosis. The correspondence concludes with a hurried note from Mary Anna Gibbs to Alfred on June 8, 1849 urging him to "come as soon as possible as Margaret's labour has come on." She died on June 15. One can also discern from these letters information about life in and the people of mid-nineteenth century New Haven and Yale. In a letter to Alfred shortly before the death of little Elizabeth in December 1843, for example, Sarah Bryan Johnson writes about the losses suffered by New Haven neighbors, in particular those of Professor Woolsey. Johnson business activities in New Haven, New Jersey, and Michigan are also described. Alfred's father had a store in New Haven and rented property and rooms, sometimes to students. Ebenezer Alfred Johnson was involved in commercial ventures and made loans to Margaret's cousin George Houston Brown, brother-in-law DeWitt Clinton Morris, and the Van Cleve brothers. In the letters of Horatio P. Van Cleve and Louisa (Van Cleve) Daveiss, the reader can learn about life on frontier military posts, while life in slaveholding Missouri and quasi-frontier Michigan is also discussed in letters of the Louisa and the Van Cleve brothers. Many of Louisa's letters from Daveiss Prairie in Lewis County, Missouri discuss the institution of slavery. During presidential election years, there are occasional allusions to politics. One especially interesting letter written by Charles Andrew Johnson in September 1848, section Other Johnson, tells of a meeting with General Zachary Taylor.

The personal correspondence contains material that could be useful to people interested in a wide variety of subjects in nineteenth century social, family, and women's history. For example, three sections of Series II contain the correspondence of teenaged girls and those interested in the lifestyle, interests, and activities of nineteenth century educated middle class females will find these letters rewarding. In Margaret Johnson, Mary Anna Gibbs gives advice on the standard of behavior expected of respectable young ladies. In the best of these letters written on July 29, 1840, the older woman tells the younger not to "overdo," to "preserve a dignified womanly character," not to be in haste to get married, to avoid excitement, and to let her "affection wear the hue of soberness." The middle class piety of the era is, likewise, reflected in the letters of Mary Anna Gibbs. In addition, the stigma attached to divorce in polite American society is clearly indicated by Fanny Johnson's harsh response to the news of the marriage of Emmie Wendt to a divorced man. Educated and well-to-do people like the Johnsons travelled extensively both within the United States and overseas. To cite one example, before her marriage, Margaret visited relatives in Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri. Travel abroad was also not uncommon. Alfred Van Cleve Johnson's tour of Europe is chronicled in a series of letters written to his father, step-mother, and sister. Anna, Julia, and Willard Gibbs spent some two and one half years in Europe between 1866 and 1869, mostly in Berlin and Heidleberg where Willard was studying. While in Berlin, Julia married Addison Van Name. A dozen letters written to Alfred, Fanny, and Alfy Johnson give information about this trip.

The Johnsons, Van Cleves, and Gibbs were representatives of an educated, literate, and relatively affluent middle class. Both males and females enjoyed the benefits of a superior education. They travelled widely, moved in educated circles, and mostly followed professional careers. Except for Josiah W. and J. Willard Gibbs, they were neither makers of opinion nor prominent in their fields, yet they lived interesting and useful lives.

Series III FINANCIAL AND LEGAL contains correspondence on financial and legal matters and other business and legal papers. Series III is housed in Boxes 14-16, folders 310-366. The correspondence part of Series III, folders 310-324, deals exclusively with Ebenezer Alfred Johnson's business activities. In the subject files, however, folders 325-366, other family members are represented, the most important being Alfred's father Ebenezer Johnson, Fanny Johnson, and brother-in-law DeWitt C. Morris. Business dealings with George H. Brown, the Van Cleves, and DeWitt C. Morris are outlined in Series I, but those with cousins William A. Law, a New Haven storekeeper, and Henry W. Law are delineated in Series III. Alfred rented property in New Haven, lent money to relatives, and owned stock in several mining companies. Although a professor and scholar of some note, Johnson kept his feet planted firmly in the business world and his not inconsiderable assets were increased by property that came from each wife.

Series IV GENEALOGY is found in Boxes 17 and 18, folders 367-395. It contains the genealogical research and correspondence of Charles Andrew Johnson. After retiring, Charles devoted a major proportion of his remaining twenty years to studying the history of his family. Correspondence between him and members of his family on this subject is found in Series I and Series II, but other correspondence plus extensive genealogical notes are located here. Perhaps the best known correspondent is Charles J. Hoadly (1828-1900), the Connecticut antiquarian and historian. Following chronologically arranged correspondence, Johnson's genealogical research on different family lines is found. It is filed alphabetically. The greatest volume of research notes is on the Johnson and Law families. The series includes two Johnson Family Ancestral Tablets and copies of funeral orations delivered after the death of Connecticut Governor Jonathan Law, Charles' great-great grandfather.

Series V contains about forty photographs, mostly unidentified, housed in Box 19. The persons tentatively or positively identified are Margaret (Van Cleve) Johnson, Harriet (Gilley) Johnson, Frances Henrietta Johnson, Alfred Van Cleve Johnson, and Charlotte (Morris) Houghton.

The Ebenezer Alfred Johnson (1813-1891) Family Papers came to Yale in two different parts at two separate times. The letters from several members of the Gibbs family came from Alfred Van Cleve Dasburg, son of Grace Mott Johnson and Andrew Dasburg and great-grandson of Ebenezer Alfred Johnson, in 1952, while the bulk of the papers came from Dasburg's estate in 1980. This collection of papers is related to two others, the Grace Mott Johnson Papers located at Beinecke Rare Books Library and the Gibbs Family Papers (Manuscript Group No. 236). All correspondence to and from Grace Mott Johnson is in the Grace Mott Johnson Papers, but information about her childhood can be found in the letters of her parents. The Gibbs Family Papers contain primarily eighteenth century material plus a small amount of nineteenth century business papers.

Some letters were annotated in pencil, probably by Alfred Dasburg before their coming to Yale, usually by a single word like "Gibbs" or "slaves." These markings are not enclosed in brackets.

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

Gift of Alfred Van Cleve Dasburg in 1952, and from his estate in 1980.


Arranged in five series: I. Ebenezer Alfred Johnson. II. Family Papers. III. Financial and Legal. IV. Genealogy. V. Photographs.

7.5 Linear Feet (19 boxes, 1 folio)
Related Names
Johnson, E. A. (Ebenezer Alfred), 1813-1891
Language of Materials