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William Kent family papers

Call Number: MS 309

Scope and Contents

The William Kent Family Papers consist of correspondence, writings, topical files, biographical files, scrapbooks, and other materials relating to the personal, political, and business activities of William Kent. The papers document Kent's career as a municipal reformer in Chicago and Northern California; his interests in conservation, recreation, and public control of water power; his campaigns for election to Congress; his service in the United States House of Representatives and on the United States Tariff Commission; and his business interests in cattle ranches in Nebraska and Nevada. The papers also include materials relating to the activities of Kent's wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, her family, and the Kents' seven children and grandchildren. Papers of Elizabeth Thacher Kent document her interests in women's suffrage, the Equal Rights Amendment, and international peace.

The papers, which Mrs. Kent and her sons Sherman and Roger donated to the Yale University Library between 1935 and 1975, are arranged in five series: I. Correspondence, 1801-1961; II. Writings, 1873-1929; III. Topical Files, 1846-1952; IV. Biographical Files, 1768-1950; V. Miscellanea, 1845-1943.

Detailed scrapbooks, clipping files, and appointment calendars of William and Elizabeth Kent are available on 15 reels of microfilm (HM FILM 105). These scrapbooks, which date from 1866-1952, offer the most thorough coverage of William Kent's career and include material from periods not covered by the five series. They are described in the microfilm guide at the end of this register. Additional materials of Kent family members are in the Sherman Kent Papers (MS 854) and the Roger Kent Papers (MS 1401).

Series I, CORRESPONDENCE, is the largest series in the papers and comprises more than half of the Kent Family Papers. The series dates from 1801 to 1961 and includes many early letters of Elizabeth Thacher Kent's New Haven family. The series is most complete from the time of William Kent's relocation from Chicago to California (ca. 1907.), until his death in 1928. Later letters primarily concern the activities of his children Elizabeth, Sherman, and Roger, and Elizabeth Thacher Kent's efforts to publish a biography of her husband. Kent's correspondents include family, friends, Yale classmates, business associates, reform movement and progressive activists, radicals, California politicians, congressmen, senators, presidents, cabinet members, public servants, and journalists. A select list of more than 500 correspondents is appended at the end of this register.

Box 1 is composed almost entirely of correspondence of Elizabeth Thacher Kent's family, including courtship letters between Roger Sherman and Susan Staples and letters of Yale professor Thomas A. Thacher. Letters of the 1880s relate to William Kent's education at the Hopkins Grammar School and at Yale. There are also letters of Elizabeth Thacher Kent's. family, who moved to California following the death of Thomas A. Thacher in 1886. Elizabeth's brother Sherman founded the Thacher School in Ojai, California, and the correspondence contains many discussions of teaching methods and student activities at the preparatory school.

There is scant correspondence, as little as one folder per year, between 1889 and 1907, the period during which Kent was active in Chicago financial, civic, and political life. The scrapbooks are the best source of information on Kent's activities at this time. Occasional letters from such reform activists as Henry Demarest Lloyd, Lincoln Steffens, Jane Addams, and President Theodore Roosevelt attest to Kent's prominence in the Progressive movement. Correspondence at this time also documents Kent's interest in Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Graham Taylor, and the All Souls Church. There are also many family letters, especially from Mrs. Kent's mother, Elizabeth Baldwin Sherman Thacher. Beginning in box 3 many of Kent's correspondents on progressivism include journalists and editors such as Ray Stannard Baker, Norman Hapgood, Ida Tarbell, John Phillips, Mark Sullivan, and Finley Peter Dunne. Specifically Kent interested himself in the finances and editorial policies of the American Magazine. In letters from 1906 April Kent reports on his experiences during the San Francisco earthquake and the subsequent relief efforts.

In 1907 the Kent family moved to Kentfield, California. By 1907 December the correspondence becomes much fuller. At this time Kent negotiated with Gifford Pinchot to preserve an expanse of California redwoods through a donation of land to the federal government. This land is now the Muir Woods National Monument. The folders include exchanges with Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. There is also correspondence concerning Mount Tamalpais and the founding of the Tamalpais Centre, following the model of Jenkin Lloyd Jones's Lincoln Centre in Chicago. The correspondence also documents the movement to establish a publicly owned municipal water system in Marin County. Jonathan E. Webb is a frequent correspondent on the latter topic. Beginning in 1908 there is also increasing correspondence concerning the Hawaiian political situation, especially with Wallace Farrington, the editor of the Honolulu Evening Bulletin.

Kent was a supporter of Roosevelt's conservation policies, and by 1909 Kent's correspondence with Gifford and Amos Pinchot and Henry L Stimson expresses his concern over the manner in which President Taft was handling public lands. There are also exchanges at this time between Elizabeth Sherman Thacher and Lucretia Garfield, wife of President Garfield and mother of Secretary of the Interior James Rudolph Garfield.

The 1910 correspondence primarily concerns Kent's successful campaign to secure the Republican nomination for Congress from California's 2nd district as an insurgent against the incumbent Duncan McKinlay and his first election to Congress. Correspondents who discuss local factors and election strategy include Chester Rowell, editor of the Fresno Republican, Milton T. U'Ren, Rolfe Thompson, and Francis J. Heney. There is also correspondence concerning the Lincoln-Roosevelt League in California and the gubernatorial campaign of Hiram Johnson. During the campaign McKinlay provoked an investigation of Kent's cattle ranch in Nevada, and there is much material which concerns the Golconda Cattle Company. The campaign era files also contain statements of Kent's in opposition to Asiatic immigration and race amalgamation.

Correspondence during Kent's first years in Congress contains little general constituent mail. Some letters bear subject headings relating to Kent's particular concerns such as "parcel post," "tariff," "race problem," or "Arizona statehood." There is correspondence with Secretary of the Interior Walter L. Fisher, and there are many letters speculating on the political fortunes of congressional progressives and Robert LaFollette's and Theodore Roosevelt's presidential aspirations. Details of the Kent family's activities in Washington are contained in Elizabeth Sherman Thacher's letters to other family members.

In 1912 Kent ran for congress as an independent. The files contain campaign literature and form letters which document Kent's need for a strong organization to support an independent candidacy and his efforts to mobilize women, who could now vote in California elections. Correspondence with William Denman concerns the campaign. During his second term in Congress Kent supported Woodrow Wilson. There is correspondence with Louis Brandeis and Franklin K. Lane on progressive measures, and the files reflect Kent's role in securing significant water reclamation legislation. In 1913 July, facing opposition from conservationists such as John Muir, Kent shepherded through Congress the legislation to establish a public water supply for San Francisco in the Hetch Hetchey Valley. Other matters discussed in the files include a quarantine of produce to prevent the spread of destructive insects, the sugar tariff, alien land tenure laws, repeal of Panama Canal tolls, the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and the political situation in Mexico. Kent received information from Maurice Leon, whose brother Rene was in Mexico. There are exchanges between Kent and Woodrow Wilson concerning the import of this information. The correspondence also reflects Kent's growing friendship with Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin.

Kent's 1914 election campaign was less strenuous than the previous two, and the correspondence is more concerned with Kent's influence on the senatorial race in California. Kent's interests during his third term in Congress continue to concern inspection of plant products, federal control of water power, and provision for protection of public lands through a National Park Service. There is also correspondence concerning Kent's mining investments in British Columbia Invitations to and descriptions of meetings organized by Jane Addams and Lillian Wald to study war and the neutral nations, and discussions with David Starr Jordan concerning Japanese immigrants. Survey forms in the 1916 May-June files document conditions in the California wine country.

In 1916 June Kent announced that for reasons of health he would not seek reelection. During the period of the 1916 campaign the files contain some literature collected by Kent as head of the Wilson Independents League. The quantity of material in the files is greatly diminished after the election; some correspondence concerns Kent's interest in an appointment to either the Federal Trade or Federal Tariff Commission, and there are exchanges with Edward House concerning other members of the Wilson administration. Though Kent was appointed to the Federal Tariff Commission in 1917, the correspondence does not reflect the level of his work on investigations of food production, particularly the meat packing industry. The files contain some exchanges with commission chairman F. W. Taussig. There is also material concerning the group of Washington government officials known as the Walterscamps, who met at the Kent home to exercise for fitness under the direction of Walter Camp. The climate of the war is also reflected in various protests by Kent and such correspondents as Upton Sinclair, Max Eastman, and Frederick C. Howe against the jailing of writers and left-wing political party members under the sedition laws. Letters from sons Thomas and William discuss preparedness and their military service.

Kent was not actively involved in the 1918 elections in California. Pursuing his interest in legislation regulating the meat packing industry he sought to garner support for the Kendrick bill. By 1919 April the correspondence documents Kent's. beginning efforts to organize a campaign for the Republican nomination for the Senate in 1920. The George P. West and Gilson Gardner correspondence describes early publicity after Kent announced his intentions in August.

The correspondence beginning in 1920 January once more becomes volumninous and concerns Kent's advocacy of free tariff zones, the Save the Redwoods League, and Judson King's National Popular Government League. In March 1920 Kent retired from the Tariff Commission, and the subjects of the correspondence following are concentrated on California politics. With his friends and colleagues King, George Norris, Gifford Pinchot, and William C. Boyden and with his campaign manager L. F. Parten, Kent discusses issues affecting the campaign such as prohibition, the League of Nations, the Christian Science vote, and Hiram Johnson's political ambitions. Boyden, who at the time was commissioner general for the Red Cross in Warsaw, describes the hunger and disease prevalent in post-war Eastern Europe.

Kent lost the nomination in the August 1920 primary, but while recognizing the reactionary quality of the times, he continued to pursue the progressive legislation he had championed as a congressman. The 1921 files contain much material especially in correspondence with Franklin Hichborn, Parten, and Pinchot on the California Water and Power Act and other water power and conservation issues such as the campaigns to save the redwoods and Lake Tahoe. To William D. Washburn, an old Yale friend, and others he writes about foreign affairs, discusses his ideas on the free port system, and lobbies for cooperative marketing for farmers.

In 1922 Kent's son Sherman was a freshman at Yale. Kent, who had been critical of Yale under the direction of Arthur Hadley and Anson Phelps Stokes, discusses Yale's future in correspondence with his son, classmate Robert Corwin, James R. Angell, Walter Camp, and James Gamble Rogers. Frequent letters from Sherman and from son Roger, beginning in the fall of 1924, are full of the details of student life.

The California voters defeated the water and power act in the 1922 November elections. Kent's depression at the state of politics is expressed in letters to friends at this point. With Elwood Mead he discusses land reclamation and resettlement, with C. K. McClatchy immigration restriction, and with Judson King his opposition to Henry Ford's plan for private development of water power at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The late 1923 files contain correspondence with Hichborn, Frederick Vining Fisher, and Herbert C. Jones on an unsuccessful attempt to organize a liberal organization known as the California Council of Progress. Kent's views of the national political situation punctuate the 1924 files. In letters to many friends Kent is outspoken in his opposition to Calvin Coolidge and Hiram Johnson and eventually supports Robert LaFollette's third party candidacy.

The files after 1924 contain a larger proportion of family and personal letters. Kent began writing autobiographical and local descriptive sketches, and there are many exchanges concerning their publication. There is continuing correspondence with Hichborn, King, and Norris on water power issues, with old friends from Chicago, and with Richard R. Smith concerning the worsening conditions in China. The death of Kent's Nebraska partner Ed Burke in the summer of 1926 served to focus Kent's attention on family finances, which he discusses in detail in correspondence with his son Bill, Jr. From the fall of 1926 on there are frequent letters from son Sherman describing his graduate training in history at Yale and in Europe.

The files following William Kent's death in March, 1928 contain numerous tributes and letters of condolence. The correspondence after this consists mainly of letters to Elizabeth Thacher Kent from, her family or concerning her civic or philanthropic activities. Letters from son Roger describe his studies in the Yale Law School. From 1931 to 1933 there is correspondence with Gilson Gardner concerning a proposed biography of William Kent. Letters from Sherman from 1932 through 1933 concern his studies in Europe and his observations of the European political scene. Sherman's letters in 1934 and following depict the life of a Yale faculty member in the early days of Yale's college system. Later family letters detail son-in-law G. Stanleigh Arnold's and son Roger Kent's legal services in Washington, D.C. for the Roosevelt administration; Sherman Kent's work in the OSS; and Roger's and grandsons Stanleigh Arnold, Jr.'s, Kent Arnold's and Peter Kent's military service during World War II. Elizabeth Thacher Kent's writing and publication of a biography of her husband are also described in the last several boxes of the series.

Elizabeth Thacher Kent was a suffragette and distinguished proponent of women's rights and international peace. Series I also documents her life, though to a much lesser extent than that of her husband. Many of Mrs. Kent's suffrage activities in California and Washington are mentioned in family letters describing meetings, teas, and parades. The files also contain occasional invitations and items of publicity, but there is little in the correspondence to document Mrs. Kent's arrest in 1917 for picketing the White House. In later files there is material relating to Alice Paul, and the Equal Rights Amendment, the National Woman's Party, and correspondence with Sara Bard Field and Alice Park concerning activities in California. In the mid-1930s Mrs. Kent became involved in the work of the Women's. International League for Peace and Freedom, and from 1937 on, when she served as president of the Marin County chapter, the files contain notifications of meetings and discussions of activities. There is also material relating to the league's committee on war refugees and on various functions for women delegates attending the organizational meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco. Mrs. Kent's interest in and activities on behalf of the San Francisco Presbyterian Orphanage and Farm are also documented throughout Series I.

At the end of Series I are several folders of undated material. These are primarily family letters and are arranged by the name of the writer.

Series II, WRITINGS, includes speeches, articles, and unpublished writings of William Kent. The series contains both Kent's literary and political writings in the forms of stories, sketches, reminiscences, testimony at hearings, reports, congressional and college addresses, essays, and sermons. Folder titles which are in quotes denote Kent's title; other titles represent a topical categorization. Any particular folder may contain printed or draft copies, notes, outlines, publicity, programs, or clippings. The series reflects themes in William Kent's progressivism: public control of water power; recreation; immigration; land distribution; and marketing practices. Many of the articles on progressive measures appeared in journals such as Collier's, McClure's, Outlook, and Unity. There are also many autobiographical pieces or regional historical or descriptive sketches depicting outdoor life in California and Nevada among hunters, ranchers, Chinese, and Indians.

Series III, TOPICAL FILES, contains organizational and background material relating to William and Elizabeth Kent's business, political, civic, and philanthropic interests. The series is the second largest in the papers. Many of the topics and materials overlap with those in the scrapbooks. The series includes minutes, by-laws, reports, legislation, hearings, financial records, speeches, posters, clippings, and publicity which are most voluminous on subjects involving conservation, peace, California issues and organizations, and women's issues and organizations.

Personal memorabilia of William Kent relating to Yale and the class of 1887 is in box 80, while folders 6-11 reflect Mrs. Kent's interests in Marin County. William Kent's reform activities in Chicago and various California political campaigns are documented in boxes 62-64, while boxes 64-71 contain materials collected by Kent in studying and acting on conservation issues involving public lands, water power, and natural resources. Other files relating to Kent's legislative and lobbying activities include materials on the meat packing industry, nursery inspection, tariff free zones, and the wine bill. Under the heading "National Woman's Party" are materials collected by Mrs. Kent on women's suffrage, the Equal Rights Amerndment, and international women's issues. Mrs. Kent is also primarily responsible for the large collection of peace literature in the papers. Though some of this material dates from World War I, the great majority is from the mid to the late 1930s. There is a large amount of material from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, to which Mrs. Kent belonged, but the files also include materials from a wide spectrum of peace organizations including: the National Council for Prevention of War; America First; Keep America Out of War Congress; World Fellowship, Inc.; United World Federalists; Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies; National Peace Conference; Commission to Study the Organization of Peace; Northern California Service Board for Conscientious Objectors; Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee; and the Women's Peace Party.

Series IV, BIOGRAPHICAL FILES, is composed primarily of written drafts and notes used by Gilson Gardner and Elizabeth Kent in preparing biographies of William Kent. The series includes genealogical papers such as pedigree charts and family correspondence, personal and family memorabilia, and transcripts of William Kent's more interesting, thoughtful, or humorous letters. The series also includes a biography of Elizabeth Thacher Kent.

Series V, MISCELLANEA, is composed of family memorabilia and photographs. Albert E. Kent's business interests are reflected in volumes of telegraph messages (1875-1876) concerning stock purchases and money transfers. The series also includes memorabilia of William Kent from Hopkins Grammar School and Elizabeth Thacher Kent's girlhood scrapbook containing programs, tickets, invitations and other memorabilia from New Haven and summer vacation trips. Most of the photographs are of family members, but the album in folder 292 contains pictures taken on hunting trips in Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Michigan, and British Columbia between 1890 and 1900.


  • 1768-1961


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Existence and Location of Copies

Scrapbooks of William and Elizabeth Thacher Kentare available on microfilm (15,178 frames on 15 reels, 35mm.) from Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, at cost. Order no. HM105.

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 Elizabeth Thacher Kent, Sherman Kent, and Roger Kent, 1935-1975.


Arranged in five series: I. Correspondence, 1801-1961. II. Writings, 1873-1929. III. Topical Files, 1846-1952. IV. Biographical Files, 1768-1950. V. Miscellanea, 1845-1943.


35 Linear Feet (85 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

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

Persistent URL


The papers consist of correspondence, writings, topical files, biographical files, scrapbooks, and other material relating to William Kent's businesses, political activities, and family. The papers document his activities as a municipal reformer in Chicago and Northern California; his interests in conservation, recreation, and public control of water power; his campaigns for election to Congress; his service in the U.S. House of Representatives and on the U.S. Tariff Commission; and his business interests in cattle ranches in Nebraska and Nevada. The papers also include materials relating to the activities of Kent's wife, Elizabeth Thacher Kent, Mrs. Kent's family, and the Kent children and grandchildren. Papers of Elizabeth Thacher Kent document her interests in women's suffrage, the Equal Rights Amendment, and international peace and her participation in the National Woman's Party and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Biographical / Historical

Born March 29, 1864, in Chicago, Ill.

Died March 13, 1928, in Kentfield, Calif.

Father, Albert Emmett Kent (B.A. 1853), a merchant, banker, and founder of the packing industry in Chicago; son of Albert and Lucinda (Gillette) Kent; descendant of Thomas Kent, who came to America from England about 1643 and settled in Gloucester, Mass. Mother, Adaline Elizabeth (Dutton) Kent; daughter of Alvah and Elizabeth (Holt) Dutton; ancestors came from Wales to Vermont before 1700. Yale relatives include four cousins: Norton A. Kent, '95 Albert E. Kent, '97, S. Kent Morris, ex-'19 S., and Edward L. Burke, Jr., '26.

Hopkins Grammar School. First and third prizes in English composition Sophomore year; Freshman member of Yale Courant board; an editor of Yale Literary Magazine; Class historian; member Eta Phi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Chi Delta Theta, and Skull and Bones.

Upon graduation became engaged in the management of his father's estate as member of firm of A. E. Kent & Son; in 1903 entered into partnership with his classmate, Edward L. Burke, under name of Kent & Burke (later Kent & Burke Company), dealers in live stock, grain, and land (in Genoa, Nebr., until 1012 and since then in Omaha), and remained in that connection until his death, becoming president of the company upon the death of Mr. Burke in 1926; president of Golconda (Nev.) Cattle Company 1895-1920; director of American Trust & Savings Bank of Chicago 1890-1907 of Genoa National Bank 1904-1915, and of International Company (mining) since 1902; member Chicago City Council 1895-1897; president of Municipal Voters'. League 1898-1900 (a founder of the league in 1897 and member of executive committee 1897-1904); vice-president of the Old Age Pension Association; had lived in California since 1907; represented 2d District of California in 62d Congress (1911-1913) and reelected as an Independent to 63d and 64th Congresses for the new 1st District; member U. S. Tariff Commission 1917-1921; resigned to become candidate for senator from California (defeated for nomination); honorary M.A. 1908; elected a governor of Yale Publishing Association in 1925, for a four year term; in 1924 appointed by Governor Pinchot of Pennsylvania member of Giant Power Advisory Board, which was formed to pass on final report of Giant Power Survey before it was submitted to Pennsylvania Legislature; donor of three hundred acres of land on Mount Tamalpais to the United States Government as a national monument to be known as the Muir Woods; vice-president of National Parks Association (representing California) since 1920; author: Practical Politics, A Lay Sermon (1896); had contributed numerous articles on politics to Yale Review, Survey, American Magazine, Collier's Weekly; and other magazines; member American Economic Association, National Municipal League, Civil Service Reform League, and Illinois Civil Service Association; trustee of All Souls' Church (undenominational), Chicago 1891-1895; donor with his father in 1885 of Kent Hall, Yale University (known as Kent Chemical Laboratory until 1922).

Married February 23, 1890, in Ojai Valley, Calif., Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Anthony Thacher (B.A. 1835, LL.D. Western Reserve 1869), assistant professor and professor of the Latin language and literature at Yale 1838-1886, and Elizabeth Baldwin (Sherman) Thacher, granddaughter of Roger Sherman (B.A. 1787), great-granddaughter of Roger Sherman (honorary M.A. 1768), treasurer of Yale 1754-1776 and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a sister of Sherman D. Thacher, '83, and William L. Thacher, '87, and half sister of James K. Thacher, '68, Thomas Thacher, '71, Edward S. Thacher, '72, Alfred B. Thacher, '74, and John S. Thacher, '77. Children: Albert Emmett, '13; Thomas Thacher, '15; William, Jr., '17; Elizabeth Sherman, the wife of G. Stanleigh Arnold, '03; Adaline Dutton (B.A. Vassar 1923); Sherman, '26; and Roger, '28.

Death due to pneumonia. His ashes lie in California. Survived by wife, five sons, two daughters, and ten grandchildren.

Yale College Obituary Record, 1927-1928. pp. 106-108.

Guide to the William Kent Family Papers
Under Revision
by Diane E. Kaplan and William E. Brown, Jr.
June 1986
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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