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Franklin Bowditch Dexter papers

Call Number: MS 712

Scope and Contents

As Assistant Librarian, and as Secretary of the University, Franklin Bowditch Dexter collected documents and solicited information about the history of Yale University. Most of the papers in this collection reflect this interest, although there are some personal papers and materials from other projects.

FILES ON ALUMNI (Series I), the bulk of the collection, concerns Dexter's research on individual Yale alumni. He gathered this material documents, letters to Dexter, his own notes, and printed matter while preparing his Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College (six volumes, published 1885-1912), and the annual Obituary Record of Yale Graduates.

The letters, in particular, contain personal details and gossip which are missing in the published version. Some of the letters about alumni are from important people, such as Leonard Bacon, S.F.B. Morse, Benjamin Silliman, and Joseph Willard. At one time Dexter treated many of these as a separate autograph collection, pasting them in volumes; they are still mounted on sheets of paper.

The papers in Series I are arranged alphabetically by the name of the principal subject. If a letter provides information about two or three individuals, it is filed under the principal name, with cross-references under the other names. However, letters which discuss many individuals have been placed at the end of the series, filed alphabetically by author.

Series II, SUBJECT FILES, contains a variety of other papers: some miscellaneous correspondence, both personal and professional; a few writings and lectures; research notes, loose and in volumes; and correspondence and other papers concerning Dexter's work on the "Supplement of Additional Words and Definitions" to the 1879 edition of Webster's Dictionary. Some of the research notes may be related to the projects represented in Series I.

The papers were given to Yale in 1940 and 1941 by Dexter's daughter, Dorothea Mary (Mrs. Henry Laurens).


  • 1701-1920


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

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 Dorothea M. Dexter Laurens, 1940-1941.


Arranged in two series: I. Files on Alumni. II. Subject Files.


13.75 Linear Feet (27 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

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

Persistent URL


Chiefly working papers, i.e. correspondence, documents and printed matter, collected for the preparation of his Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College (published 1885-1912) and the annual Obituary Record of Yale College. The remainder consists of professional correspondence and other papers connected with his work on the 1879 edition of Webster's Dictionary.

Biographical / Historical

FRANKLIN B. DEXTER, from The Annalist of Yale "A Sketch of the Life of Professor Dexter, Librarian, Historian, Graduate Biographer"

Franklin Bowditch Dexter, son of Rodolphus Williams and Mary Hathaway (Taber) Dexter, was born September 11, 1842, in Fairhaven, Mass., where his father was engaged in business. The latter was the son of Noah and Mary (Delano) Dexter, and a descendant of Thomas Dexter, who came to America from Bristol, England, in 1629 and settled at Lynn, Mass., developing that colony, and later Barnstable and Sandwich. He was a Puritan. Mary Taber Dexter's parents were Jacob and Dolly (Spooner) Taber. She traced her descent to Philip Taber, a Quaker, who came from England in 1632(?) and was an early settler in Dartmouth Colony. He subsequently moved to Rhode Island and was a representative at Providence in 1661.

Franklin B. Dexter was fitted for college at Williston Seminary, Easthampton, Mass. In Sophomore year at Yale he won a second prize for English composition, a third prize for declamation, and a premium for poetical composition. His appointments were high orations, and he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.During the first two years after graduation he taught Greek in General Russell's Collegiate and Commercial Institute in New Haven.

PROFESSOR DEXTER, '61 served the University in more ways than probably any other man now on its Faculty and for over a longer period. He began his work under President Woolsey, and was by turns Linonian Society Librarian (1863); Assistant in the General Course at the Scientific School (1863); Tutor in Mathematics in the College (1864); Tutor in Greek (1865), as a colleague of Professor Tracy Peck, the Tutor in Latin; Assistant in the Library (1867), and member of the Alumni Committee (1867); Library Cataloguer (1867-1868); Assistant in the Treasurer's Office (1868); Assistant Librarian and Registrar of the College Faculty (1869); Secretary of the University, succeeding Wyllys Warner (1870), one year before Noah Porter became President; Larned Professor of American History (1877-1888); Assistant Librarian Emeritus (1912). He resigned the Secretaryship of the University in 1899, when President Dwight retired, being followed by Secretary Stokes on President Hadley's inauguration in that year. Yale conferred the degree of Doctor of Letters upon him in 1902, and in 1913 his portrait was presented to the Library, to commemorate his long service as teacher, secretary, librarian, and archivist. In June, 1914, when the Porter Gateway was dedicated at the University, he delivered the presentation address.

The important work which Professor Dexter did for the University was chiefly connected with his work as Assistant Librarian and with his life-long enthusiasm for antiquarian researches, particularly in his special fields of genealogy and local and Yale history. He was the first, we believe, to install a modern cataloguing system in the University Library, following a catalogue which he had made of the Linonian and Brothers Library, though both were superseded within the last decade by a still more useful system -- a change which he probably never entirely accustomed himself to. It was in his special work as an historian and antiquarian that Professor Dexter left his most important monument. In the fields which he selected, he was unexcelled among the scholars of his day and since; probably no one will have to do over again any of the work he left. This was far greater than would be believed, except by those who knew the incessant and painstaking study which he put on it. This chief life work may be summarized under three heads:- his purely Yale historical editorial work; his original historical research, and his Yale genealogical work.

Professor Dexter's editorial work on Yale historical documents was extraordinary. When he began his studies on them, largely through his official interest as Secretary of the University, there were few published documents. In 1871 he brought out the "Acts of the General Assembly of Connecticut, with Other Permanent documents respecting Yale University"; in 1892, "A Catalogue, with Descriptive Notes, of the Portraits, Busts, etc., Belonging to Yale University"; in 1876, "The College Hymnal, for Divine Service at Battell Chapel, Yale College." In addition he published six volumes of graduate biographical sketches, with the exceedingly valuable forewords to each year subtitled "Annals of the College History"; "A Sketch of the History of Yale University," 1887; "The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles", three volumes, a monumental piece of scholarly editorship, calling upon a fund of detailed knowledge of the Revolutionary period in Yale and Connecticut history for its many notes possessed by no one else; in 1916; "Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies of Ezra Stiles, 1755-1794"; in the same year his "Documentary History of Yale University," a storehouse of early Yale documents up to the year 1745.

His second group of publications, original historical work and miscellanies, had mainly if not entirely to do with local and Yale history. In this field he did a great number of papers, too many for individual naming, for the meetings of the New Haven Colony Historical Society and for their bound volumes of published addresses. These had to do with a wide variety of local topics, from Yale's days in Saybrook to the account books of early Yale Treasurers and from the New Haven settlement to local celebrities. In this apparent side-issue of his life, Professor Dexter did a vast amount of original research, which will be the foundation for all later studies of the same subjects. His "Student Life in the Early Days of Connecticut Hall," for instance, is a closely-packed compendium of all that could be learned on the subject His "New Haven in 1784" is a detailed and highly interesting study of the life and manners of the town during Stiles' Presidency, and of the place as a New England town.

In 1899 he published his edition of "The Diary of David McClure." He also published a "Supplement of Additional Words and Definitions" to Webster's Dictionary, edition of 1879.

Professor Dexter's Yale genealogical work, however, remains the largest single contribution which he made to Yale annals, and the most exhaustive and definitive. In 1885, in his eightieth year, John Langdon Sibley had issued his third and last volume of "Harvard Graduates," bringing his genealogical and biographical researches of early Harvard men up to the year 1689. No such work had been published for Yale graduates, and Professor Dexter undertook it, with the expectation, which he saw satisfied, of filling in the period of unpublished Yale biographies from the Class of 1701 to the Class of 1815, when the series of modern Class Records began. Professor Dexter's undertaking was a prodigious one, considering the vast amount of material that he had to search for in manuscript and town documents. His genealogical work in this series was of the first class. An attempt had been made to open this field, down to the year 1767, by Ralph Dunning Smyth, 1827, of Guilford, Conn., and notes had been gathered by Edward C. Herrick, Librarian of the College from 1843 to 1858. But the greater portion of the work had to be done at first hand, and Professor Dexter managed it between his other studies and his University duties. The first volume, covering Yale graduates from 1701 to 1745, was published by Henry Holt & Co. in 1885; his sixth and last, bringing his biographies down to 1815, in 1912.

At a meeting of the General Conferences of Congregational Churches of Connecticut in 1871, he was chosen annalist and served in this capacity for a year. For some years he was foreign secretary of the American Antiquarian Society and a member of the council, and he belonged to the leading historical societies of the country. Early in his college course Professor Dexter joined the Church of Christ in Yale College, of which he continued a member for more than fifty years, transferring his membership to the First (Center) Church in New Haven in 1910.

He was married July 8, 1880, in New Haven, to Theodosia Mary, daughter of Russell Canfield Wheeler (B.A. 1816) and Theodosia (Davenport) Wheeler, and a sister of William Wheeler (B.A. 1855) and J. Davenport Wheeler (Ph.B. 1858) She survives him with their only child, Dorothea Mary, who was married June 17, 1915, to Henry Laurens (B.A. College of Charleston 1907, Ph.D. Harvard 1911), who had been an assistant professor of biology at Yale for several years, and was a associate professor of physiology in the Yale School of Medicine.

He died August 13, 1920, at his home in New Haven, from chronic bronchitis, after an illness of several weeks. Burial was in the Grove Street Cemetery.

The Yale Alumni Weekly, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Oct. 15, 1920, p. 81

See also: Yale Alumni Weekly, Vol. XXX, No. 6, Oct. 29, 1920, p.130
Guide to the Franklin Bowditch Dexter Papers
Under Revision
compiled by John Espy, Kathy M. Umbricht Straka, and Susan Wheatley
April 1982
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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