Collection ID: LMC 2441
Printable View Printable View

Collection context


Williams, Jonathan, 1750-1815.
The Williams, Jonathan mss., 1738-1869, consist of letters and papers of Jonathan Williams, 1750-1815, merchant and soldier, grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin and first superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
7203 Items
Materials are in English .
Preferred citation:

[Item], Williams, Jonathan mss., Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.


Biographical / Historical:

Jonathan Williams, 1750-1815, was a merchant and soldier, the grand-nephew of Benjamin Franklin and the first superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Career: born, May 26, 1750 in Boston; son of Jonathan Williams, merchant, and Grace (Harris) Williams, daughter of Benjamin Franklin's sister, Anne; educated in Boston schools; in 1770 went to London to complete training and to make contacts under Franklin's tutelage; in 1776 joined Franklin in France and was immediately appointed by the commissioners of the Continental Congress to France as their agent at Nantes; became involved in a controversy between Silas Deane and Arthur Lee and resigned as agent, but remained in Europe engaged in various business ventures until Franklin returned home in 1785; married Marianne Alexander of Edinburgh, Scotland, on September 12, 1779; in 1796 became associate judge in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia; served at different times as secretary, councillor, and vice-president of the American Philosophical Society; scientific interests brought him into contact with Thomas Jefferson, who appointed him Inspector of fortifications and superintendent at West Point with the rank of major in 1801; resigned, 1803; reappointed in 1805 with the rank of lieutenant colonel of engineers; planned and supervised the construction of defenses of New York Harbor; resigned from army, July 31, 1812; in War of 1812 served as brevet brigadier general of New York Militia and on a committee in Philadelphia for preparing defenses for the Delaware River; elected to Congress in 1814 but died on May 16, 1815 before taking office.

Scope and Content:

The bulk of the manuscripts in this collection fall in the period after 1800 and concern themselves with Williams' military service, particularly as Superintendent of West Point and as Inspector of Fortifications. There are many letters and papers relating to the affairs of West Point and numerous letters, documents, plans and drawings of fortifications, coast defenses and harbors of the Eastern United States. There are also a good many family letters, especially correspondence between Jonathan Williams and his wife. Included among these is his so-called "Niagara Journal" in the form of letters from Williams to his wife in the spring and summer of 1801 while he was on a journey to Niagara Falls with General James Wilkinson for the purpose of laying out a road from Buffalo to Niagara and on a trip down the Ohio River.

For the period of Williams' sojourns in England and France there are some accounts, business letters, memoranda, etc., relating to his commercial activities and scientific papers along the line of Benjamin Franklin's interests, particularly those concerned with thermometrical navigation.

Included also are law papers relating to cases before the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia of which Williams was an associate judge, notes relating to the court martial of General James Wilkinson, which began on September 2, 1811, at Fredericktown, Maryland, and letters to and from Wilkinson.

Some of Williams' financial records are contained in the collection. Among these are account books, bank books, a cash book, and bills, receipts, checks, notes, etc.

Material connected with Benjamin Franklin includes a journal of a tour made by Benjamin Franklin, Jan Ingenhousz and Williams in 1771 to observe manufacturing and the marble industry in England; letters of Benjamin Franklin to Jonathan Williams, Senior, September 28, 1774, Jonathan Williams, Junior, November 19, 1781, and Jean Louis Girard Soulavie, September 22, 1782, a draft of a "Memoir on Trade" for Dr. Franklin, by Jonathan Williams, Junior, September 15, 1782; a plan for a kitchen fireplace and chimney, 1784, from an idea given to Williams by Franklin; and an undated defense of Franklin's hypothesis for solving the phenomena of light against that of James Bowdoin in a paper presented by Williams to the American Philosophical Society.

For Jonathan Williams, Senior, -1796, father of Jonathan Williams, 1750-1815, and merchant trading to the West Indies, the collection contains records of his transactions as agent for Massachusetts Bay for the Continental lottery of 1776.

Also included in the collection is Benjamin Rush's journal, August 31, 1766-June 23, 1768, as a student at the University of Edinburgh.

Note on Indexing Term - "Art": There are plans and drawings of fortifications, coast defenses and harbors of the Eastern United States.

Acquisition information:
Acquired: 1944, 1946-1947, 1948, 1950, 1954, 1955, 1981

The manuscripts in the collection have been divided into two chronological arrangements, the first comprising the main body of the manuscripts, 1738-1869, the second being the bills, receipts, checks, notes, etc. The bulk of the latter are for the years, 1790-1814, but there are scattered ones for 1782-1862.

The bound materials in the collection are in a separate series.

Over-size letters and papers and some manufacturer's samples of cloth are in a folio case.

Physical location:
Lilly - Vault 2; Lilly - Map Case

Online content



This collection is open for research.

Many collections are housed offsite; retrieval requires advance notice. Please make an appointment a minimum of one week in advance of your visit.


Photography and digitization may be restricted for some collections. Copyright restrictions may apply. Before publishing, researchers are responsible for securing permission from all applicable rights holders, then filling out the Permission to Publish form.


[Item], Williams, Jonathan mss., Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Indiana University Bloomington
1200 East Seventh Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47405-5500, USA
Indiana University Bloomington
(812) 855-2452