College receives National Archives grant to digitize its popular Bigelow Collection

Publication Date

A new project will make the historic papers of the College’s most versatile alumnus more accessible to the public.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives has awarded Union a grant to support the digitization of its massive John Bigelow Collection.

A member of the Class of 1835, Bigelow was a prominent author, lawyer, diplomat and distinguished man of letters in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


A member of the Class of 1835, John Bigelow was a prominent author, lawyer, diplomat and distinguished man of letters in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

He played a major role in the creation of the New York Public Library and served as its first president. Appointed consul general to Paris by President Abraham Lincoln, Bigelow helped dissuade a number of European countries from supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.

While in Paris, Bigelow discovered the lost manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s storied autobiography, which he edited and published in 1868. He served as New York’s secretary of state, helped expose the political corruption of William “Boss” Tweed’s Tammany Hall in New York City and resolved a dispute over the route of the Panama Canal.

Along with the poet William Cullen Bryant, Bigelow was an owner and editor of the New York Evening Post. An intersection in New York City (5th Avenue and 41st Street) bears his name, John Bigelow Plaza.

Bigelow was 94 when he died Dec. 11, 1911.

“There was no room for laziness in his schedule. Hours empty of thought or purposeful activity did not exist,” Margaret Clapp wrote in her 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Bigelow, “Forgotten First Citizen.”

A two-year project, totaling $266,510, is supported by a grant from the NHPRC of $149,710, to allow the College to hire a full-time project archivist and student workers to digitize the popular Bigelow Collection. The College will also update and redesign the website, where the collection will be searchable.

Gifted to the College nearly 60 years ago on behalf of the Bigelow family, the collection spans approximately 80 linear feet. It includes some 22,000 letters from prominent political, cultural and literary giants, including Theodore Roosevelt, Andrew Carnegie, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who co-designed Central Park.

The letters touch on Bigelow’s activities as the French consul during the Civil War and reactions to the Lincoln assassination; the founding of the Panama Canal; and the creation of a variety of public art works and notable institutions in New York, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park and the New York Public Library.

The collection also includes 16 handwritten diaries kept by Bigelow’s wife, Jane Tunis Poultney, and 18 scrapbooks.

Active in New York’s social and literary circles, Jane Bigelow championed Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, hosting both when they visited New York. She was just as comfortable in the company of diplomats she and John entertained in their home.

She had a profound impact on her better-known husband.

“Without her my career in the world would not only have been very different from what it was, but far less satisfactory to myself and to others,” Bigelow wrote years after her death.

Last year, the College received a CARES Act grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize Jane’s diaries. The funding was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress to assist those impacted by the pandemic.

The latest funding from the NHPRC will build upon that project, as well.

“I am delighted to learn that the NHPRC chose to fund our grant,” said Sarah Schmidt, director of Special Collections and Archives. Joanna DiPasquale, director of Content and Digital Library Systems, is the co- principal investigator for the grant.

“The Bigelow Collection is one of our most requested collections, with scholars from across the country and around the world either traveling to campus or requesting scans of particular letters," said Schmidt. "In particular, digitizing the correspondence in full will have a significant scholarly impact across a wide variety of disciplines.”