Curtis, George William, 1824-1892

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George William Curtis (February 24, 1824 – August 31, 1892) was an American writer and public speaker, born in Providence, Rhode Island, of New Englander ancestry. A Republican, he spoke in favor of African-American equality and civil rights.

Curtis, the son of George and Mary Elizabeth (Burrill) Curtis, was born in Providence on February 24, 1824. His mother died when he was two.

At six he was sent with his elder brother to school in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, where he remained for five years. Then, his father having again married happily, the boys were brought home to Providence, where they stayed till, in around 1839, their father moved to New York. Three years later, Curtis, fell in sympathy with the spirit of the Transcendental movement. He joined the communal experiment known as Brook Farm from 1842 to 1843. He was accompanied by his brother, James Burrill Curtis, whose influence on him was strong and helpful. He remained there for two years. Then passed the next two years partly in New York, partly in Concord, Massachusetts, and then followed four years spent in Europe, Egypt and Syria.

He married Anna Shaw, daughter of abolitionist Francis Shaw and sister of Robert Gould Shaw of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, at the Unitarian Church of the Redeemer in 1856. Curtis was a founding member of the Unitarian Church of Staten Island (originally the Unitarian Church of the Redeemer), an author, editor of Putnam's Magazine, and columnist for Harper's Weekly. He was an abolitionist and supporter of civil rights for African Americans and Native Americans. He also advocated women's suffrage, civil service reform, and public education.

Curtis produced a number of volumes, composed of essays written for Putnam's and for Harper's Weekly, which came in rapid succession from his pen. The chief of these were the Potiphar Papers (1853), a satire on the fashionable society of the day; and Prue and I (1856), a pleasantly sentimental, fancifully tender and humorous study of life. Not long afterwards he became, through no fault of his own, deeply involved in debt owing to the failure of Putnam's Magazine; and his sense of honour compelled him to spend the greater part of his earnings for many years on discharging the obligations for which he had become responsible, and from which he might have freed himself by legal process. In the period just preceding the Civil War, other interests became subordinate to those of national concern. He was involved in the founding of the Republican Party, and made his first important speech on the questions of the day at Wesleyan University in 1856; he engaged actively in John C. Fremont's presidential campaign of 1856 (the Republican campaign headquarters were located not far from his Staten Island home), and was soon recognized not only as an effective public speaker, but also as one of the ablest, most high-minded, and most trustworthy leaders of public opinion. The Curtis and Shaw families, rooted as they were in the liberal soil of New England, counted Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau among their close associates.

The Underground Railroad was in use during the 1850s to help runaway slaves, and it is believed that the Curtises and the Shaws were very involved in the Railroad. The Shaw sisters, Anna and Josephine, and their mother, Sarah Sturgis, also spearheaded local efforts to help during the Civil War. George Curtis was targeted by Southern sympathizers, and Anna and her three children left Staten Island temporarily during the New York City draft riots in 1863 for the safety of her grandparents’ home in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

In 1863 he became the political editor of Harper's Weekly, which was highly influential in shaping public opinion. Curtis's writing was always clear and direct, displaying fairness of mind and good temper. He had high moral standards. From month to month he contributed to Harper's Magazine, under the title of "The Easy Chair," brief essays on topics of social and literary interest, charming in style, touched with delicate humour and instinct with generous spirit. His service to the Republican party was such, that he was offered several nominations to office, and might have been sent as minister to England; but he refused all such offers, preferring to serve the country as editor and public speaker.

In 1871 he was appointed, by President Ulysses S. Grant, to chair the commission on the reform of the civil service. Its report was the foundation of every effort since made for the purification and regulation of the service and for the destruction of political patronage. From that time Curtis was the leader in this reform, and its progress is mainly due to him. He was president of the National Civil Service Reform League and of the New York Civil Service Reform Association. In 1884 he refused to support James G. Blaine as candidate for the presidency, and thus broke with the Republican party, of which he had been a founder and leader. From that time he stood as the typical independent in politics. In April 1892 he delivered at Baltimore his eleventh annual address as president of the National Civil Service Reform League, and in May he appeared for the last time in public, to repeat in New York an address on James Russell Lowell, which he had first delivered in Brooklyn on the 22nd of the preceding February, the anniversary of Lowell's birth.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Typed letter signed George William Curtis to: "Dear Madam" May 3, 1892. Wellesley College
creatorOf Ticknor and Fields. Ticknor and Fields records, 1839-1881. Houghton Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Our new livery and other things : a letter from Mrs. Potiphar to Miss Caroline Pettitoes, [New York] : autograph manuscript, ca. 1853. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Typewritten letter, signed : West New Brighton, [Staten Island], New York, to Mrs. John W. Field, 1887 Mar. 4. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf O'Connor, William Douglas, 1832-1889. William Douglas O'Connor collection of papers, 1865-1883. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Music : autograph manuscript : [New York], ca. 1853. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. George William Curtis lettert [manuscript], 1881 June 27. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Introductory : autograph manuscript : [New York], before 1853. Pierpont Morgan Library.
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creatorOf Bartlett family. Bartlett family papers, 1816-1972. Concord Free Public Library, Special Collection
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referencedIn Charles Butler Papers, 1819-1929, (bulk 1825-1894) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
creatorOf Quincy, Josiah, 1772-1864. Letter, 1856 Aug. 18, Quincy, to George William Curtis. Boston Athenaeum
referencedIn Garrison, William Lloyd, 1805-1879. ALS : Boston, to George W. Curtis, 1878 Nov. 14. Boston Public Library, Central Library in Copley Square
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892,. Typewritten letters signed from George William Curtis to Augustin Daly [manuscript], 1886-1891. Folger Shakespeare Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Family portraits : autograph manuscript : [New York], ca. 1853. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Henry Villard papers, 1604-1948 (inclusive), 1863-1900 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn Clapp, William Warland, Jr., 1826-1891. Correspondence, 1790-1891 (bulk 1840-1891) Houghton Library
referencedIn George William Curtis additional correspondence, 1844-1891. Houghton Library
referencedIn Houghton Library printed book provenance file, A-D Houghton Library
referencedIn May family. Papers of the May and Goddard families, 1766-1912 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
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referencedIn Vol. I. 1860.includes:f. 1 Reverend Jacob Abbott: Letter to Griffin and Co.: 1860. f. 3 Reverend John S-C-Abbott: Letter to Griffin and Co.: 1860. f. 5 Jean Victor Adam, Painter: Letter to Griffin and Co.: 1860. f. 6 William Harrison Ainsworth, a..., 1860 British Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892,. Autograph letter signed from George William Curtis, New York, to William Winter [manuscript], 1881 January 17. Folger Shakespeare Library
referencedIn Ralph Morris collection of autographs and portraits Houghton Library
referencedIn Charles Eliot Norton Collection, 1851 University of Virginia. Library. Special Collections Dept.
referencedIn Oliver Wendell Holmes Papers, 1837-1931 Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
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creatorOf Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, 1823-1911. Correspondence, 1843-1911. Houghton Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Letters to Rev. William Henry Furness and to Sinclair, 1859-1891. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Typed letter signed : Ashfield, Mass., to Joseph B. Gilder, 1884 Aug. 18. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920. William Dean Howells Correspondence, 1863-1898. Boston Public Library, Central Library in Copley Square
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creatorOf Bullock, Alexander H. (Alexander Hamilton), 1816-1882. Letter to Mr. [George William?] Curtis, 1867 September 7. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Swiss journal : II. The town of Basle : [New York] : autograph manuscript, before 1853. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn The George W. Curtis papers [microform]. Rutherford B Hayes Presidential Center, Hayes Presidential Center
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creatorOf Melville, Herman, 1819-1891. Papers of Herman Melville [manuscript] 1814 (1847-1890) 1975. University of Virginia. Library
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referencedIn James Russell Lowell additional papers, 1736-1951. Houghton Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Correspondence to George H. Boker, 1863-1871. University of Pennsylvania Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Letters and photographs of George William Curtis [manuscript], 1854-1864. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Frederick Swartwout Cozzens Collection, 1851-1868 University of Virginia. Library. Special Collections Dept.
referencedIn James Freeman Clarke additional papers, 1806-1936. Houghton Library
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creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Letters from George William Curtis to unknown recipients [manuscript], 1871 February 6, 1872 February 11. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Greer, Louise, 1899-. Papers of Louise Greer [manuscript], 1851-1964. University of Virginia. Library
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creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Autograph letter signed George William Curtis to: "Dear Madame" January 27, 1879. Wellesley College
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referencedIn Century Company records, 1870-1924 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
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referencedIn Documents relating to Charles Sumner, 1828-1912. Houghton Library
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creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. George William Curtis letters, 1855-1883. Pennsylvania State University Libraries
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creatorOf Winter, William, 1836-1917,. Autograph letters signed from William Winter to various recipients [manuscript], 1867-1902. Folger Shakespeare Library
referencedIn Miscellaneous correspondence, 1852-1892. Houghton Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Letter from George William Curtis to Thomas Murphy [manuscript], 1870 August 2. University of Virginia. Library
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creatorOf Forbes, John Murray, 1813-1898. John Murray Forbes letter to George William Curtis, [manuscript], 1891 January 24. University of Virginia. Library
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creatorOf George William Curtis papers, 1839-1930. Houghton Library
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creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. George William Curtis additional correspondence, 1844-1891. Houghton Library
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referencedIn Letters from various correspondents, 1850-1895 (inclusive), 1852-1878 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn Autograph File, H, 1584-1988. Houghton Library
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creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892,. Autograph letter signed from George William Curtis, Staten Island, New York, to [Frances Anne Kemble] [manuscript], 1857 October 30. Folger Shakespeare Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Letter from George William Curtis to "My dear Miss Mary" [manuscript], 1852 December 6. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Charles Anderson Dana Collection, 1844-1881 University of Virginia. Library. Special Collections Dept.
creatorOf Cozzens, Frederic S. (Frederic Swartwout), 1818-1869. Papers of Frederic S. Cozzens, 1851-1868 and n.d. University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Letter signed George William Curtis to: Sir November 2, 1867. Wellesley College
creatorOf Rossiter, Thomas Prichard, 1818-1871. The legend of Breakneck / Thomas P Rossiter, [not after 1868]. New-York Historical Society
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Fashion : autograph manuscript : [New York], before 1853. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Papers, 1860-1928. Houghton Library
creatorOf Scudder, Horace Elisha, 1838-1902. Letters received, 1876-1877. Boston Athenaeum
referencedIn Samuel Henshaw letters from various correspondents, 1849-1937 and undated. Houghton Library
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creatorOf Hay, John, 1838-1905. Correspondence, 1854-1914, "Coolidge" to "Curtis". Brown University Archives, John Hay Library
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creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Letters of George William Curtis [manuscript], 1848-1891. University of Virginia. Library
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creatorOf Jones, George, 1811-1891. George Jones papers, 1825-1894 (bulk 1860-1887). Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
referencedIn Drowne family papers, 1728-1936, (bulk 1750-1885) Brown University Library, Special Collections
referencedIn Perry, Nora, 1831-1896,. Autograph letters signed from Nora Perry, Russell House, Lexington, Mass., to William Winter, New York and California [manuscript], 1893. Folger Shakespeare Library
referencedIn Duane family. Papers, 1770-1933. American Philosophical Society Library
referencedIn Henry Oscar Houghton papers, 1773-1932 (bulk 1833-1895) Houghton Library
referencedIn Storrs family. Papers, 1851-1893. Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
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referencedIn Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1809-1894. Oliver Wendell Holmes papers, 1837-1931. Library of Congress
referencedIn Burt, S. W. (Silas Wright), 1830-1912. Correspondence, 1870-1910. Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-1882. Letters to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1761-1904 (bulk 1820-1888) Houghton Library
referencedIn Grover Cleveland Papers, 1743-1945, (bulk 1885-1908) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Letters from various correspondents to Theodore Claudius Pease, 1868-1926. Houghton Library
referencedIn Williams, S. Wells (Samuel Wells), 1812-1884. Samuel Wells Williams family papers, 1824-1936 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn Sylvanus Cadwallader Papers, 1818-1904, (bulk 1862-1898) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Holland Collection of Literary Letters (MS 168), 1850-1880, 1872-1878 University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries. Special Collections Dept.
creatorOf George William Curtis Letters, 1851-1892 Syracuse University. Library. Special Collections Research Center
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. An Observation : autograph manuscript unsigned, [1892]. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Fields, James Thomas, 1817-1881. Yesterdays with authors, extra-illustrated. Houghton Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Potiphar papers : Vol. II, [New York], collection of autograph manuscripts, ca. 1853-1873 ca. 1853. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Miscellaneous papers, 1871-1919. Houghton Library
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referencedIn Jackson, Helen Hunt, 1830-1885. Helen Hunt Jackson Papers. Part 2. Colorado College, Tutt Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. 55 letters. [microform] By George William Curtis to William Douglas O'Connor between the years 1852 and 1886. University of Iowa Libraries
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Autograph letter signed : [New York], to Horace Greeley, 1856 June 14. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Hartford Arts Union. Records, 1852-1864. Connecticut Historical Society
referencedIn Ralph Waldo Emerson additional papers, ca.1835-1891. Houghton Library
referencedIn Brown, James Wright, 1873-1959. Collection, 1789-1951. New-York Historical Society
creatorOf Students' Lecture Association (University of Michigan). Students' Lecture Association (University of Michigan) letters, 1854-1856 and undated. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn White, Richard Grant, 1821-1885. Papers of Richard Grant White, 1842-1884. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862. Henry David Thoreau letters, April and August, 1855. Southern Illinois University, Morris Library
referencedIn William Pleater Davidge collection of photographs, ca. 1867-1922. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Caroline Sturgis Tappan papers, 1838-1921. Houghton Library
referencedIn Witter Bynner papers, 1829-1965. Houghton Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Papers, 1884-1888. Duke University Libraries, Duke University Library; Perkins Library
referencedIn George Jones papers, 1825-1894, 1860-1887 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Robert Gould Shaw letters to his family and other papers, 1852-1947 (inclusive) 1855-1863 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn Cleveland, Grover, 1837-1908. Grover Cleveland papers, 1743-1945 (bulk 1885-1908). Library of Congress
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creatorOf Howe, Julia Ward, 1819-1910. Papers of Julia Ward Howe, 1858-1908. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Kellogg, Miner K. (Miner Kilbourne), 1814-1889. Miner Kilbourne Kellogg papers, 1842-1882. Archives of American Art
creatorOf Douglass, Ebenezer. Ebenezer Douglass papers, 1790-1873. Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts
creatorOf Cranch, Christopher Pearse, 1813-1892. Christopher P. Cranch papers, 1782-1928. Library of Congress
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Autograph letter signed : Staten Island, to an unidentified recipient, 1863 Mar. 24. Pierpont Morgan Library.
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. Miscellaneous correspondence, 1852-1892. Houghton Library
referencedIn James Thomas Fields autograph album, 1750-1941. Houghton Library
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creatorOf Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, 1823-1911. Papers of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1841-1911. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Carl Schurz Papers, 1842-1983, (bulk 1860-1906) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
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referencedIn Portrait file: Guide. Houghton Library
referencedIn Shakespeare Society of New York. Records of the Shakespeare Society of New York [manuscript], 1852-1853. Folger Shakespeare Library
referencedIn Parkman family papers, 1793-1896 Houghton Library
referencedIn Benjamin, Park, 1809-1864. Benjamin Park papers, 1645-1925. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, 1777-1952, (bulk 1838-1903) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
creatorOf Norton, Charles Eliot, 1827-1908. Charles Eliot Norton papers, ca. 1845-1908. Houghton Library
referencedIn Ensign, Harry H.,. Harry H. Ensign autograph collection, 1818-1880 (inclusive). Yale University Library
creatorOf Conant, Samuel Stillman, 1831-1885?. Autograph letter signed from S.S. Conant, New York, to unidentified recipient [manuscript], 1879 November 7. Folger Shakespeare Library
referencedIn Samuel Gray Ward and Anna Hazard Barker Ward papers, 1823-1934 (inclusive) 1837-1900 (bulk). Houghton Library
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1892. George William Curtis letters, 1867-1880. Pennsylvania State University Libraries
referencedIn Parkman family papers, 1793-1896 Houghton Library
referencedIn Letters from various correspondents, 1861-1914. Houghton Library
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referencedIn Morgan, Edwin D. (Edwin Denison), 1811-1883. Papers, 1830-1872. American Periodical Series I
referencedIn Carrington Family papers, 1749-1929 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
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creatorOf Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-1882. ALS, 1861 September 28 : Cambridge, [Massachusetts], to George William Curtis. Copley Press, J S Copley Library
creatorOf Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, 1806-1861. Letter, 1856 Apr. 21. Fruitlands Museums (Harvard, Mass.)
referencedIn Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Portraits, ca. 1852-ca. 2004 Harvard University Archives.
referencedIn North American Review, papers, ca.1842-1868. Houghton Library
referencedIn Sumner, Charles, 1811-1874. Correspondence, 1829-1874 Houghton Library
referencedIn Shaw family correspondence, 1862-1876 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
referencedIn Charles Baldwin Sedgwick Papers, 1814-1891 Syracuse University. Library. Special Collections Research Center
creatorOf Curtis, George William, 1824-1894. Curtis, George William, 1824-1894 papers, 1864-1976. New York State Historical Documents (Albany, N.Y.)
referencedIn Edward Sanford Martin correspondence and compositions, 1882-1939 (inclusive), 1900-1938 (bulk). Houghton Library
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creatorOf Fields, James Thomas, 1817-1881. Autograph letter signed : Boston, to "My dear Curtis", 1857 May 6. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Ralph Waldo Emerson letters from various correspondents, ca. 1814-1882. Houghton Library
creatorOf Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920. Papers of William Dean Howells [manuscript], 1866-1919. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Robert Henry Thurston papers, 1859-1902. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.
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creatorOf Schurz, Carl, 1829-1906. Papers of Carl Schurz, 1862-1893. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Morris, George Perry,. Papers, 1843-1918. New Jersey Historical Society Library
referencedIn Francis James Child papers, 1842-1925. Houghton Library
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creatorOf Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-1882. Papers of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [manuscript], 1852-1878 (bulk 1852). University of Virginia. Library
creatorOf Adams, Charles Francis, 1835-1915. Bryant-Godwin papers, 1804-1913, bulk (1820-1898). Campbell University, Wiggins Memorial Library
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