The John H. James Collection: A Nineteenth Century Life Uncovered

We’re happy to announce that the processing of the John H. James Collection, one of our largest manuscript collections, has been completed and finding aids for the collection are now available online.  The finding aids were written by two of our graduate assistants, Adrienne Chudzinski and Stacy Haberstroh, both Miami history graduate students, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their work processing the collection.

John Hough James

John Hough James

John Hough James (1800-1881) was a native of Urbana, Ohio and a graduate of Cincinnati College.  Referred to as the “Buckeye Titan” by his biographers, William E. and Ophia D. Smith, James was a lawyer, banker, railroad builder, scientific farmer, stockbreeder, legislator, politician, editor, lecturer and writer.  A friend of both Henry Clay and William Henry Harrison, James advised Whig leaders in the General Assembly of Ohio and in the United States Congress in his work as a lawyer and politician.  James was a pioneer in the development of western banking and transportation. He was treasurer and president of the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad, helping to build one of the earliest railroads in the country. He also pursued farming and stockbreeding. James founded Urbana University, the first Swedenborgian college in the world, giving the land for the campus and serving as a lifelong trustee for the institution.

Abigail Bailey James

Abigail Bailey James

John H. James married Abigail Bailey, the daughter of Revolutionary War printer Frances Bailey, in 1825 and the couple had four children.  Abigail and her children feature prominently in the collection and the family’s letters to each other detail everyday domestic life for a close-knit, upper middle class family in nineteenth century Ohio.

A page from an early James diary

A page from an early James diary

Efforts until recently were largely focused on cataloging James’s personal library, a rich collection of 17th-19th century European and American imprints. His personal papers, including diaries kept over sixty years of his life, extensive family correspondence, and business documents were available for research, but, until now, lacked comprehensive finding aids for interested scholars to use remotely before visiting the collection.  The collection opens up many avenues for historical inquiry on a variety of topics in the study of nineteenth century American life and culture, including political, economic, gender, social, and religious history.


A letter from John to Abigail dated 1845

In many ways, our newly available finding aids build on James’s own meticulous organization of his diaries, correspondence, and business records.  He bound and labeled family correspondence and business correspondence annually and, it is safe to say, that he kept the originals or copies of almost every letter or document that crossed his desk, both at home and in his office.  When a house fire threatened his entire collection of personal records a year before his death, James dutifully described the incident in his diary entry dated May 12, 1880: “This diary business seems to be well nigh run out. Yesterday as I sat at my bedroom desk writing, I heard the crack of fire in my closet where I have kept all my diaries and my files of letters. A glass lamp was burning there on the top of my drawers and heating a little can of water hung above it. A fire happened, the lamp burst and spread its infernal fluid and the fierce flame ascended and spread. Nobody to blame. A loud call for my granddaughter Nelly, and for water, brought help…. My letter books burned in volumes (by the only hand I would trust). From 1814-1871 several were scorched and one or two more than scorched- and all my diaries from 1821- 1878 injured in the burning … The worst of all, the first volume of letters from my son while in the army, written out by me from the letters when he first entered, so burned that I may not be able to replace it.”

Though much of the collection still bears the scars from that fateful fire, thousands of letters and documents, along with most of the diaries James kept between 1821 and 1881, are safe now here in Special Collections and I’d like to think that James himself would be very pleased with our stewardship of his collections.

James's signature

James’s signature

Kimberly Tully
Special Collections Librarian

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