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W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library Manuscript Collections

Guide to the William H. Ely Letters MSS.0484


University Libraries Division of Special Collections, The University of Alabama

Box 870266
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 35487-0266

March 2010


This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit 2013-03-11T11:42-0500

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Describing Archives: A Content Standard

January 2011; March 2013
Collection Title:

William H. Ely Letters

Unit ID:



University Libraries Division of Special Collections, The University of Alabama


0.1 Linear feet (20 letters, 1 photograph)




Letters recounting an 1820-1821 journey to Alabama by William H. Ely, Commissioner of the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb. The letters describe both the difficulties of his mission and the lifestyle of the early inhabitants of the state of Alabama.


Ely, William H., 1767-1847

Preferred Citation:

William H. Ely letters, W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library, University Libraries Division of Special Collections, The University of Alabama.

Scope and Contents note

The collection contains correspondence from William H. Ely while in Alabama, between February 1820 and June 1821, to his family and business associates in Hartford, Connecticut, while he acted as commissioner of the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb. In 1819, the Congress of the United States, under a motion made by Henry Clay, gave to the school twenty-three thousand acres of public land, and with the proceeds of the sale of this land, suitable grounds were secured, buildings were erected, and permanent funding was provided.

The majority of the letters are to Ely's wife, Clarissa M. Ely, with the rest addressed to his business associates, Ward Woodbridge and James Wells, vice president and treasurer, respectively, of the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb. The letters in the collection describe both the difficulties of the mission and the life and settlement of Alabama during its earliest years of statehood.

There is also a photograph of Ely's mausoleum in Hartford.

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Processing Information:

Processed by

Louise L. Montgomery; revised and updated by Martha Bace, 2010, 2011, 2013

Biographical/Historical note

Born on 10 January 1767 in Guilford, Connecticut, William H. Ely was son of the Rev. Richard and Jerusha Ely. After graduating from Yale in 1787, he acquired his wealth through various commercial enterprises and trade in the East Indies. He built a ship of the largest class during the early 1800s and studied navigation in order to become the commander of the ship.

After making his fortune, Ely returned to Hartford, Connecticut, where he married Clarissa May Davis in 1811. In 1820, he was appointed commissioner to the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb and travelled throughout central Alabama, raising funds for the Asylum by selling lands that had been granted to the Asylum by the United States Congress.

Ely spent much of 1820 and 1821 in Alabama, selling the land and commiting its profits to the Conneticut Asylum, as intended by the national grant. Ely was also able to secure for his own use a portion of the land, and with acute business foresight, began the building of a town; the new town was named Elyton in his honor. The site, previously known as Frog Level, was primariily a sporting ground for horse races. Elyton or Ely's Town was incorporated in 1821, while Ely was in Connecticut, and included the area currently bordered by 7th Street South West and Cotton Avenue in the West End of Birmingham, Alabama. Elyton was the third county seat of Jefferson County, Alabama, serving from 1821 to 1871, when the courthouse was moved to Birmingham.

Ely returned to Hartford to stay in 1821 and died on 21 February 1847.

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Acquisition Information:



Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons. (Library_of_Congress_Name_Authority_File)

Alabama (localbroad)

Alabama--History--1819-1950 (lcsh)

Commercial correspondence (aat)

Community and Place (localbroad)

Education (localbroad)

Health, Medicine and Welfare (localbroad)

Personal correspondence (aat)

Photographs (aat)

Southern Life and Culture (localbroad)

Correspondence - Outgoing, Business - 4 April 1820-20 April 1821 Box 635 Folder 484.01

Correspondence - Outgoing, Personal - 20 February 1820-2 July 1821 Box 635 Folder 484.02

Correspondence - Incoming Box 635 Folder 484.03

Photograph of William H. Ely's tomb Box 635 Folder 484.04