Williams family papers

Biographical and Historical Notes

Colonel James Williams was born in Philadelphia on August 4, 1825, to John Williams (1775-1849), a lumber dealer in the Philadelphia area, and Esther Adams (d. 1875). James received a private education, and when he was sixteen he was taken on as a carpenter's apprentice with the hope of becoming an architect. However, when his father purchased a large estate in Delaware in 1848, James decided to pursue a career in agriculture instead. In 1850, he married Ruthanna Bailey, daughter of Mason Bailey. From this marriage they had two children who survived into adulthood: Nathaniel J. Williams (1857-1943), and Sarah Esther Williams (1855-1900), who would eventually marry William Polk Cummins, a prominent Delaware businessman and politician. In 1885, James Williams formed a partnership with John H. Parvis, formerly of Parvis & Biggs, which dealt in the manufacturing of fertilizers. After a few years, James became the president of Parvis & Williams and his son, Nathaniel J. Williams, was made treasurer of the company.

James Williams was also a Democrat, and very active in politics. He served in the Delaware State Legislature for two terms (1857-1858 and 1863-1864), and was elected to the State Senate from 1867-1871, the last two years of which he served as that body's speaker. In 1872, he was a member of the Democratic National Convention which convened in Baltimore, and which saw the party nominate Horace Greeley as its presidential candidate. Finally, Williams was elected as a Delaware representative to the 44th and 45th Congresses for the period 1875-1879. As a result of his position, James Williams cultivated a wide range of business and political contacts. Among these was John P. Cochran, Democratic governor of Delaware from 1875-1879, and John Bassett Moore, a native of Delaware who worked as an assistant secretary in the legal branch of the Department of State. Later, Moore went on to become a professor at international law at Columbia University, and to serve as a United States diplomat, including as Assitant Secretary of State during the Spanish-American War. The records do not contain much information about Williams' life after 1882, though according to the Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of Delaware, he retired to the management of his farms after his period in Congress. There he must have led a quiet life until his death on April 12, 1899.

Banker, lawyer, and prominent landowner, Nathaniel J. Williams was born near Kenton, Delaware on September 24, 1857, to Colonel James Williams (1825-1899) and Ruthanna Bailey. He was educated at the Wilmington Confederate Academy in Dover, then continued at the University of Virginia and graduated in 1879. At the university he was a member of the Zeta Psi fraternity, and in 1883, he was admitted to the Delaware bar. On April 28, 1886, he married Frances L. Clayton, daughter of wealthy landowner Colonel John Clayton, whose distant ancestors arrived in America with William Penn. In May of the following year they had their first and only child, Mary Clayton Williams, who married Middletown physician Dorsey W. Lewis in 1904.

Like his father, Nathaniel Williams was involved in politics, though his main concern was the management of his estates. From 1887-1903, he served as Democratic mayor for the city of Middletown, Delaware, and served as the director of Citizen's National Bank as well as chair of the Board of Directors for the Delaware Trust Company from 1889-1943. From 1885, he was both treasurer and secretary, then later only treasurer, of Parvis & Williams. After his father died he dropped the business. Williams purchased, sold, and inherited an extensive number of properties in Delaware, Maryland, and Florida, and he was very active in the raising and breeding of horses. Some of the properties that were held for a long time within the family and passed along after his death included the Price Farm, the Savin Farm, the Clark farm, and the Atwell Farm, and he possessed a number of houses in Delaware and Florida as well. Williams maintained a large number of tenant farmers to work and manage his estates, including his cousin Clifford Clark (who took over after the death of his father Harry B. Clark), and he must have allowed them a free hand in hiring their own farm laborers. In July 1943, he died in Middletown of injuries sustained from a serious fall he took several weeks earlier.


Who's Who in Delaware: A Biographical Dictionary of Delaware's Leading Men and Women. ed. Seth Harmon. Philadelphia: The National Biographical Society, 1932.

Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of Delaware. J.M. McCarter and B.F. Jackson, eds. Wilmington, Delaware: Aldine Publishing and Engraving Co., 1882.

History of Delaware Past and Present. Wilson Lloyd Bevan, ed. 4 vols. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1929.

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, s.v. "Williams, Nathaniel" and "Moore, J.B."

Scope and Contents

The Williams family papers concern the business and personal affairs of prominent Delaware politician and landowner James Williams (1825-1899), and his son Nathaniel J. Williams (1857-1943), who was also a prominent politician and landowner. In addition, the collection contains documents relating to the business of Parvis & Williams, a Middletown-based fertilizer manufacturing company that was headed by James Williams once he joined John Parvis in 1885. The collection consists of correspondence, college exercise books and notebooks, account books, ledgers, canceled checks, tax forms, stock and real-estate transactions, legal business, bills, and ephemera.

The collection is divided into three main series: I. Papers regarding the personal and business affairs of James Williams; II. Business of the Parvis & Williams Company; and III. Papers regarding the personal affairs of Nathaniel J. Williams as well as the management of his estates.

The first series spans the years 1861-1894 and includes various account books of James Williams in the management of his estates, as well as personal letters and a journal recording the bills passed in the Delaware Senate in early 1869.The second series deals with the business of the fertilizer manufacturing company, Parvis & Williams, and spans the period 1884-1898. Included are order books, correspondence, ledgers, check books, and business transacted with two collection agencies for delinquent accounts. The third series spans the period 1887-1947, and includes items used during his studies at the University of Virginia; family items, including a photograph, books, and a scrapbook; personal correspondence; correspondence between his daughter and the National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1943-1947); correspondence with tenants; envelopes; ledgers; stock statements and tax forms; bills; and legal business.

The collection provides an extensive, though undoubtedly incomplete, record of the family land holdings, as well as location, business done on the farms, tenants, and the economic vitality of each. It can be difficult to keep track of the farms, however. The farms are named after the tenants who hold them, and when a new tenant comes along the name of the farm changes as well. An example of this is the Luthringer Farm, which was held in tenancy by William Luthringer until 1925, when it was taken over by Rothwell R. Price. Thereafter it was known as the Price Farm. In any case, the collection provides a great deal of information about the financial status of the family estates throughout the late ninteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries.

The correspondence between Nathaniel Williams and his tenants shows in some detail the relationships between the two, and what responsibilities were expected from each. It is clear that he had a very large number of tenants, though the business-like nature of the letters does not indicate what they may have thought of him. It is clear from the requests for money that at least a few of them frequently relied upon Williams for financial support, the result perhaps of hard economic times, and were not particularly well off. These economic conditions are detailed more clearly in the records maintained in the ledgers. The letters are also interesting in that many describe the work that is being done on the farms, and this helps provide a picture of the duties required of a farmer and the intricate network of business contacts for the buying and selling of goods which arise from this. In addition, the collection documents the financial and business activities of the family company Parvis & Williams, which was run by both father and son from 1885.

Though the collection does not provide much information on the family's interest in stocks, it is clear that Nathaniel purchased stocks, perhaps many, after the market crash of October 1929, suggesting that he viewed the drop as a temporary setback and an opportunity to acquire cheap purchases. It is interesting to witness the fortunes of these stocks in the wake of the Depression; in some cases he lost quite a lot of money because of the steady decline of stock prices during the 1930s. In terms of actual numbers and diversity, however, the collection is unclear.

Overall, the collection contains mostly business-related material and does not offer much in terms of the family's personal life. Nevertheless, there are a few disparate items that are of some interest. Nathaniel's personal correspondence and material from the University of Virginia offer a very small glimpse into his work and personal relationships in college, and can serve as a means of gauging the level of education which he received along the way. The paucity of letters, especially from home, is interesting, and may reflect the fact that his father's term in Congress coincided exactly with Nathaniel's years at Virginia, while the letters of Willard Saulsbury betray the existence of a close circle of friends to which Williams belonged. In addition, the books which belong to Francine [Clayton] Williams and the scrapbook of Martha E. Clayton (perhaps the mother of Francine], may be useful in suggesting the type of leisure activities and interests in which well-to-do women of the late nineteenth century were engaged, and the type of libraries they may have kept.