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Wilson family papers

Identifier: MSS 0303

Scope and Content Note

The papers of the Wilson family of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Newark, Delaware, consist of 1.35 linear feet of material relating to four generations of direct descendents of Edward Wilson, Esq., of Elm’s Farm, near Liverpool, England. The collection preserves business, social, and personal papers for several family members, and includes correspondence, printed material, financial documents, photographic material, legal documents, maps, and lists. Papers span the years 1684–1954, with the majority of the material falling between 1830 and 1897. Reports on emerging rail lines and the New York stock market, collecting and philanthropy papers for naturalist Thomas Bellerby Wilson, and antebellum social invitations and valentines from Newark, Delaware represent just a few of the papers in this varied collection.

The Wilson family Papers provide a fascinating glimpse into the rise and decline of an Anglo-American family, and the establishment and distribution of a family fortune in Pennsylvania and Delaware in the 1830-1870s. Family correspondence about a myriad of investments and interests comprises the majority of the collection. There are more than three hundred family letters, of which the five sons of Edward Wilson are the primary correspondents. The collection has been arranged into ten series, with chronological ordering within series. Nine series are arranged around a member or members of the family. Because three of the brothers at one time shared the residence at Oaklands in Newark, Delaware, several letters are addressed to multiple recipients or signed by multiple family members. In most cases these items have been placed with the primary addressee. However, several letters of this type are found together in the Series I, Folder 4. These letters reflect the correspondence immediately following the death of Edward Wilson, Esquire, when the distribution of his estate is extensively discussed. The last series contains papers and family ephemera from Oaklands, whose original owner is unknown, or whose provenance remains better in tact if kept together. Researchers interested in a specific family member should check this series for additional items.

Much of the material in the collection was a gift to the University of Delaware in 1954 from Elizabeth E. Wilson, the last surviving family member at Oaklands, Delaware. Other items in the collection, such as the daybook of William Savory Wilson, were the gifts of the Moyerman family in 1972. Unfortunately, part of the gift of Elizabeth E. Wilson, previously sorted as the “Rathmell Wilson Papers,” had been arranged chronologically with collection items taped to leaves of paper and bound into volumes. In addition, multiple items were removed from the original accession and were placed into other collections, including MSS 271, the Evans Papers, destroying much of the original provenance. Though these items remain with the Evans Papers, where possible a photocopy and reference to the item are included in the Wilson family folders.

Scholars interested in business history, personal investing, and railroads will find a slew of financial documents in the collection, including annual reports, investment reports, account records, checkbooks, a daybook, a journal, and a worker’s time book. Family correspondence frequently discusses the performance of various stocks and investment opportunities. Evidence of the establishment and growth of the Wilson family fortune is clustered primarily in Series I and Series II, though other family correspondences, particularly letters from Edward Wilson, Esq. to Thomas B. Wilson, also reflect investment concerns. A historian interested in local transportation projects and public works will also find letters and papers about the building of the Wilmington - Kennett Turnpike (now Concord Pike), the Baltimore and Pennsylvania Rail Road, the Reading Rail Road, and the Christiana Canal Company. There are also documents about water rights and sewer lines in Wilmington and Newark, Delaware, and information about the New York stock market. An extensive family investment in the New York Gas Light Company stocks is also reflected, as are investments in the Liverpool - Manchester Railway, the Tennessee Rail Road, and the Illinois Central Line.

Legal historians and those interested in women’s finances and rights will also be interested in papers relating to Elizabeth (Wilson) Crosfield and the Misses Wilson. The distribution of Edward Wilson’s estate in 1844 ignited a family debate over the integrity of Elizabeth Wilson’s share, and how it would be affected by having her husband, Henry Crosfield, serve as a trustee. Other Legal documents in the collection include correspondence, abstracts, deeds, bonds, mortgages, wills, and the summation of an 1887 court case between Rathmell Wilson and the Baltimore and Pennsylvania Railroad. The papers of the Misses Wilson, housed in Series IX, reflect their attempts to bring suit against the city of Newark, Delaware in the late 1930s for an infringement on property rights.

Naturalists, book collectors, and scholars interested in the history and establishment of museum collections and research libraries will find much of use in this collection. Wilson family members were major benefactors of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, donating the core collection of their natural specimens in the 1850s, and funding a new wing for the building. Wilson family members also founded and supported the American Entomological Society (AES), helping to establish the importance of entomological study in the United States. The family supported a number of other institutions and historical societies in their early years of the nineteenth century, advancing the study of natural science and making thousands of books available to American scholars. The papers of Thomas B. Wilson, found in Series III, include over a hundred manuscript pages listing thousands of birds, minerals, shells, and books collected and subsequently donated to various educational institutions. The family also supported and championed Newark College, later the University of Delaware.

The Wilson family Papers also offer a personal story to historians of the Atlantic World and those interested in immigration history. Papers reflect the family presence and influence in England, the United States, and France. Family correspondence addresses emotional reactions to separation from family members. Letters also reflect how finances and news, births and deaths, marriages and introductions, occurred across the ocean. In addition, the collecting activities of Thomas B. Wilson, William S. Wilson, and Edward Wilson reflect the movement of natural specimens within Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

Other personal papers include letters, school copy books, invitations, calling cards, valentines, newspapers, and ephemera. Social historians will enjoy the variety of antebellum calling cards, invitations, and valentines included in the collection. Scholars interested in childhood in the mid-nineteenth century will find much of interest in the papers and ephemera of Helen Elizabeth Wilson. Her letters and essays discuss academics, toys, and activities. Pets, picnics, and a velocipede number among the topics discussed. Family correspondence also discusses health and medicine in the nineteenth century. For example, Thomas B. Wilson’s copybook pages mention the 1832 cholera outbreak in Philadelphia. Other letters discuss the health, ailments, and treatment of various family members. Four historic newspapers preserved by the family contain various articles, including information on troop movements and a Civil War skirmish between Northern troops and civilians in Baltimore. Finally, family papers from Oaklands should interest local historians. New developments in Newark, Delaware, from church bells to new hotels to boarding schools, are mentioned throughout the family correspondence.


  • Creation: 1684-1954
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1830-1897


Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce is required from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections, University of Delaware Library,

Biographical Note

The Wilson family Papers preserves materials from four generations of a prominent family living in Liverpool, England; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Newark, Delaware. The family’s wealth and talents supported a large number of educational and philanthropical pursuits. In the mid-nineteenth century, brothers William S. Wilson, Thomas B. Wilson, and Edward Wilson collected thousands of natural specimens and books and donated them to a variety of museums and institutions of the mid-Atlantic, including the American Entomological Society (which Thomas B. Wilson founded), the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and the Franklin Institute. Another brother, Rathmell Wilson, served as trustee and President of the board of Newark College (University of Delaware), guiding and supporting the institution for over forty years. Rathmell Wilson’s descendants continued to play a prominent role as benefactors of the University for over a hundred years. In addition, the family played an important social role in the city of Newark, Delaware, until well into the twentieth century.

Edward Wilson, Esquire, wealthy patriarch of the Wilson family, established a fortune through investments in the Philadelphia-Liverpool iron trade. Wilson’s interests in this trade, so crucial in railway development, and his other investments in railroads and transportation projects in the Eastern United States and England are reflected in the Wilson family documents. Little is known of Edward Wilson’s life in America, though it is estimated he lived here between 1800 and 1830. He married Rebecca (Bellerby) Wilson in 1802, and the couple lived in Philadelphia. They bore at least six children, three of whom remained in America when Edward and Rebecca returned to England. Edward and Rebecca Wilson owned a mansion and landed estate named Elms Farm, near Liverpool, England, which they shared with daughter Elizabeth (Wilson) Crosfield, son-inlaw Henry Crosfield, and sons Edward (Junior) and Charles Wilson. Three sons of Edward and Rebecca Wilson established themselves in America: William Savory Wilson, Thomas Bellerby Wilson, and Rathmell Wilson. For a time these three brothers attended a Quaker school in Philadelphia; later they lived together at Oaklands, near Newark, Delaware. Evidence of other family residences, including 1712 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is scattered throughout the collection.

William Savory Wilson added to the family fortune through a variety of business ventures. He worked as a cloth merchant and profited through trading stocks and bonds for railroads and public works projects in England and the United States. He advised his other brothers and cousins on investment opportunities, and shared some funds and accounts with them. By the 1840s, he was living in Paris, France, and was married to a woman named Adda, about whom little is known. According to W.H. Day, by 1853 he had returned to Philadelphia with his family. His papers, housed primarily in Series II, contain a variety of letters and business documents he received in Philadelphia and Newark, and an account book from his time as a cloth merchant. He maintained regular correspondence with relatives on his mother’s side, members of the Spackman family. William S. Wilson’s uncle, Philadelphia merchant Samuel Spackman, was married to Elizabeth (Bellerby) Spackman, Rebecca (Bellerby) Wilson’s sister, and had at least three children. Two sons, William Henry Spackman and John Spackman, had business ventures with and corresponded with their cousin William Savory Wilson. Wilson also assisted with family collection and donation activities, spear-headed by brother Thomas Bellerby Wilson.

Thomas Bellerby Wilson, doctor and scientist, was perhaps best known as a prominent naturalist and philanthropist. His formal education began at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, but he also studied at a boarding school in Darlington, England, and at universities in Paris, France, and Dublin, Ireland. By 1822, he had returned to America and was apprenticed to a pharmacist in Philadelphia. In 1828 he entered the University of Pennsylvania as a medical student, and graduated in 1830. However, an allowance and later inheritance from his father’s estate insured he would not need to practice medicine professionally. Rather, his interests in botanical and ornithological pursuits led him to begin collecting and arranging specimens, first for personal study, and later for donation to a variety of Eastern and midAtlantic institutions. In 1833 he moved to Chester County, Pennsylvania, with brother Rathmell Wilson. In 1841, he had moved with Rathmell to Newark, Delaware, and paid for a new wing to be built on to the family house at Oaklands. This wing contained his living quarters, personal collections, private library, and various portraits.

Thomas B. Wilson and his brother Edward Wilson gave more than 15,000 books to the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and more than 28,000 specimens to the museum, in addition to donating the money to build one of its wings. They were essential early benefactors of the institution, helping to establish it as a world-class institution. The brothers collected books and natural specimens of birds, shells, and minerals not only for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, but also for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Franklin Institute, and many others. In 1859, Thomas B. Wilson helped found the American Entomological Society (AES), donating a collection of over twenty thousand insect specimens. According to W.H. Day, a later president of the AES, Wilson contributed “large sums of money, complete reference libraries, and comprehensive insect collections to the AES,” and “significantly advanced the study of entomology and other natural sciences in the United States during formative years in the nineteenth century.” He never married, and has no known descendents.

Rathmell Wilson built the estate of Oaklands near Newark, Delaware. He owned interests in and also operated coal mines, including a concern at Broad Top Mountain in Pennsylvania. Like other family members, he invested in railways, selling land to the Baltimore and Pennsylvania line, which passes through Newark, Delaware. He served as a member of the board of Newark College from 1847–1888. From 1851–1872, he served as president of the board of trustees, and for some overlapping time he also served as board treasurer. He further served as the acting president of the College from 1859–1870, which encompassed the years the facility was closed during the Civil War. Along with brother Thomas B. Wilson, he served as a major benefactor of the American Entomological Society.

Rathmell Wilson married Martha (Meeteer) Wilson in the 1830s. Martha (Meeteer) Wilson was the daughter of Samuel Meeteer (Meteer, Meter, alt. spellings), who owned the Meeteer Paper Mill on White Clay Creek just north of Newark (later, it became the Curtis Paper Mill). The original deed to the land where the mill stood was granted by William Penn to Thomas Ogle in 1684; it and additional historic deeds are contained in Series X. Additional documents about the mill, the distribution of Samuel Meeteer’s estate, and Rathmell and Martha Wilson’s interest in it can be found at the Maryland State Archives, in Chancery Court Records. Correspondence to Martha Wilson and accounts of her home, the Oaklands estate, are contained within the Wilson Family Papers. Rathmell and Martha Wilson had three children: Helen Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wilson, Annie M. Wilson, and Edward Rathmell Wilson.

Helen Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wilson was born and raised at Oaklands, near Newark, Delaware. She never married, though several love poems and valentines she received hint that she was much admired. Childhood letters and ephemera make up most of her papers in this collection. Her younger sister Annie M. Wilson also never married, and the two lived together for years, both at Oaklands in Delaware, and at a residence in Philadelphia, 1712 Walnut Street, that previously belonged to their uncle, Thomas Bellerby Wilson. Only very fragmentary evidence of their lives survives. Two school copy books, written by Helen Elizabeth Wilson from 1848–1851, contain letters to many cousins and relations explaining her studies and interests. She wrote about academic subjects in addition to her like of “fancy work” and “plain sewing.” She also enjoyed drawing, and a collection of her sketches is housed at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Most of her letters describe childhood pursuits in the antebellum period, including pony rides, having her teeth taken out, and receiving gifts such as pet canaries and a new doll. She also describes “a new playhouse” her father built in the woods, tea parties, valentines, and sitting to have a daguerreotype taken.

Edward Rathmell Wilson ran the farm and property at Oaklands, collecting rents, managing the estate, and spending his inheritance. Little is known of his life, though like his father he served as a trustee of the University of Delaware, elected in 1869. He married Anna Mary (Allen) Wilson on 29 April 1863. Anna Mary (Allen) Wilson, born on 1 July, 1837, descended from the prominent Gallaudet family of Baltimore. Edward R. and Anna had three daughters: Martha Rathmell Wilson (16 May 1864–27 December 1947), Elizabeth E. “Lillie” Wilson (25 June 1866-4 March 1958), and Alice Wilson (d. 11 March 1948).

The three daughters of Edward R. and Anna Wilson - Martha R., Elizabeth E., and Alice - were known as the Misses Wilson. They lived at Oaklands and none of them ever married. Elizabeth was involved with fund raising for the University of Delaware. Alice and Elizabeth both appear to have been interested in genealogy, which may explain the presence of the Allen and Oliver family Papers amongst their possessions. It may also shed light on the miscellany of old wills, deeds, stamps, and newspapers collected into Series X. They entertained students of the University of Delaware with parties at the Oaklands mansion, and for a period taught dance lessons there.

The Wilson family owned significant amounts of property in Newark on Main Street and on New London Road. Family papers include property maps and a Worker’s time book, which includes information on rent collection at various family properties. In addition, the mansion at Oaklands was the home of the Wilson family for three generations; where the Wilsons hosted Newark social events for over fifty years. The mansion was torn down by developer Hugh Gallagher in 1962, though the neighborhood where it once stood still retains its name. Family papers also reflect other ways the Wilsons affected Newark, from street, curb, and sewer development, to building the former St. Thomas Episcopal Church at Delaware Avenue and Elkton Street.

Cooch, Francis A., Little Known History of Newark, Delaware and its Environs, Newark: The Press of Kells, 1936, pp.20-22. Day, W.H. “T. B. Wilson, MD., A Founder and Benefactor of the American Entomological Society, and his Family: Our First Newark, Delaware –Philadelphia Connection,” Entomological News, Volume 95, No. 4, September and October, 1984. Munroe, John A. The University of Delaware: A History, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 98, 101,108,118 – 119. Thomas Bellerby Wilson, M.D., Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of Delaware, Wilmington: Aldine Publishing and Engraving Co., 1882 Additional information was drawn from the collection itself.

Descendants of Edward Wilson, Esq. and Rebecca (Bellerby) Wilson

This chart does not show all family members. It only shows family members whose papers or possessions appear in the collection. In most cases exact birth order is unknown; therefore siblings are not denoted by number.

Edward Wilson, Esq. (d. 1843) m. Rebecca (Bellerby) Wilson

-William Savory Wilson (d. 1870) m. Adda Wilson

-Thomas Bellerby Wilson (1807 - 1865)

-Rathmell Wilson (1810 - 1890) m. Martha (Meeteer) Wilson

--Helen Elizabeth "Lizzie" Wilson (d. 1909)

--Edward Rathmell Wilson m. 1863 Anna Mary (Allen) Wilson (b. 1837)

---Martha Rathmell Wilson (1864 - 1946)

---Elizabeth E. "Lillie" Wilson (1866 - 1958)

---Alice Wilson (d. 1948)

--Annie M. Wilson (d. 1915)

-Elizabeth Wilson m. Henry Crosfield

--Henry Wilson Crosfield

-Edward Wilson m. Fanny Wilson

-Charles Wilson m. Susan Wilson

Genealogical Notes

Spackman family of Pennsylvania: Rebecca (Bellerby) Wilson was a sister of Elizabeth (Bellerby) Spackman of Philadelphia. Samuel Spackman and Elizabeth (Bellerby) Spackman had at least two children: 1. W. H. Spackman 2. John Spackman References to and correspondence with these Wilson relations appear in the collection.

Crosfield family of Liverpool, England: George Crosfield, one of the original trustees of the estate of Edward Wilson, Esq. was the father of Henry Crosfield, husband of Elizabeth (Wilson) Crosfield, and subsequently named trustee of the estate of Edward Wilson, Esq.

Allen family of Delaware: Anna Mary (Allen) Wilson, wife of Edward Rathmell Wilson, was related to the Allen family whose papers are housed in Series X, Folder 42. The exact relationship is unclear from the collection.

Oliver family of Delaware and North Carolina: Anna Mary (Allen) Wilson, wife of Edward Rathmell Wilson, was related to the Oliver family whose papers are housed in Series IX, Folder 36, and in Series X, Folder 42. The exact relationship is unclear from the collection.


1.35 linear foot (2 boxes)


The papers of the Wilson family of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Newark, Delaware, consist of 1.35 linear feet of material relating to four generations of direct descendents of Edward Wilson, Esq., of Elm’s Farm, near Liverpool, England.


Gift of Elizabeth E. Wilson, 1954-1955, also Gift of Moyerman family, 1972.

Related Materials in other Repositories

Additional papers can be found at the University Archives; these are primarily records from the boards of trustee on which Rathmell Wilson and Edward R. Wilson served. The University of Delaware also owns portraits of Edward Wilson, Esq. and Rathmell Wilson.

A small cataloged collection of drawings of Helen Elizabeth Wilson are held at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The Academy also owns a portrait of Thomas B. Wilson and various papers relating to his activities.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds a manuscript collection for John Spackman, a cousin of the Wilson family, which includes papers of Samuel Spackman and Henry Spackman (HSP MSS 0621).

Related Materials in this Repository

Several other sources of information about the Wilson family exist at the University of Delaware. Some Wilson documents and correspondence are housed with MSS 0271, the Evans Papers, as noted above. The Hugh F. Gallagher, Jr. family Papers (MSS 0275) relate to the suburban development of Oaklands in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Wilbur T. Wilson Map Collection (MSS 0377) includes many maps and property plans of Newark, concentrated around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Shelving Summary

  • Box 1: Shelved in SPEC MSS record center cartons
  • Box 2: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes
  • Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (32 inches)
  • Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize mapcases


Processed by Colleen E. Lemke, September-October 2004. Encoded by Natalie Baur, March 2010. Further encoding by Lauren Connolly, October 2015.

Finding aid for Wilson family papers
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
2010 March 2
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Repository

181 South College Avenue
Newark DE 19717-5267 USA