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George Handy papers

Identifier: MSS 0133

Scope and Contents

The George Handy Papers, 1845-1871 (bulk 1846-1850), comprises 273 letters and business documents from a prominent Philadelphia-based nineteenth-century merchant. The collection, as a whole, reflects social and personal relations with Handy family members in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Mississippi, as well as other friends; and business and economic affairs of domestic and foreign commerce, much of which was conducted by shipping through the ports of Philadelphia and New Orleans, or via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Correspondence in the collection is addressed to George Handy in either Philadelphia or New Orleans, where he conducted business on behalf of his Philadelphia firm, Samuel Hildeburn & Co. There is frequent reference to St. Louis, Louisville, and Cincinnati, as well as New Orleans and Philadelphia; and travel is described as undertaken via steamboat, canal boat, stage, and rail. Handy engaged in purchase and sale of cotton, sugar, pork, lard, bacon, wheat, corn, molasses, turpentine, and, to a lesser extent, gunpowder, pecans, and peaches. Other business ventures involved loans, mortgages, and property transfers.

Throughout the letters, Handy received news of national events, such as the 1848 presidential election of Zachary Taylor, the swelling “California gold fever,” or fires in Nashville and St. Louis, in 1847 and 1849, respectively. Epidemics of smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera were specifically reported in the correspondence, as such episodes threatened quarantines and other risks for commercial shipping. Cholera swept the country in 1848/1849, as described in news from New Orleans, Kentucky, Tennessee, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati.

The collection was arranged chronologically by Margaret Lawson in 1945, who wrote the following comments and calendar for the papers.

The correspondence of George Handy from 1846 to 1850 reveals him to be a man well-known and respected in the Philadelphia of his day. His association with Samuel Hildeburn & Co., merchants, made his name prominent in the business world, and the warm and gracious personality that is evident in his personal letters won for him a large circle of friends.

George Handy was the only living member of his generation in the Handy family in the years from 1846 to 1850, except for three cousins: A.H. Handy, of Canton, Mississippi, who had occasion to write very infrequently on business; Martha Marshall, also of Canton; and George Martin, a cousin, of Charleston, Mississippi. Most of Handy's personal correspondence consists of letters from his nephews. Three of them, Isaac, Edward, and Aleck Handy, are usually spoken about together and presumably were brothers. There are letters from two of them, Edward and Isaac, written from Philadelphia, where Isaac was active in politics, and Edward in business. There is no mention made of Aleck's place of residence or occupation, and he never found occasion to write to Handy. A fourth nephew, John Ewing, bought a tract of land in St. Mary's, Elk County, Pennsylvania, and moved there from Philadelphia in 1848. He was evidently in a poor position financially, and was discouraged about his new surroundings amid a group of German settlers, who lived under primitive conditions, but to all appearances must have stayed on his farm, which was rich in undeveloped resources. There is a rather large group of letters from Joseph W. Allen, a nephew who lived in New Orleans. He was an emotional young man, and reacted very strongly to current events, seeing in them the hand of God. His writings, however, are informative, speaking of politics, business, and world affairs with understanding. It is possible that Allen was a preacher, for he mentions speaking before church groups. Among George Handy's letters are several from nieces in St. Louis, Elizabeth and Margaret Carroll. They are written during the cholera epidemic and fires in St. Louis, and are interesting in that they reflect the religious attitude of the period toward events of a disastrous nature.

The friends of George Handy from whom he received correspondence during the years from 1846 to 1850 were numerous. Those who figure most prominently are his friends in Dover, Delaware, Mr. and Mrs. Bates, and Mr. and Mrs. Gove Saulsbury. Handy was often a visitor in Dover and Wilmington. In New Orleans, where Handy spent the winter months until 1849, his best friends were Dr. Scott, a minister, and Robert Powell, with whom he had business dealings, and with whom Joseph Allen lived during the winter of 1849, when Handy was unable to make the journey to New Orleans. There is a letter from John Richardson of Philadelphia, written from Warm Springs, Georgia, a fashionable resort at the time. Mr. Richardson writes with excellent style, describing the countryside, and telling of traveling conditions and the lot of the southern Negro. Thomas Robins, a business associate of Philadelphia, was a frequent correspondent, and speaks of the effect on business of the California gold rush, the cholera epidemic, and the cholera quarantine for ships. Among the other friends of George Handy were George Collier, of St. Louis, who saw in the cholera epidemic and fire in St. Louis the need for the establishment of a reliable insurance agency in the West; Ralph King, a merchant, who writes from Bremen, Germany, of the conditions of international trade, and of economic prospects for Germany; and Lewis Whiteman of Cincinnati, who considers Handy very lucky to be living with his (Handy's) adopted daughter and her children. In addition to these, George Handy had acquaintances in New York, Memphis, Nashville, and other cities. He was constantly the recipient of requests for financial aid, and his reputation indicated that he was generous in his compliance. In one instance Littleton Quinton of Cincinnati asked Handy to use his influence with the Secretary of Treasury or other persons in Washington to encourage his appointment as Surveyor of the Port in Cincinnati. Again, Theodore Dahlgren, a stranger to Handy, asks his aid in obtaining work, having been injured at sea, and interned in the Marine Hospital. Handy advanced the money necessary for Joseph Calvin, an aspiring young minister, to attend Princeton Theological Seminary, and gave his financial assistance to many other persons, some of them unknown to him.

In 1846 Samuel Hildeburn & Co., with whom Handy had his business affiliations, was conducting a profitable commission business. The company was located in Philadelphia, where both foreign and domestic trade was handled. During the winter George Handy represented the company in New Orleans, supervising the purchase of goods for shipment to Philadelphia and selling goods to the South. The purchases Handy made consisted for the most part of cotton, tobacco, sugar from the West Indies, pork from up the river, wheat and corn, also from the up-river country, molasses, and turpentine. Goods were shipped to New Orleans from Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Louisville by steamboat and flatboat. The purchase of perishable goods involved a large risk, for cotton was damaged by rain while being shipped in open boats, and often pork and lard was spoiled. From New Orleans the goods were shipped around to Philadelphia. During the cholera epidemic in 1848-1849 a quarantine of cholera-infected ships from New Orleans was instituted in Philadelphia.

Because of adverse business conditions created by the cholera epidemic, a poor cotton season, and probably a number of undetermined causes, the Hildeburn Co. began to decline in 1849. In January Watson Hildeburn was "dissolved by limitation," and the remaining members of the company formed a co-partnership as Hildeburn & Bros. Co. A letter from John Hildeburn the same month reviews the financial status of the firm. He is not pessimistic, but looks forward to a good year, for good reason. In 1847 the company had lost $20,000, but $6,000 profit in 1848 had dissolved a part of the debt. Plans were made to make up the rest of the deficit by November, 1849, when the senior partner planned to retire. John Hildeburn planned to do a very large business of $350,000 in the coming year with 4% profit. In February foreign imports showed a decrease of 1/4 to 1/3 from 1848. By April only $2000 worth of business had been transacted, as compared to $70,000 by April of the preceding year. In November letters appeared regretting the news that Handy's firm has been dissolved. At the same time land belonging to Handy was sold to repay a note held by the United States Bank.

After April, 1850, there are no letters to Handy, and no mention is made in documents relating to his estate of the date of his death. The rest of the papers deal with the taxes on his estate, and are addressed to George Handy Bates, Wilmington, Delaware. William Woodruff, land agent in Arkansas, advised Bates and Edward Handy to sell the lands belonging to George Handy's estate in Arkansas, since they were not of very great value. There is no indication of the actual worth of Handy's estate.


  • Creation: 1841-1871
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1846-1850


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

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,


.6 linear foot (273 items)

Language of Materials



The George Handy Papers, 1845-1871 (bulk 1846-1850), comprises 273 letters and business documents from a prominent Philadelphia-based nineteenth-century merchant. The collection, as a whole, reflects social and personal relations with Handy family members in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Mississippi, as well as other friends; and business and economic affairs of domestic and foreign commerce, much of which was conducted by shipping through the ports of Philadelphia and New Orleans, or via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Daniel Moore Bates, 1945.


Boxes 1-2: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (32 inches)

Processing Information

Processed by Margaret Larson. Encoding by Lauren Connolly, July 2015, and Tiffany Saulter, December 2015.


Finding aid for George Handy papers
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
2015 November 4
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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