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William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers

Identifier: WUA-03-wua00068

The papers of William G. Eliot include diaries, letters, published works, published and unpublished sermons and talks, newspaper clippings of articles written by or about Eliot, photographs; and biographical and other material about Eliot. Also included in the collection are enslavement documents, which include letters and bonds of indemnity as Eliot purchased enslaved persons in order to emancipate them.


  • 1829-1937


Conditions Governing Access


Conditions Governing Use

Users of the collection must read and agree to abide by the rules and procedures set forth in the Materials Use Policies.

Providing access to materials does not constitute permission to publish or otherwise authorize use. All publication not covered by fair use or other exceptions is restricted to those who have permission of the copyright holder, which may or may not be Washington University.

If you wish to publish or license Special Collections materials, please contact Special Collections to inquire about copyright status at (314) 935-5495 or (Publish means quotation in whole or in part in seminar or term papers, theses or dissertations, journal articles, monographs, books, digital forms, photographs, images, dramatic presentations, transcriptions, or any other form prepared for a limited or general public.)


8.50 linear feet

Biographical Information

William Greenleaf Eliot (1811-1887) was born August 5, 1811 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was a white man. His father, a merchant and ship-owner, suffered financial reverses as a result of the embargo that accompanied the War of 1812, and soon moved his family to Baltimore and then Washington, D.C. where he received an appointment as chief examiner in the auditing office of the Postal Department. William, however, returned to New Bedford as a young boy in order to attend the Friends Academy, and later continued his education at Colombian College in Washington, D.C. from which he graduated in 1830. For one year after graduation, he was employed in the Postal Department, but in 1831 he entered the Cambridge Divinity School, and on August 17, 1834 he was ordained a Unitarian minister in Boston. In 1834, he went to St. Louis, Missouri, as a missionary, and became the first Unitarian minister west of the Mississippi. Eliot spent the remainder of his life in St. Louis. He established many Unitarian Churches throughout the Mississippi Valley. Eliot quickly became interested in education.

Throughout the 1840's he led in the efforts to establish and strengthen the St. Louis Public School System, and in 1848 was elected president of the school board. In 1853, Wayman Crow, a friend of Eliot's, secured a charter for a proposed college to be named Eliot Seminary. In 1854, Eliot became president of the board of directors, and the name of the fledging University was changed to Washington Institute. From that time, Eliot was heavily involved with the development of the University. In 1870, Eliot assumed the Chancellorship on an interim basis and in 1872 was officially installed in that position, which he held until his death. When Eliot took over the position of Chancellor, he resigned his pastorate in order to devote full-time to the University. Prior to the Civil War, Eliot had been a moderate abolitionist and when the war broke out, he came out strongly in favor of union and emancipation. During the war, Eliot and his friend, James B. Yeatman helped create the Western Sanitary Commission that mitigated to both the medical and spiritual needs of union and confederate soldiers throughout the Mississippi Valley. After the war, Eliot became increasingly active in reform and benevolent movements such as temperance and women's rights and mounted a strong campaign against efforts to license prostitution in Missouri. Eliot died in 1887, a figure of influence in the cultural and education development of St. Louis, and of national prominence in social reform and a man respected by his fellow Unitarians.

Biographical Note as of 2005, updated 2022.

Reference: “The Story of Archer Alexander.” William G. Eliot. Boston: Cupples, Upham and Company, 1885.

Reference: “William Greenleaf Eliot: minister, educator, philanthropist.” Charlotte C. Eliot. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1904.

Reference: “William Greenleaf Eliot, conservative radical.” Earl K. Holt III. St. Louis: First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, 1985.

Arrangement Note

The papers have been organized into eight series. Of these series, only the first represents an order imposed by Eliot himself.

Series 1: Notebooks (1847 - approximately 1878) Arranged chronologically

Series 2: Correspondence (1829-1937 and undated) Arranged chronologically

Series 3: Unpublished Works (1862-1885) Arranged chronologically

Series 4: Published Works by or about William Greenleaf Eliot (1854-1885) Arranged alphabetically by last name of author or by title

Series 5: Newspaper Clippings of Articles Written by William Greenleaf Eliot (1853-1885) Arranged chronologically

Series 6: Newspaper Clippings and Biographies about William Greenleaf Eliot and other material written by others than William Greenleaf Eliot (1887-1935) Arranged alphabetically by last name of author then subject; writings by unknown authors are at the end of the series and are first arranged chronologically, then the articles with unknown dates are arranged alphabetically by title

Series 7: Photographs. Arranged alphabetically by subject

Series 8: William Greenleaf Eliot Professional Activities and Ephemeral Items. The first part of this series is arranged in the original order of the items. Following this are added acquisitions which are arranged alphabetically by subject.

The collection has been reproduced on microfilm (5 reels), however the order of the finding aid does not represent the order of the microfilm.

Method of Acquisition

The material donated to University Archives by various family members of William Greenleaf Eliot.

Accruals and Additions

Accruals are interfiled within the collection.

Related Materials

Published and unpublished material relating to Eliot may also be found in the Eliot Family Collection WUA00123 (University Archives), Washington University Chancellor Scrapbooks WUA00064 (University Archives), and in bound pamphlet volumes (Special Collections Department, Olin Library).

Processing Information

Processed by Jay Kempen and Sarah Pabarcus in September 2005. Revised by Sarah Pabarcus in May 2006. Updated by Sarah Schnuriger in January 2019, September 2022, and March 2023.

William Greenleaf Eliot Personal Papers
Description rules
Language of description

Revision Statements

  • 2020 October 9: Resource record updated in ArchiveSpace by Sarah Schnuriger.
  • 2021 September: Finding aid revised by Sonya Rooney, University Archivist, to improve descriptions of enslaved people.

Collecting Area Details

Part of the University Archives Collecting Area

Sonya Rooney
Olin Library, 1 Brookings Drive
MSC 1061-141-B
St. Louis MO 63130 US
(314) 935-5495