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Series One: The Papers of Jay Cooke (1821-1905) from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Part 1: General Correspondence, 1843-April 1865

The strength of the Cooke collection lies in the detail of its 106 boxes containing over 30 years worth of correspondence (1843-1874).

The core of the Jay Cooke Papers relate to the world of banking and finance, but in the course of their affairs the Cooke family had influence and correspondence that relates to every aspect of American metropolitan society. The Cooke financial house with locations in Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York and London administered Government Bonds that funded the Union in the Civil War, were responsible for the foundation of the National Banking system, set up insurance companies and traded in stocks and gold. They were also involved in many land and mining acquisitions, and numerous railroad companies that resulted in Cooke acting as prime mover in the ambitious Northern Pacific Railroad project. This enterprise brought about the collapse of Jay Cooke’s banking house and was a catalyst in the economic crash of 1873.

Primarily through the contacts of Jay’s brother Henry, in Washington DC, the Cookes held powerful contacts in the Judiciary, Legislature and Executive branches of the American Government, and in the Fourth Estate as they attempted to influence the political and financial climate in favour of their business interests. Jay Cooke was a front runner for the position of Secretary of the Treasury under the Grant administration.

Underlying the political and business dealings is a considerable amount of personal, religious and charitable correspondence. Jay Cooke consistently gave 10% of his profits to the Church and was in regular contact with churchmen and received requests for charity, many of which he acted upon.       

At the heart of the collection is a remarkable body of letters, mainly between
Jay Cooke, the great financier, in Philadelphia and his brothers Henry, in Washington, DC, and Pitt, in New York. At their peak, the brothers corresponded with each other daily.  The letters were full and frank.  Jay Cooke retained copies of his own correspondence as well as those sent to him, and these now provide a unique historical record of a period in which they wielded considerable power.  In addition to their own letters, there are also reports from contacts all over America - from congressmen to newspaper reporters, and from foreign emissaries to land agents.

Part 1 covers the period from 1843 to 1865, and is dominated by the American
Civil War. The material provides many insights into the outbreak, conduct and financing of the war from personal, political and economic aspects.

The documents chart the rise of the Cooke’s banking houses in Philadelphia and Washington DC and early land and railroad enterprises, but the core of the correspondence relates to the Civil War. Letters cover the fear and financial uncertainty leading up to the outbreak of war, its funding through the sale of government bonds, the conduct of the war and later items comment on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Many letters cover early land and railroad deals that set the tone for the Cookes’ later involvement in coast to coast railroad projects covered in later parts of this microfilm project.

There are hundreds of letters addressed to Jay Cooke from his brother, Pitt Cooke, in New York; also frequent letters from Pitt when he is staying at Sandusky, in Ohio; also many letters documenting Pitt’s business trips throughout America, especially Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

There are a number of letters from Salmon P Chase regarding sales of Pacific Railroad Bonds.

There is quite a lot of correspondence from William J Barney (Western Land Agent based in Chicago) who sent back frequent reports to Jay Cooke along the lines of the brief extract below:

“…We are & have been doing all in our power to hurry the business connected with deeds. You must recollect that we do not live in the East where Railroads annihilate space and where the rumbling of the old fashioned Stage coach has forever ceased.  Here the latter is the only conveyance we possess.  Yet we hope soon to finish off some of our projected Rail Roads & then to travel into the Interior will be no task.  Your Eastern friends can have their deeds recorded etc in double quick time …”
W J Barney to Jay Cooke, dated 7 May 1857.

A letter from Eleutheros Cooke is typical of many documents which highlight fears and economic tension in the lead up to the outbreak of the Civil War:

 “…the fact is, the panic affects us here as well as in other kindred  cities: and since I last wrote you it has extended as far south as Cary – afflicting the Gormans with its spasms. Our understanding was all perfected with them to go down with me to examine the lands with a view to purchase or permanently lease them – But the secession movement in the south has so frightened them that they have utterly abandoned the idea. They fear lynching for no other cause than they are from the north …”
Eleutheros Cooke to Jay Cooke, dated 26 November 1860.

There is lots of material on the conduct of the Civil War and support for the North, with many political and military insights from Henry Cooke who had personal contact with President Lincoln, the War Office and the Treasury. He kept his brother informed about all important developments as this extract illustrates:

… The President visited McClellan to see for himself the position of affairs. He returned much cheered and brings glowing accounts of the splendid condition and enthusiasm of the troops … Governor C. [S. P. Chase] has told me very fully the result of the President’s observations. The President is impressed with the skill displayed by McClellan in his change of base of operations (and Gov. C. unites in giving him credit to that extent) but both the President and Gov. C. are far from being satisfied that the movement itself – however well executed – was one that ought to have been made … The blunder of McClellan in the estimation of the Governor Chase (and in this the Gov. thinks the President agrees with him) was two fold, firstly stretching out his lines so far and not leaving his divisions within closer supporting distance … secondly when he found that Paster [General Fitzjohn Paster] could whip the enemy if he had reinforcements, he made a great mistake in persisting in his original plan …”
Henry Cooke to Jay Cooke, dated 12 July 1862.

Other letters relate to particular battles and the story of human suffering throughout the towns and villages affected:

Scenes of suffering beyond description are around about this place. The wounded by hundreds and by thousands are lying in the woods and in their little shelter tents, & very many in the mud along the river bank. The Churches, Farmhouses Barns and Sheds etc. are full. The government are sending them away daily …”
R Parrin, Pastor at Gettysburg, with first-hand account of the battle, to
Jay Cooke, 9 July 1863, including description of the aftermath of Gettysburg.

The following extract details efforts to finance the Civil War, with the Cookes in regular contact with Salmon P Chase, Secretary of the Treasury and later
Supreme Court Judge, as their banking houses, agents and press contacts worked round the clock to raise funds for the North through the sale of government bonds:

“… At half past seven I am here at the office after the biggest days work on record – too tired to give you anything but a summary…the office was besieged inside and out. Scores had to wait and wait, although we had four subscription tables at full blast. Local sales to customers amounted to $1,800,000. Our orders from the west etc. were about $1,600,000 and the subscriptions from New York and Boston, Baltimore etc., were a trifle over $10,000,000, making a total of between 13 and 14 millions. We sold bonds until we had not a single bond left on hand …”
Henry Cooke to Jay Cooke, dated 31 October 1863.

Henry Cooke also reports on the Fall of Richmond, the Surrender of General Lee, and the Assassination of President Lincoln. The Washington house forwarded the last cheque issued by them to John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassin) to Jay Cooke.  

“… A night of horrors and a day of impenetrable gloom! I was aroused in my sleep last night about half past one o’clock by the fearful tidings of murder and assassination. Huntington came over to tell me the President was dying and that Seward and his son Frederick, the assistant secretary, were not expected to live till morning. I slept but little after he had gone. I cannot dwell upon the details of this stupendous tragedy. The newspapers will tell you all about them … Facts enough are already developed to show that there was an organized conspiracy to assassinate the President and his whole cabinet, together with the Vice-President. The murderer of the President was Booth beyond all doubt. He is in custody, although the fact is kept from the public for fear of violence. Johnston was sworn in this morning by Chief Justice Chase in the presence of McCulloch, Dennison and Speed …”
Henry Cooke to Jay Cooke, dated 15 April 1865.

Lots of letters deal with personal and family matters, as well as numerous Christian and charitable issues that were constant throughout Jay Cooke’s life.

Other leading correspondents include:
- Henry C Fahenstock (Henry Cooke's partner in Washington)
- Salmon P Chase and W. P. Fessenden (Secretaries of the Treasury)
- John A Stewart (Treasury Department)
- William J Barney (Western Land Agent based in Chicago)
- J W Weir (of the Harrisburg National Bank)
- H D Moore (State Treasurer, Pennsylvania)
- J K Moorhead (from the House of Representatives)
- John Russell Young and Samuel Wilkeson (of the New York Tribune)
- G R Messersmith (at the Bank of Chambersburg) 
- George B Sargent (Banker and Land Agent in Duluth)
- W L Banning (Banking House, St Paul, Minnesota)
- E T H Gibson (Commission Merchant and Dealer in Railway, City and County Bonds, often regarding the Vermont Central Railroad Company)
- J J Cisco (Bond Dealer in New York and future Assistant Treasurer of New York)
- H C Storms (travelling agent in Ohio)
- G A Bassett (travelling agent, Chicago and Indianapolis)
- M F Field (Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Washington DC)

The years between 1843 and 1874 witnessed many important changes in American life and society. In the Civil War the Union was tested and survived. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment was passed abolishing slavery. The Reconstruction Acts and the Fourteenth Amendment paved the way for universal manhood suffrage (excepting Native Americans) and wider access to public office. Railroads opened up the West and led to the rapid development of towns and cities along their routes. The first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869, symbolically linking the nation.

This is an important collection of papers for all those interested in US History during the American Civil War, Reconstruction and Gilded Age periods, with much material on American Economic History and Westward Expansion.

Editorial introduction
Digital Guide
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