(A profile of Frances Phelps-Penry's maternal grandfather William Walter Phelps' father-in-law Joseph Earl Sheffield[1793-1882], cotton broker, railroad financier and, founder of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, philanthropist. For the writer’s relation to these individuals see Family History.)
Joseph Earl Sheffield A Profile
Joseph Earl Sheffield was a man of and for his times. Growing up in a period when the Industrial Revolution was thrusting aside forever the agrarian lifestyle which had characterized the Western world for centuries, he was possessed of that peculiarly keen vigor and entrepreneurial spirit displayed by the first generation of Americans following the Revolution. This enterprise was to lay the foundation for many of the great American fortunes and pave the way for the empire that was to come in Theodore Roosevelt's era.
The Industrial Revolution, like all revolutions, challenged the traditional order. Institutions that had hitherto been sacrosanct suddenly found themselves obliged to do business with interests with which they had little familiarity and with whose agents they had little in common. In these circumstances, compromises were frequently wrought in an atmosphere that was not far removed from that of a street brawl. Higher education was one such institution that was severely impacted by the new competitive atmosphere. The assumption of a classical education limited to a privileged few in society was confronted by the urgent need for a large trained work force, posited by the new emerging sciences which were an integral part of the revolution. Classicists viewed such subject matter as merely vocational or technical training, considering it beneath them. This disconnection also manifested itself in the administration of educational institutions which, increasingly, could no longer afford to ignore the sweaty bustle beyond their pristine walls. In this situation a dialogue, often clumsy as the participants strove to learn the new languages required of them, developed between the interests of money and those of the mind.
Joseph Earl Sheffield's dealings with Yale demonstrated many of the dynamics of this conflict, albeit in generally discreet tones. A hundred and fifty years later the larger conflict shows no sign of abating, driven by a society that increasingly views itself purely in terms of wealth and its institutions agents of that wealth.
None of this is to take Joseph Earl Sheffield to task for what some in his life most likely saw as an attack on classical virtue. The creation of wealth has always necessitated certain personal sacrifices and its distribution challenged the existing order. If Joseph Earl Sheffield threatened the quiet of the halls of academe, he did so out of a sincere interest in providing for the future needs of a country that he saw, as did many others, was destined for greatness.
Joseph Earl Sheffield, born June 19, 1793, at Southport, Fairfield County, Connecticut, was the fourth of seven children of Mabel (Thorpe - sometimes without the 'e') and Paul King Sheffield.
This Sheffield line traces back to Thomas Sheffield who lived in Sudbury, County Suffolk, England, about 1550-1598. His son, Edmund, ca.1580 -1631, was a last maker (a maker of molded forms used in the manufacture and repair of shoes). Edmund and his wife, Thomazine, had six children, the third of whom, Edmund, born in 1612 in Sudbury, settled in Roxbury, Mass, in 1641. In 1644, Edmund married a second time, Mary Woody. They moved to Braintree, Massachusetts, about 1646, where he was employed as a wheelwright. The couple had eight children, of whom Isaac, born in 1651, was the fourth. In 1705, having married a third time, Edmund died. There is no record of Isaac's wife, but he had a son, Isaac, born in 1690. Neither is there a record of the latter Isaac's wife, though he had four children, the last of whom, Robert, married Susannah (King) in 1749. Susannah died in 1766 and Robert lived at Stonington, Connecticut, with a daughter, Mary, dying at Norwalk Island at the age of 72. The record shows that Paul King Sheffield, Joseph Earl's father, was the fourth of six children of Robert. Paul King's birth date is given as 1766, the year Susannah died - perhaps in childbirth. While the record is scant for these details, it does show that Joseph Earl's paternal grandfather was "very fond of music and amused himself in constructing an instrument which he called 'Long Spell,' resembling a large violin with seven strings laid on a table and played with quills."
Paul King Sheffield was born in Stonington, Connecticut. Joseph Earl wrote that his father, "was old enough to take an active part in the War of the Revolution and, with his father and brothers built, equipped and sailed a private armed ship in quest of the enemy, and had one or two pretty hard fought battles, in one of which his brother 'Bob' lost an eye and he himself was slightly wounded." However, the record shows only a brother, Robert, who was born, June 21, 1752, and died, August 7, 1753, and another, William E. Perhaps the 'Bob' to which Joseph Earl referred was not his father's brother but his father, Robert Sheffield.
After the war, Paul King moved to Fairfield, Connecticut, and commenced a lucrative trade with Cuba - probably sugar and spices. The War of 1812 saw a series of business reversals - perhaps, in part, a consequence of the British naval blockade - and he lost everything. It is reasonable to suppose, as we shall see, that his son, Joseph Earl, supported him in his waning years, and in 1845 he died.
Joseph Earl's mother, Mabel, for whom there are no dates, was the first of four children of Captain Eliphalet Thorpe, 1740-1795, and Eunice Perry. Joseph Earl's maternal grandfather was an officer in the Revolutionary War in the Ist Battalion under Col. Samuel Whiting, in the state regiments of Connecticut and Rhode Island under Generals Spencer and Wooster, and in the 4th Regiment of Militia. He also owned a privateer, Broome, and, like his son-in-law's father, Robert Sheffield, carried on naval operations during the war including transporting powder for the Committee of Safety.
The Thorpes were a Connecticut family, generations of whom lived variously at Redding, Greenfield Hill, and Fairfield. William Thorpe, ca.1605 -1684, born in England, had settled in New England about 1635 and was one of the founders of New Haven, CT.
Of Joseph Earl's six siblings there were three older, Harriet and Eliphalet for whom there are no dates, and Melinda born 1792, died 1878. The younger were Frederick for whom there is no date though he was married in Mobile, Alabama, and died before 1876, Paschal, 1798-1884, who served as a naval officer in the War of 1812, and Paul K., 1803-1892, who lived in St. Louis, Missouri.
The early years
Joseph Earl's formal education was at village schools, ending when he went to clerk for Stephen Fowler at New Bern, North Carolina, at the age of fourteen, 1807/8. While Fowler's occupation is unknown, given the seafaring character of Joseph Earl's family, it is perhaps not surprising that he should choose to work somewhere along the Eastern seaboard. Leaving Fowler's employ, he went into that of Dr. Ezekiel Webb who owned a drug store and who had married Harriet, Joseph Earl's oldest sister. At the onset of the War of 1812 - the three year war with Britain arising out of trade restrictions placed on the US - Joseph Earl worked as supercargo - officer aboard ship in charge of sale of cargo - on a trading vessel out of North Carolina that ran the British blockade. In 1813 he formed a partnership with a highly successful cotton shipper in New York, Henry Kneeland, representing the company's interests in New Bern. Following the war, in 1816, Joseph Earl moved to Mobile, Alabama, a thriving center for the cotton business. Establishing himself as a shipper, he would prosper greatly over the next twenty years.
On August 22,1822, Joseph Earl married Maria St. John (English pronunciation 'sin-jin') of Walton, New York. Maria, born May 22, 1801, was the third of nine children of John Trowbridge St. John - sometimes referred to as a colonel; perhaps, honorific - and Mary Stockton. Whereas the military rank of her father is unclear, that of Maria's paternal grandfather is recorded as a corporal. Corporal Matthias St. John served in the Revolutionary War in Lieutenant Curtis' company, 9th Regiment Connecticut Militia. In 1779, he was appointed to the 9th Company Alarm List, 9th Connecticut Regiment, as an ensign by the Assembly. Born ca. 1733, Matthias married Naomi Weed in 1758, by whom he had eleven children, of whom John Trowbridge, 1772-1850, was the ninth.
The instance of Maria's maternal grandfather, Charles Stockton, demonstrates the bitter divisiveness of the Revolutionary War turned to harmony. Charles was an ensign in the British army and was captured at the battle of Long Island. While paroled, he met Elizabeth North, whom he married in spite of the opposition of her family and friends - her father, brother and brother-in-law were with the American army at Peekskill. Remaining a British subject and receiving a pension for his military service, he continued to live in America following the war. In 1787, having become reconciled with his in-laws, he settled at Walton, New York, with his wife, three children, his mother-in-law, and a negro girl, staying the first winter with his brother-in-law. In contrast, Charles' father, Richard Witham Stockton, a major in the British army, was captured and imprisoned at Philadelphia and moved to New Brunswick, Canada, together with other loyalists after the war.
The Stockton family came from Kiddington, County Chester, England, to America in 1650 in the person of Richard Stockton, settling in Flushing, Long Island. Richard was commissioned a lieutenant of horse in 1665, moving to West Jersey in 1690, where he had purchased two thousand acres. One of his sons, Richard, bought six thousand acres, the center of which is the present town of Princeton, from William Penn in 1701. Richard, a Quaker, built a white brick mansion, which became the family homestead. Of the six children he had by Susanna (Witham), one of them, John, had a son, Richard, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Richard, 1730-1781, an attorney, married Annis Boudinot, the daughter of a French Huguenot silversmith. It was she, a published poet, who named the house "Morven" after the mythical Gaelic kingdom in the epic poems of Ossian. The house remained in the family for several generations before coming under the direction of the New Jersey State Museum in the late 1980s. The Stocktons were closely associated with the development of Princeton College. Another of the Quaker Richard's sons, Samuel, was the father of Major Richard Witham Stockton.
Returning to the St. Johns, Corporal Matthias St. John, Maria's paternal grandfather, was descended from Matthias St. John who came to America from St. Nicholas, Cole Abbey, London, with his wife Mary Tinker, settling in Connecticut about 1640, residing variously at Windsor, Wethersfield, and Norwalk. While the record lacks for clarity in the matter of dates and family members, it seems apparent that succeeding generations continued to make their home in Connecticut, acquiring considerable land. Though buried at New Canaan, Corporal Matthias moved to Walton, New York, in 1802.
The instances of Corporal Matthias St. John and Maria's maternal grandfather, Charles Stockton, present the large families that were common, then. The corporal had eleven children - all save one survived into adulthood - while Charles had thirteen children by his first wife, Elizabeth, six of whom died in childhood including male triplets who survived but two weeks in the winter of 1803. Of the survivors into adulthood two were twin females. When Elizabeth died, Charles married again, Elizabeth (Coleman), by whom he had a further six children, only half of whom survived into adulthood. In a related familial vein, the genealogical records throughout this history show numerous second and even third marriages, frequently a response to the death of a wife.
The nature of Maria's father John Trowbridge St. John's activities are not recorded. In respect of her husband Joseph Earl's business as a cotton shipper in Mobile, Alabama, it is worth noting that two of Maria's brothers, Thomas and Erastus Root, lived there also.
It would seem that Joseph Earl, once married, was concerned first to devote his energies to establishing the family's security. A sense of the man and his approach to business may be derived from the following excerpt from a letter he wrote at the age of eighty-three reflecting on his earlier years.
“When I embarked in commerce, the most interesting of all business occupations, my mind was called to a higher plane and tone, for then it became incumbent upon me to seek knowledge and correct information; and whether it was cotton or coffee, in the former of which I was for many years chiefly and largely engaged, it was all-important to success that I should make myself fully and accurately acquainted with the productions of all climates and countries, and to carefully watch and note the probable causes which were likely to increase or diminish production, not only in one's own country, but in all parts of the world where cotton was grown, and at the same time watch and carefully consider all the causes which were likely to increase or diminish consumption.”
In 1830, Sheffield was appointed director of the United States Bank in Mobile, but declined a subsequent offer of the presidency.
In 1828, Maria had their first child, Sarah Elizabeth; then, in 1830, Harriet Carthy; in 1832, Mary Huder; and, in 1834, Josephine Earl. Wanting to raise their children in Connecticut, in 1835 the couple returned to New Haven, though they continued to winter in Mobile, where Joseph Earl carried on his shipping business. In 1836, they had their first boy, Henry Kneeland, clearly named for Joseph Earl's New York partner. Ellen Maria, followed in 1838; then, Florence Sheffield in 1840; and, finally two boys, George St. John, 1842, and Charles Joseph, 1844.
During these years Joseph Earl Sheffield began to invest his money in the rapidly changing means by which people and freight were being transported about the country. For some time canals had been the prime mover, but now the advantages of rail were quickly coming to replace them. In this climate, Sheffield formed a partnership that in twenty years would make him a very wealthy man, enabling him to turn his attentions to philanthropy. The partner was the engineer Henry Farnam, and it is worth some explanation of his career to obtain a fuller understanding of their success.
Henry Farnam was born in 1803 in the Finger Lake district of New York. Following a rudimentary education, in 1821 he went to work as an engineer on the Erie Canal. Many such engineers had their apprenticeship on this huge project which was completed about 1824. Transferring to the Farmington Canal in Connecticut, he replaced Davis Hurd as chief engineer in 1827. The work of an engineer involved long hours in maintenance operations in all kinds of weather and Farnam's conscientious industry coupled with his engineering skills made him a valued employee of the company in which he would remain superintendent throughout its years of operation ending in 1847. James Hillhouse, long time Yale treasurer and a United States senator, was the principal driving force in the venture until his death in 1832. Following this, Sheffield invested heavily in the stock, enabling the canal's extension to Northampton, Massachusetts. Despite this, the canal proved unprofitable. In consequence, the financier undertook the establishment of a railroad running along beside it as replacement, becoming president of the company, the Canal or Northampton Railroad, in 1844, with Farnam as engineer. In these years Sheffield, with capital from Baring Bros. of London, secured the charter for the New Haven to New York City Railroad. While the line proved difficult to establish, losing many of its backers over time, he remained committed, being rewarded by its eventual profitability a few years before his death These ventures cemented the bond between Sheffield and Farnam and the pair now looked westward.
The cities of Chicago and St. Louis clamored for connections with the East, drawing engineers and business capital. Acquiring the Michigan Southern line and completing the long-delayed final one hundred miles, Sheffield and Farnam brought the first train from the East into Chicago in 1852. Visualizing a link with the Pacific, they then contracted to build and equip a 180-mile road in less than four years for $4,000,000 ($93,023,000 adjusted for 2002). As an incentive, they were offered operation of and profit from the line for any period preceding the contracted completion date. The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad completed in early 1854, a year-and-a-half ahead of schedule, the partners profited considerably from this arrangement, remuneration being largely in the form of securities at par, and Farnam was made president of the company.
Inventors and Engineers of Old New Haven, A Series of Six Lectures given in 1938 under the auspices of the School of Engineering Yale University, edited by Richard Shelton Kirby has this to observe about the opening of the road:
“…………The completion of the Rock Island road early in 1854 was marked by a celebration almost national in its scope, a railroad festival it was called, "the espousal day of the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean." With warm weather an even greater celebration was staged. Six Mississippi River steamboats took a thousand people, brought by the road from Chicago, for a four-day excursion up the river from Rock Island to St. Paul and back, all as guests of Henry Farnam and the Rock Island Railroad. Included in the party were the ex-President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, several governors, many other national figures, and a large group of substantial New Haven people, some of them doubtless stockholders or at least good prospects. The president of the road restricted the beverages during the trip to coffee, tea and water.* In spite of this unusual prohibition, enthusiasm reached a height which we of this generation are almost inclined, in our sophistication, to ridicule. The Chicago Tribune described it as the most magnificent excursion, in every respect, that had ever taken place in America, which was doubtless not hyperbole.
*I have never seen the complete passenger list. There were, I repeat, plenty of governors aboard. I have it, on rather questionable authority, that it was on this festive occasion that the Governor of North Carolina made his classic observation to the Governor of South Carolina. (Orig.)
(Just what was the nature of this observation is unknown to the writer.)
It was now decided to build a bridge to take the line over the Mississippi. Farnam organized a company and built a drawbridge, which was the first such south of St. Paul's. Opposed by steamboat companies, Abraham Lincoln, the company's lawyer, vigorously represented the line's interests.
In time, Henry Farnam became president of the Union Pacific Railroad, before retiring to Hillhouse Avenue, New Haven - named for James Hillhouse - where he was a neighbor of his old partner.
In 1856, as Farnam was organizing his bridge company, Sheffield declined re-election as director of the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad, another line in which he had interests. He was sixty-three and had decided to retire. With his family he traveled to Europe, where he spent two years. In Dresden, Germany, he commissioned Julius Hubner to paint portraits of them. Notably, a large canvas entitled "The Embarrassed Chess Player" depicted Sheffield and his wife, Maria, playing chess, while his daughters, Ellen and Florence, looked on. This eventually came into the possession of a daughter of Florence, Mabel Thorpe Boardman. Returning to America, Sheffield took up residence at his house on Hillhouse Avenue and commenced philanthropic activities, most notably, in connection with Yale.
The Sheffield Scientific School
In 1856 Theodore D. Woolsey, president of Yale College, and several professors in the sciences signed a document, Appeal in Behalf of the Yale Scientific School, with an Appendix. This was presented by James Dwight Dana, professor of geology and mineralogy, at the Commencement address. An appeal to the community-at-large for funds for the Yale Scientific School, it emphasized that "the Corporation could do little but acknowledge the importance of the School of Science and offer it temporary shelter……It has no collection of models or specimens in any department; it has no income for Professors' salaries beyond three hundred dollars a year ($6,382.98); it has not the means even of meeting its current expenses and paying the requisite assistants." The appendix presented reprints of two articles from Barnard's American Journal of Education in support of this.
The first of these articles, "Scientific Schools in Europe" by Daniel C. Gilman, A.M., gave a thorough account of the importance attached to the theory and practice of science as taught in the "old world." The second, "plan of an Agricultural School" by John A. Porter, professor of agricultural chemistry in the Yale Scientific School, posited that " we are to a great extent a nation of agriculturists yet without an institution in the whole length and breadth of the land which furnishes the proper instruction to the agricultural community." Listing the sciences that should be taught, he concluded, "Schools, such as are here described, would give, in fine, to the Scientific Agriculture they would create, the merited rank of a learned profession, and thus dignify as well as advance that branch of industry which lies at the foundation of our national prosperity."
The Yale Scientific School, associated in 1854, grew out of an informal collection of classes in the sciences begun by Benjamin Silliman, professor of geology and chemistry and James Dwight Dana's predecessor, in 1842. By 1847, these classes had become termed the School of Applied Chemistry, and engineering instruction was begun in 1852.
Amongst those who responded to the appeal for the school was Sheffield. While a year earlier he had given $5,000 ($104,160), he now added a further similar amount, making him the largest donor to-date.
Sheffield's interest in the Scientific School may be explained both by his daughter Josephine Earl's marriage to John A. Porter, professor of agricultural chemistry and one of the signers of the appeal, in 1855, and his vision for the future of the country, which foresaw the need for large numbers of individuals trained in the emerging fields of science and engineering.
Despite the response to the appeal, it was evident that an endowment fund was essential to secure the future of the school. In 1858, Sheffield purchased a building at the northeast corner of Grove and Prospect streets which had housed the Medical Institution. This he refitted and equipped and deeded to the college in 1859 with an endowment of $50,000 ($1,087,000) for the maintenance of professorships. A year later, the school, known as Sheffield Hall, opened for engineering and chemistry. The Corporation in earnest of their gratitude named it Sheffield Scientific School after its benefactor in 1861.
In 1860, another of Sheffield's daughters, Ellen Maria, married William Walter Phelps, whose father, John Jay, had made a large fortune as a merchant and financier in New York City. Phelps, who graduated in that same year from Yale, would go on to a successful career as a corporate lawyer, and then, following his father's death in 1869, pursue a public career as a four-term Republican congressman from the Fifth District including Bergen, Passaic and parts of Morris counties, New Jersey. An ardent supporter of the James G. Blaine faction of the party, Phelps was appointed minister (ambassador) to Austria-Hungary in President James A. Garfield's administration and Germany in Benjamin Harrison's. A year before his early death from tuberculosis in 1894 at the age of fifty-five, he was made a judge on the New Jersey State Court of Error's and Appeals.
In 1870, Phelps would be one of those who spearheaded the move to reorganize the college board to include a number of secular alumni to balance the clerical officers. It was felt by an increasing proportion that the college suffered from poor financial management at the hands of the clerics and that, in this new competitive era, it was vital that it be guided by men of sound business sense. Not surprisingly, this initiative was bitterly resented by the old guard, and the campaign was hotly contested. No doubt there were sympathetic discussions between son and father-in-law and, as we shall see, the latter, too, was concerned to protect the fiscal integrity of the institution into which he was putting so much of his money.
In 1863, as the Civil War raged, Congress enacted a national education grant for the sciences, funds to be derived from the interest on the sale of public lands. In 1864, the Corporation successfully petitioned the Connecticut legislature for this grant, subsequently referring to the Sheffield Scientific School in its catalogues as the Connecticut College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts. However, some of the award being slated for the upgrading of facilities and the school being too small to qualify, it was necessary to enlarge it. This Sheffield undertook, financing an addition in 1866 at a cost of $60,000 ($674,160).
An article devoted to Sheffield's contributions in the New York Times, Tuesday, March 12, 1867, has this to say about the refurbishments:
“Two large towers were erected - one in front of the building and the other at the northwest corner. In the front tower was placed a clock with four dials, made in Boston. This clock is set anew to zero whenever its error amounts to half a minute. This has occurred but twice since August last. The tower is ninety feet high and sixteen feet square. Above the belfry-clock and surrounding the structure is the revolving turret, in which is placed an equatorial telescope. This is one of the finest instruments in the country. Its focal length is ten feet, and the diameter of the object-glass is nine inches. It is possessed of great power and clearness, and is considered better than several in the country of a larger size.
“The instrument was made by the celebrated firm of Alvan Clark & Sons, Boston, who have made several of the finest telescopes of the country, among which is the one at Chicago. The northwest tower encloses the circular shaft of solid masonry eight feet in diameter, well grouted, commencing twelve feet below the surface of the earth, and is built separate from everything to the top of the tower, which is fifty feet high and sixteen feet square. On top of this, which is surmounted by granite pillars, is placed a meridian circle, purchased of the Washington Observatory for $2,500. In the tower is also an astronomical clock, made by Appleton, of London, and presented to the college by William Hillhouse in 1853.”
Aside from these lavish appointments, the new school provided for 122 students, twenty-three professors, and six assistants.
In addition to regular gifts in support of a library, in 1870, Sheffield purchased the Hillhouse Mathematical Library for $41,000 ($561,650), presenting it to the school. Mindful of the nation's larger needs, he had copies sent to libraries throughout the country.
The Yale academic faculty disapproved of the growing school, regarding it with condescension and suspicion. They saw education in the sciences as mere vocational training and an affront to their classicism. How clearly Sheffield understood this is not known, but the record demonstrates his persistent efforts to provide for the financial independence of the school and prevent it from being swallowed up by the college. In essence, he saw the school as a separate entity existing under the umbrella of the college.
In 1871, at Sheffield's insistence, the school was incorporated by general statute. A board of trustees was established including Sheffield's son, Charles Joseph, and his son-in-law, William Walter Phelps, who had also been elected to the college board, providing useful liaison.
Sheffield's advancing age - he was seventy-eight - was likely another reason for the flurry of activity that occurred at this stage of the school's growth. In a letter to Professors Brush and Gilman of the school in respect of a donation of 500 shares of the New Haven and Northampton Railroad Co. stock ($735,264) yielding 8% p.a., Sheffield cautioned them against public disclosure of the gift for fear that it might adversely effect fund-raising by minimizing urgency. He explained, however, that he was bound to commit himself at this juncture "…….in fear of casualties (I mean sudden illness or death)……" He clearly meant his own.
Putting in place plans for further expansion of the school, land was deeded on Prospect St. for a new building. In 1872, work was begun on North Sheffield Hall, which was opened the following year. While the new building lacked the grace of Sheffield Hall, it proved a utilitarian and durable addition.
Each of the remaining years of Sheffield's life saw donations to the school averaging $10,000 (approx. $179,000), while in his last full year, 1881, he gave $20,000 ($351,000). The school now was well-established in its own right, but Sheffield, ever concerned for its security and doubtful of the protection against suit afforded incorporation by general statute, urged that an initiative be pursued seeking incorporation by an act of the state legislature. While this was being sought, he died on February 16, 1882. He was eighty-eight. Shortly following his death, incorporation was enacted in accord with his wishes.
For the funeral, at eight in the evening on February 18, the Sheffield School building was draped in black. State and local dignitaries mixed with college representatives including the President, Noah Porter, who was a pall-bearer. In the grieving family present was one described by the New York Times, February 19, as "Paul Sheffield, of Southport, a brother of the deceased and a very aged man, (who) walked feebly to the casket and bowed his head, overcome with sorrow." While Paul King Sheffield, Joseph Earl's youngest brother, who was born in 1803 and died in 1892, lived in St. Louis, Missouri, another brother, Paschal, lived in Southport, Connecticut, and, dying in 1884, would have been eighty-four on this occasion. Perhaps it was him.
Sheffield was buried in the family tomb at the Grove Street Cemetery.
Sheffield's estate was initially valued at $10,000,000 ($175,439,000). Later, it was revised to $3,100,000 ($54,386,000) on appraisal. It was apportioned equally amongst his six surviving children and Yale, causing the observation that he regarded the college as a seventh child. Total bequests to the Scientific School, including New Haven and Chicago real estate, stocks, bonds and cash, represented a figure of $591,463 ($10,368,000) - clearly the college received more than the children. It was estimated that over the course of his involvement with the school, Sheffield's lifetime contributions equaled his bequest.
In addition to his family and the college, Sheffield left bequests to Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut, with which he had close connections - $100,000 ($1,754,000) in the form of stock of the New Haven and Northampton Railroad; Trinity College, Hartford; and, the Theological Seminary of the Northwest in Chicago. He was a contributor to the Orphan Asylum and paid for a parish school, an Old Ladies' Home, and a chapel for Trinity Church, New Haven.
In 1889, when Maria, Sheffield's widow died, the house on Hillhouse Avenue passed into the hands of Sheffield's executor, his son George St. John. Not wishing to continue its maintenance, he signed a quitclaim and turned the property over to the college in exchange for a $2,000 annuity (approximately $40,000).
The children of Joseph Earl and Maria Sheffield
Of the couple's nine children, three died prematurely. The first born, Sarah Elizabeth in 1828 in New York, died in New Haven in 1848. Also dying in the same year but seven months earlier was Mary Huder, the third child, born in Mobile in 1832. The fifth child and first boy, Henry Kneeland, was born in New Haven in 1836 and died there in 1841.
Harriet Carthy, the oldest of the surviving children was born in Mobile in 1830. In 1853, she married General Thomas Brodhead Van Buren. The couple would live for a time at Teaneck, New Jersey, where they were neighbors of William Walter Phelps, who had married, in 1860, a younger sister, Ellen Maria. The general, who was distantly related to the eighth U. S. president, Martin Van Buren, was prominent in the Civil War and, later, the diplomatic service. He was Consul-General and Judge of the American Court in Japan for eleven years, and died in San Francisco in 1888. Of their children, one, Joseph Sheffield, was in the steamship business in Hong Kong; another, Harold Sheffield, in the diplomatic service as Consul at Nice, France; and, the third son, Thomas Brodhead, Jr., was in the silk business in New York City. The third eldest child, the only daughter, Edith May, led an existence which is worth relating for its color.
Edith May Van Buren was born in 1860. Coming of age, she became a socialite, spending time in Europe and America. In 1898, she traveled in style to the Yukon at the height of the gold rush with a friend, Mary Hitchcock. What is described as a "chatty" account of this was published as Two Ladies in the Klondike. In 1900, in London, Edith May married Count Vessicho Gurgi di Castelmenardo, also referred to as Count Ginnaro Curzo de Castelmenardo. The count presented himself as the son of Duchesse Tortora Berayda di Belvedere Giuditta Gurga di Castelmenardo of Naples, Italy. The couple, who had no children, lived at Teaneck for a year, until Edith May's mother died in 1901. They then moved to Italy, where they lived, it seems uneventfully, for several years. However, in 1907, the Naples police exposed the count as an impostor, convict, and wanted man. It was revealed that he was a member of a notorious local gang. With the help of her brother, Harold Sheffield, the French consul in Nice, Edith May had her husband arrested. Convicted, he spent three months in jail. Though Edith May divorced her husband, she kept the title. She died in 1914 in New York City.
Edith May came by her headstrong behavior honestly. Anecdotal evidence tells that her mother, Harriet, once chased the general up the road with a shotgun following a domestic dispute.
The second surviving daughter of Joseph Earl and Maria, Josephine Earl, was born in Mobile in 1834. In 1855, she married John Addison Porter, who had then succeeded Professor John D. Norton in the chair of agricultural chemistry at Yale. It was Professor Porter who first interested his father-in-law in founding a scientific school. A frequent contributor to the American Journal of Science, he established the Connecticut War Record, a monthly periodical published during the Civil War, and authored numerous books including Selections from the Kalevals, the Great Finnish Epic. Professor Porter, suffering from ill-health, retired in 1864 to live but a few years. One of their two sons, John Addison Porter, Jr., became owner and editor of the Hartford Evening Post, and was appointed Secretary to the President by President William McKinley. Josephine Earl died in New Haven in 1908.
Ellen Maria, the third daughter, was born in New Haven in 1838. She married William Walter Phelps in 1860. He pursued a distinguished career, as has been noted in connection with his father-in-law and Yale. They had three children: John Jay, a financier and keen yachtsman, served in the Navy in the Spanish-American War and commanded two vessels in the First World War; Sheffield, a newspaperman, died prematurely from the effects of drinking bad water; and, Marian, who married Dr. Franz von Rottenburg, successively, private secretary to Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Chief of the Imperial Chancellery, Under-Secretary to the Minister for the Interior in the German government, and Curator of Bonn University.
Like Harriet Carthy, Ellen Maria had a domineering disposition. A family story relates how, when approached by a messenger from the bank she owned sent to inform her that she was overdrawn, sending him back with a check, she instructed the bank to fire him for his impertinence. On Christmas Day, it was her custom to take a walk from her New York City residence, bestowing a silver dollar on any policeman she encountered. She died in 1920.
The youngest of the daughters, Florence, was born in either New Haven or Washington D.C. in 1840. She married a prominent Cleveland, Ohio, attorney, William Jarvis Boardman in 1859. Of their six children, the oldest, Mabel Thorp, led a long and distinguished career as an organizer of the American Red Cross. Florence died in 1928.
George St. John, the Sheffield's oldest surviving son, was born in New Haven in 1842. A financier with firms in New York City, he retired to New Haven on the death of his father in 1882. Following his mother's death in 1889, he moved to Attleboro, Massachusetts, where he lived until 1916. The last years of his life were spent in Providence, Rhode Island, where he died in 1926. What his father did for the Scientific School, George St. John did for rowing at Yale. Taking an active part in the shaping of Yale crews, with few exceptions he attended every race at New London, from the first meet in 1878 to 1924. In 1872, he underwrote half of a trip to England undertaken by the celebrated Yale coach, Bob Cook, in the interests of intercollegiate athletics. At the time, this was a distinct departure from the norm, and in 1896 the college crew made its initial trip to England. Appreciative alumni and undergraduates accorded him the title of "The Grandfather of Yale Rowing." George St. John married twice. His first wife, Mary Stewart, whom he married in 1867, was a daughter of John Aikman Stewart, a noted financier who founded the United States Trust Company, the first such in the United States. Mary died in 1873, leaving her husband with two sons, Joseph Earl and George; another son, Stewart, had predeceased her. George St. John's second wife was Amelia Maxcy Daggett, whom he married in 1878. There were no children from this marriage. Both George St. John's sons pre-deceased him and, on his death, he left his entire estate to Yale.
The youngest of the Sheffield sons, Charles Joseph, was born in New Haven in 1844. He married Laura Barnett, daughter of General James Barnett, a distinguished citizen of Cleveland, Ohio. A businessman and philanthropist, the general achieved his rank in the Civil War in the ordnance department, raising a regiment of light artillery. Charles Joseph died in Cleveland in 1895, apparently childless.
A brief assessment
The nineteenth century battles between science and classicism fought on the campuses of institutions of higher learning in America occurred in a spiritual context that had yet to be seriously challenged by the former. That would come in the next century. Hardheaded businessmen and clerical administrators worshipped at the same churches and acknowledged common goals, even if the means were questioned and accommodations uncomfortable.
While Sheffield may have spent a good deal of his life in the rough and tumble of business, his presentation was of a polished nature. Henry Farnam, his associate, described him thus: "In his manner, appearance, and tastes he was what would now be called a gentleman of the old school - tall, handsome, well-dressed, dignified, courteous, self-contained." In this there is the clear observation that times were rapidly changing. The age of the Robber Barons had arrived and the decadence of the Gilded Age lay close at hand. In the matter of learning, it is said that Sheffield was well-read, discriminating, and capable of critical discourse on a wide range of subjects. He valued education, in no small measure because of his early lack of it. Firmly opposed to slavery, he adhered to Federal or Republican sympathies. Though a Unionist, he did not sympathize with the Civil War. Sad for his friends in the South, he contributed to the alleviation of suffering in the Union army.
Of his family life, Sheffield wrote:
“Blest with a most devoted wife with whom I have lived happily over fifty-seven years, the mother of nine children (six now alive) to whom she has devoted constant care and love and affection; with loving and affectionate children; with worldly prosperity and rugged health in old age - few indeed have reason to be more thankful to a kind Providence that has vouchsafed them.”
It must surely have been a blow to him to lose his first son, after a succession of four daughters and followed by two more. The headstrong behaviors of at least two of the first four daughters, Harriet Carthy and Ellen Maria, and that of a grandchild, Edith May Van Buren, suggest the inheritance of the gene that drove Sheffield, molded by the particular circumstances of their families. In contrast, the oldest son to survive, George St. John, appears to have possessed a more amiable and easygoing disposition. Perhaps from his mother.
First and foremost an astute businessman, Sheffield placed money only where he was convinced good use would be made of it. His reputation was such that his investment in any project was itself a recognized stamp of approval. His treatment of his family was no exception. At the age of eighty-six, surveying his career, he observed trenchantly:
“When I review my life it seems to me I have blundered and stumbled along without any great object to be accomplished or ambition to be gratified. I have not been ambitious to ‘lay up’ a fortune for my children, for during a long life of observation I have seen too many instances of the evil effects of sons and daughters growing up with great expectations……..We have believed that money expended for the education of our children and in promoting their happiness and welfare in married life was vastly more important and beneficial to them and more likely to insure them a rational religious life here below and prepare them for a far better one above than any fortune laid up for them.”
In Sheffield's adherence to principle and the consistent expression of high moral purpose lies a rigidity that many in our careless age would find suffocating, even hard to imagine. In a life of nip-and-tuck, such as Sheffield's early life in business must have been, risks taken in win or lose circumstances breed a certain kind of fortitude and self-confidence, producing a rugged individualism. This form of character often proves abrasive in a more conventional setting. While overweening hubris is frequently a consequence of such careers, Sheffield appears to have been blessed with a compensating degree of modesty.
Reflecting on his career, Sheffield wrote:
“……you must bear in mind that I was then young, especially when I was called upon, in 1815 in Carolina and in 1817 in Mobile, to exercise my own judgement in important matters, in which not only my own credit and future prospects were concerned, but the interests and credit of my associates, who were too distant to be consulted. Of course, my reflections and decision as to the proper course of action, being in a measure responsible to others, made a deep and lasting impression on my mind, of the necessity of mature and earnest reflection in forming one's judgement, and after thus arriving at a conclusion, of then acting with energy in carrying out your plans. My decision and prompt action then, no doubt gave some direction and tone to my future business course and standing; and I now recommend you never to decide hastily, and without mature and honest reflection in important matters; but earnestly seek in your own judgement the right course, and when you have decided, then to act with energy and promptitude - taking care in all public matters or enterprises to throw your own interests and your own feelings to the winds rather than suffer them to have any, the least, influence in your actions or decisions. Swerve not from your convictions of right and duty; learn to say no with decision, yes with caution. No with decision when it meets a temptation; yes with caution when it implies a promise; and however things may eventuate, you will have the satisfaction of having acted honestly, and may sleep quietly.” (Sheffield's italics)
Did he crack a grin as his ship outran a British frigate, or made port ahead of storm clouds? Or, was it just enough that the powder arrived on time to blast the line ahead of schedule?
Addendum: A brief note of the Sheffield Scientific School
During the years 1918 and '19, Yale University underwent a general reorganization. As part of this, all graduate courses were transferred to the Graduate School, and a four-year undergraduate course was instituted in its place at the Sheffield Scientific School (SSS). In 1922, the first degree of Bachelor of Science was awarded to the school's graduating class. In 1932, the Yale School of Engineering, established in 1852 and supplanted by the SSS, was re-established and engineering classes from the SSS were transferred to it. It may be useful to note that the emergence of education in the sciences at Yale was rather more intuitive than by any neat design. For this reason, aspects of its development have an amorphous character. For example, it is said that during the years 1853 to '4, though science and engineering courses were independent they were classed together in the catalog under "the aegis of a non-existent institution" - the Yale Scientific School.
In 1945, the SSS regained some of its former character: Graduate courses in science were re-instituted and the B.S. was transferred to Yale College. The B.S. in industrial administration was transferred to the School of Engineering.
In 1956, the Sheffield Scientific School was terminated as an active school and the faculty were defined as teachers of science to graduate students under the Division of Science.
Surviving were the Sheffield Lectures established in 1866 for the public.
A word about method and sources
In addressing conflicting detail in the historical record - dates, numbers of children and the like - I have chosen not to clutter the text with differing information, except where it has a substantive bearing on the narrative. In such instances, I have followed a course in my selection which seems the most natural or logical. While I could have used footnotes, it feels beyond the present scope of the piece.
I have presented in parentheses dollar amounts converted to 2002 in order to give, at least, an idea of the size of the original figures. I acknowledge that there are many other factors that play a part in arriving at true comparative values. Where figures represent an accumulation over a period of time I have made no attempt to calculate their present day value.
I gratefully acknowledge the input of Ellen Sheffield Wilds, a Sheffield descendant through William Walter Phelps, whose web site, In Their Own Words: Documents of the Past, is an invaluable source for any examination of these branches of the Phelps, Sheffield and related families. I am also indebted to Robert D. Griffin of Bergen Historic Books, Englewood, NJ, who provided me with a copy of the Americana Illustrated article on the Sheffield family, in addition to much else on the Phelps family in Teaneck, NJ. This includes the documentary film he narrates, Teaneck: The Lost Era, which is available from the Teaneck Public Library and is the source I have used for an account of Edith May Van Buren.
Bibliography and sources
Baitsell, George A., Ed. The Centennial of the Sheffield Scientific School Yale University Press, 1950.
Chittenden, Russell H. History of the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, 1946 - 1922, Vol. I Yale University Press, 1928.
Finley, E. C. Sheffield, St. John, and Allied Families Americana Illustrated, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, The American Historical Society, Inc., 1932.
Herrick, Hugh M. William Walter Phelps: His Life and Public Services The Knickerbocker Press, New York, 1904.
Kirby, Richard Shelton, Ed. Inventors and Engineers of Old New Haven: A Series of Six Lectures given in 1938 under the auspices of the School of Engineering Yale University New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1939.
The National Cyclopedia of American Biography
Joseph Earl Sheffield, 1793 - 1882 www.eng.yale.edu/sheff/jes-bio.html
The Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University, 1847 - 1956 Andy Shimp, Engineering & Applied Science Librarian, 1999. www.eng.yale.edu/history/sheffield.htm
Further information on Sheffield, Phelps and related families:
Ellen Sheffield Wilds, Webmouse Cyberspace Publications www.users.erols.com/webmouse
Robert D. Griffin, Bergen Historic Books, Inc., Englewood, NJ. www.bergenhistoricbooks.com
Columbia Journalism Review Dollar Conversion Calculator www.cjr.org/resources/inflater.asp