On Genealogy: MY Relation to Ezra CORNELL – Founder of Cornell University

I haven’t blogged in a long while, and while I’m at a dead end in another line of my tree, I decided to do more research on the Cornells. I wondered if it was the same “Cornell” that is synonymous with the Ivy League American University – Cornell.

My fifth cousin 6 times removed OR 7th great uncle’s second cousin twice removed whichever way you look at it, is Ezra Cornell (January 11, 1807 – December 9, 1874). He was an American businessman and education administrator. He was a founder of Western Union and a co-founder of Cornell University. He also served as President of the New York Agriculture Society and as a State Senator.

My relation to Ezra is two fold – direct blood line and in-law relationship as shown below:

Ezra was born in Westchester County, New York, the son of a potter, Elijah Cornell, and was raised near DeRuyter, New York. He was a first cousin, five times removed of Benjamin Franklin on his maternal grandmother’s side. He was also a cousin of Paul Cornell, the founder of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Having traveled extensively as a carpenter in New York State, Ezra, upon first setting eyes on Cayuga Lake and Ithaca, decided Ithaca would be his future home.

After settling in at Ithaca, NY, Ezra quickly went to work proving himself as a Carpenter. Colonel Beebe took notice of the industrious young man and made him the manager of his mill at Fall Creek.

Ezra Cornell was a birthright Quaker, but was later disowned by the Society of Friends for marrying outside of the faith to a world’s woman, a Methodist by the name of Mary Ann Wood. Ezra and Mary Ann were married March 19, 1831, in Dryden, New York.

On February 24, 1832, Ezra Cornell wrote the following response to his expulsion from The Society of Friends due to his marriage to Mary Ann Wood:

“I have always considered that choosing a companion for life was a very important affair and that my happiness or misery in this life depended on the choice”.

The young and growing family needed more income than could be earned as Manager of Beebe’s Mills. Having purchased rights in a patent for a new type of plow, Ezra began what would be decades of travelling away from Ithaca. His territories for sales of the plow were the states of Maine and Georgia. His plan was to sell in Maine in the summer and the milder Georgia in the winter. With limited means, what transported Ezra between the two states were his own two feet.

Connection to Morse Code & Western Union

Happening into the offices of the Maine Farmer in 1842, Cornell saw an acquaintance of his, one F.O.J. Smith, bent over some plans for a “scraper” as Smith called it. For services rendered, Smith had been granted a one-quarter share of the telegraph patent held by Samuel F.B. Morse, and was attempting to devise a way of burying the telegraph lines in the ground in lead pipe. Ezra’s knowledge of plows was put to the test and Ezra devised a special kind of plow that would dig a 2 feet 6 inches ditch, lay the pipe and telegraph wire in the ditch and cover it back up as it went. Later it was found that condensation in the pipes and poor insulation of the wires impeded the electrical current on the wires and so hanging the wire from telegraph poles became the accepted method. 

Cornell made his fortune in the telegraph business as an associate of Samuel Morse, having gained his trust by constructing and stringing the poles for the Baltimore–Washington telegraph line, the first telegraph line of substance, in the U.S. to address the problem of telegraph lines shorting out to the ground, Cornell invented the idea of using glass insulators at the point where telegraph lines are connected to supporting poles. After joining with Morse, Cornell supervised the erection of many telegraph lines, including a portion of the New York, Albany & Buffalo line in 1846 and the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company connecting Buffalo to Milwaukee with partners John James Speed and Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith. Cornell, Speed and Smith also built the New York and Erie line competing with and paralleling to the south the New York, Albany and Buffalo line in which Morse had a major share. The line was completed in 1849 and Cornell was made president of the company.

Cornell’s sister, Phoebe, married Martin B. Wood and moved to Albion, Michigan, in 1848. Cornell gave Wood a job constructing new lines and made Phoebe his telegraph operator, the first woman operator in the United States.

Cornell earned a substantial fortune when the Erie and Michigan was consolidated with Hiram Sibley and his New York and Mississippi Company to form the Western Union company. Cornell received two million in Western Union stock.

Ezra made his fortune in the telegraph business as an associate of Samuel Morse (yes, that Morse as in Morse Code – Samuel F.B. Morse who developed an electric telegraph and then invented, with his friend Alfred Vail, the Morse Code  in 1838) , having gained his trust by constructing and stringing the telegraph poles between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, as the first ever telegraph line of substance in the U.S. To address the problem of telegraph lines shorting out to the ground, Cornell invented the idea of using glass insulators at the point where telegraph lines are connected to supporting poles. After joining with Morse, Cornell supervised the erection of many telegraph lines, including the Erie and Michigan Telegraph Company connecting Buffalo to Milwaukee. He earned a substantial fortune as a founder of the Western Union company.

Member of Republic Party

Cornell was a Republican member of the New York State Assembly (Tompkins Co.) in 1862 and 1863; and of the New York State Senate from 1864 to 1867, sitting in the 87th, 88th, 89th and 90th New York State Legislatures.

Cornell University and Free Library

Cornell retired from Western Union and turned his attention to philanthropy. He endowed the Cornell Library, a public library for the citizens of Ithaca. A lifelong enthusiast of science and agriculture, he saw great opportunity in the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act to found a university that would teach practical subjects on an equal basis with the classics favored by more traditional institutions. Andrew Dickson White helped secure the new institution’s status as New York’s land grant university, and Cornell University was granted a charter through their efforts in 1865.

This bronze statue of Ezra Cornell by Hermon Atkins MacNeil was erected on the university’s Arts Quad in 1919.

Cornell University derived far greater revenues than earlier land grant colleges, largely from real estate transactions directed by Ezra Cornell. Under the land-grant program, the Federal government issued the colleges scrip, documents granting the right to select a parcel of land. These colleges generally promptly sold their scrip. Ezra Cornell, on the other hand held most of the scrip, anticipating it would increase in price.He also redeemed some scrip for promising land or for rights in timber, most notably pine forest in Wisconsin. While the first land-grant colleges received around half a dollar per acre, Cornell netted an average of over five dollars per acre in 1905. 

Later Life

Ezra Cornell entered the railroad business, but fared poorly due to the Panic of 1873. He began construction of a palatial Ithaca mansion, Llenroc (Cornell spelled in reverse) to replace his farmhouse, Forest Home, but died before it was completed. Llenroc was maintained by Cornell’s heirs for several decades until being sold to the local chapter of the Delta Phi fraternity, which occupies it to this day; Forest Home was sold to the Delta Tau Delta chapter and later demolished. Cornell is interred in Sage Chapel on Cornell’s campus, along with Daniel Willard Fiske and Jennie McGraw.

Llenroc, home of Ezra Cornell

A prolific letter writer, Ezra corresponded with a great many people and would write dozens of letters each week. This was due partly to his wide travelling, and also to the many business associates he maintained during his years as an entrepreneur and later as a politician and university founder. Cornell University has made the approximately 30,000 letters in the Cornell Correspondence available online.

His eldest son, Alonzo B. Cornell, was later governor of New York. Since its founding, the University’s charter specified that the eldest lineal descendent of Cornell is granted a life seat on Cornell University’s Board of Trustees. Since Ezra Cornell IV took the post on November 17, 1969, the law was amended from specifying the “eldest male lineal descendent.”

In 1990, G. David Low, graduate of Cornell University and Space Shuttle astronaut, took with him into outer space a pair of tan silk socks worn by Ezra Cornell on his wedding day in 1831.

Honestly, I can’t even get over how a commoner like myself has so much history in her blood, her roots. If you haven’t had the chance, take a look at my other ancestral connections – too many to name. I’m again floored that his ONE LINE in my tree to America has yielded so many amazing finds.

Genealogy is my passion, I can’t wait to see who else I’m connected to. Stay tuned and follow for more …..

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