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William H. Ely letters

Identifier: MSS-0484

Scope and Contents

The collection contains correspondence from William H. Ely while in Alabama, between February 1820 and June 1821, to his family and business associates in Hartford, Connecticut, while he acted as commissioner of the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb. In 1819, the Congress of the United States, under a motion made by Henry Clay, gave to the school twenty-three thousand acres of public land, and with the proceeds of the sale of this land, suitable grounds were secured, buildings were erected, and permanent funding was provided.

The majority of the letters are to Ely's wife, Clarissa M. Ely, with the rest addressed to his business associates, Ward Woodbridge and James Wells, vice president and treasurer, respectively, of the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb. The letters in the collection describe both the difficulties of the mission and the life and settlement of Alabama during its earliest years of statehood.

There is also a photograph of Ely's tomb in Hartford.


  • 1820 - 1821


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection. Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations. Due to the nature of certain archival formats, including digital and audio-visual materials, access to certain materials may require additional advance notice.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers are responsible for using the materials in conformance with United States copyright law as well as any donor restrictions accompanying the materials. The user assumes all responsibility for identifying and satisfying any copyright claimants in collection materials. Copyright for official University records is held by The University of Alabama. The library claims only physical ownership of many manuscript collections. Anyone wishing to broadcast or publish this material must assume all responsibility for identifying and satisfying any claimants of literary property rights or copyrights. Please contact Special Collections ( with questions regarding specific manuscript collections. For more information about copyright policy, please visit: Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. Researchers are advised that the disclosure of certain information pertaining to identifiable living individuals without the consent of those individuals may have legal implications, for which the University of Alabama assumes no responsibility.

Biographical / Historical

Born on 10 January 1767 in Guilford, Connecticut, William H. Ely was son of the Rev. Richard and Jerusha Ely. After graduating from Yale in 1787, he acquired his wealth through various commercial enterprises and trade in the East Indies. He built a ship of the largest class during the early 1800s and studied navigation in order to become the commander of the ship.

After making his fortune, Ely returned to Hartford, Connecticut, where he married Clarissa May Davis in 1811. In 1820, he was appointed commissioner to the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb and travelled throughout central Alabama, raising funds for the Asylum by selling lands that had been granted to the Asylum by the United States Congress.

Ely spent much of 1820 and 1821 in Alabama, selling the land and committing its profits to the Connecticut Asylum, as intended by the national grant. Ely was also able to secure for his own use a portion of the land, and with acute business foresight, began the building of a town; the new town was named Elyton in his honor. The site, previously known as Frog Level, was primarily a sporting ground for horse races. Elyton or Ely's Town was incorporated in 1821, while Ely was in Connecticut, and included the area currently bordered by 7th Street South West and Cotton Avenue in the West End of Birmingham, Alabama. Elyton was the third county seat of Jefferson County, Alabama, serving from 1821 to 1871, when the courthouse was moved to Birmingham.

Ely returned to Hartford to stay in 1821 and died on 21 February 1847.


0.075 Linear Feet (20 letters, 1 photograph)

Language of Materials



Letters recounting an 1820-1821 journey to Alabama by William H. Ely, Commissioner of the Connecticut Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb. The letters describe both the difficulties of his mission and the lifestyle of the early inhabitants of the state of Alabama.



Processed by

Louise L. Montgomery; revised and updated by Martha Bace, 2010, 2011, 2013
Guide to the William H. Ely letters
March 2010
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections Repository

Box 870266
Tuscaloosa AL 35487-0266