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Coles Family Papers


Held at: Historical Society of Pennsylvania [Contact Us]1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19107

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Edward Coles (1786-1868) was special secretary to President James Madison, an envoy to Russia, governor of Illinois from 1822 to 1826, and a staunch abolitionist. He held vast tracts of land in several Midwest states, including Illinois and Missouri.

He was born in Albemarle County, Virginia. The Coles family had been farmers in Virginia since the colonial period. He attended college at both Hampton Sidney College and the College of William and Mary. Soon after graduation, Coles became secretary to President James Madison. He worked as special envoy to Russia in 1816 and land register in Illinois from 1819 until 1827.

An abolitionist since college, Coles moved to Illinois in 1819 in order to free his slaves, since slaves freed in Virginia were not allowed to stay in the state. Once in Illinois, however, Coles found himself in the middle of pro-slavery agitation in the state. Many settlers in Illinois were from slave states and wanted to bring their human property with them when they settled. Thrust into the fray, Coles announced that he would run for governor in 1821 as an anti-slavery candidate. He won the election, but only because 67 percent of the popular vote was split between three pro-slavery candidates.

Coles had a rocky administration, but was able to block a proposed constitutional amendment in the state to legalize slavery, in part by writing anonymous newspaper articles arguing that allowing slavery, and particularly the slave-owning class, in Illinois, would hurt the average farmer.

Before, during, and after his time as governor, Coles purchased many tracts of land. Mostly, he bought huge holdings in Illinois and Missouri, but he also bought homes in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and Philadelphia. He usually rented out his lands to tenant farmers.

Disillusioned with politics, Coles moved to Philadelphia in 1832, where he lived in a state of semi-retirement, with income from his rented lands. He died in 1868.

This collection (1760-1921) holds papers from several members of the Coles family, including Edward Coles, Sr.; Edward Coles, Jr.; John Coles; Mary Coles; and Rebecca Coles.

The majority of the collection is made up of Edward Coles, Sr.'s correspondence, which ranges from 1805 to 1868. In his correspondence, he discusses family and personal matters, abolition, and some political topics from his time as governor of Illinois. Also included in his materials are documents relating to Russian trade, from his time as a special envoy there. There are several folders containing speech notes and two volumes that record his numerous land purchases and holdings. There are also two volumes that hold newspaper clippings from Coles's time as governor, mainly relating to his fight for abolition and authored by him. Box 3, Folder 22 holds a partial inventory of the Edward Coles, Sr. material.

The Edward Coles, Jr. material is also mainly correspondence, ranging from 1867 to 1887. There is also one folder containing the correspondence of John Coles and one folder containing almanac pages from Rebecca Coles.

The collection also contains miscellaneous family materials, primarily legal papers and deeds relating to land owned by various members of the Coles family in Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. There are also military commissions; travel documents, particularly for Edward Coles, Jr. and Mary Coles; stock certificates; Confederate currency; almanac pages; and loose newspaper clippings. A single volume records trustee action for the Coles estate.

This collection was processed using the More Product, Less Process model, and is not arranged into series. Materials are arranged alphabetically by title.

Spencer, Donald S. “Edward Coles: Virginia Gentleman in Frontier Politics.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 61, no. 2. (1968): 150-163. (accessed July 26, 2010).

This collection was a gift of Oliver W. Robbins in 1948.

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Amanda Fellmeth
Finding Aid Date
This collection was processed as part of the Digital Center for Americana pilot project, funded by the Barra Foundation and various individuals.
Access Restrictions

This collection is open to researchers.

Collection Inventory

Coles family certificates, (1812-1862).
Box 1 Folder 1
Coles family Confederate and French currency, (1792-1864).
Box 1 Folder 2
Coles family legal papers, (1760-1869).
Box 1 Folder 3-10
Coles family legal papers, (1870-1883, undated).
Box 2 Folder 1-2
Coles family miscellaneous papers, (1797-1921, undated).
Box 2 Folder 3
Edward Coles, Jr. checks and receipts, (1872-1880).
Box 2 Folder 4
Edward Coles, Jr. correspondence, (1867-1887).
Box 2 Folder 5-10
Edward Coles, Sr. autobiography, (1844).
Box 2 Folder 11
Edward Coles, Sr. correspondence, (1805-1840).
Box 2 Folder 12-34
Edward Coles, Sr. correspondence, (1841-1868).
Box 3 Folder 1-19
Edward Coles, Sr. documents on Russia, (1807-1817).
Box 3 Folder 20
Edward Coles, Sr. essay, "Emancipation of the slaves of Edward Coles", (1827).
Box 3 Folder 21
Edward Coles, Sr. inventory, (undated).
Box 3 Folder 22
Edward Coles, Sr. notes, (1863).
Box 3 Folder 23
Edward Coles, Sr. receipts and checks, (1818-1861).
Box 3 Folder 24
Edward Coles, Sr. speech, (undated).
Box 3 Folder 25
Edward Coles, Sr. tax papers, (1826-1866).
Box 3 Folder 26-27
John Coles correspondence, (1808-1810).
Box 3 Folder 28
Rebecca Coles copy of memoranda from almanac, (1803-1827).
Box 3 Folder 29
Coles family account receipts, (1841-1881).
Volume 1
Edward Coles, Sr. account book, (1818-1839).
Volume 2
Edward Coles, Sr. land transactions, (1818-1869).
Volume 3
Edward Coles, Sr. scrapbook, (undated).
Volume 4
Edward Coles, Sr. scrapbook, (undated).
Volume 5
Edward Coles, Sr. oversized documents on Russia, (1816).
Oversize Flat file 1
Coles family oversized certificates, (1819-1894).
Oversize Flat file 2
Coles family oversized legal papers, (1826-1868).
Oversize Flat file 3
Coles family oversized newspapers, (1864-1867).
Oversize Flat file 4

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