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COLLECTION Identifier: HUM 8

Papers of Samuel Williams


These papers of professor, scientist, minister, editor, author and publisher Samuel Williams (1743-1817) document his teaching, research, and preaching activities. The collection contains a journal about theology, written in 1762 while Williams was a student at Harvard College; manuscripts of scientific lectures delivered while Williams was Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard from 1780 to 1788 and after his subsequent move to Vermont; a series of illustrated scientific observations; lectures compiled for publication; and sermons and scripture duties from Williams' tenure as minister in Vermont in the 1790s. Of particular note are Williams' writings about climate change in North America and Europe and his lectures on astronomy, heat, electricity, air and magnetism.


  • Creation: 1752-1794

Researcher Access

The Papers of Samuel Williams are open for research.

Copying Restriction

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.


.60 cubic feet (1 document box, 1 microfilm reel)

The Papers of Samuel Williams contain materials he created over more than four decades as a student; as Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard; as a scientist and naturalist; and as a minister. Of particular note are Williams' writings about climate change in North America and Europe. The papers are divided into four series: student work, lectures, scientific observations, and sermons and scripture duties. The student work, a single volume, concerns theology and provides a glimpse of what was being taught at Harvard College while Williams was an undergraduate from 1757 to 1761. Williams' lectures and scientific observations form the bulk of the collection and include his lectures on astronomy - notably on comets, the moon, the Sun and other stars - and on heat, electricity, air, magnetism, and climate change. While all of the lectures were first delivered at Harvard or at public events in Boston, notes indicate that many were later read again at the University of Vermont. The sermons and scripture duties date from Williams' time as minister in Vermont.

Biographical Note

Samuel Williams (1743-1817) led an adventurous life, participating in scientific expeditions to Newfoundland and Penobscot Bay; teaching astronomy, meteorology, magnetism and other subjects at Harvard College and at the University of Vermont (which he helped to found); serving as minister in Massachusetts and Vermont; publishing a newspaper and a journal; and authoring the first history of the state of Vermont. Williams was Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard from 1780 until 1788, when he resigned, following accusations of forgery in a financial settlement, and moved to Vermont. He remained in Vermont for the rest of his life, where he resumed ministerial work and also became involved in various academic and publishing endeavors.

Williams was born to Abigail Leonard (1703-1789) and the Reverend Warham Williams (1699-1761) on April 23, 1743 in Waltham, Massachusetts. He received an A.B. from Harvard College in 1761, though he was absent from commencement exercises because he was on an expedition to Newfoundland, accompanying professor John Winthrop on a voyage to observe the transit of Venus on June 6, 1761. Following graduation, Williams taught school in Waltham for two years before becoming a licensed preacher in Concord in 1763 and Congregational minister of Bradford, Massachusetts in 1765. He remained in Bradford as minister for the following fifteen years, from 1765 to 1780, combining his religious work with intensive studies and teaching in the areas of philosophy, theology, astronomy and other sciences. Williams married Jane Kilbourne in May 1768; they would have five children together.

In 1780, Williams was appointed Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard; he was the third individual to hold the position. His research was primarily in astronomy, meteorology and magnetism, and he expanded Harvard's curriculum in these areas; he also lectured on a wide range of other scientific topics. During his tenure as Hollis Professor, Williams was involved in several important expeditions, including one to observe – behind British enemy lines – a solar eclipse at Penobscot Bay in 1780 and another to survey the boundary between Massachusetts and New York State in 1787. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was a member of the Meteorological Society at Mannheim, the American Philosophical Society and the New York Historical Society. Williams taught at Harvard for eight years, from 1780 until 1788, when he resigned in the face of charges brought against him by the Board of Overseers. The Overseers accused Williams of forgery in the settlement of an estate of which he had been appointed treasurer.

Williams left Cambridge the same day he submitted his resignation from Harvard and moved his family to Rutland, Vermont, where he was preacher from 1789 to 1796. He was also founder and co-publisher of The Rutland Herald, first published in 1794, and a short-lived monthly journal, The Rural Magazine: or Vermont Repository, published from 1795 to 1796. He assisted in the founding of the University of Vermont in 1791 and would later lecture there, from 1807 to 1809, on natural philosophy and astronomy. In 1794, he published the Natural and Civil History of Vermont, the earliest full-length history of the state; it was published in a larger second edition in 1809. He was appointed by Governor Tichenor to survey the northern boundary of the state of Vermont in 1806.

Samuel Williams died in Rutland, Vermont on January 2, 1817.


The papers are organized into four series:

  1. Student Work, 1762
  2. Lectures, 1780-ca. 1790
  3. Scientific Observations, 1752-1791
  4. Sermons and Scripture Duties, 1794

Papers within each series are arranged chronologically.

Acquisition information

Most of the Samuel Williams papers were donated to Harvard University in 1903 by L. W. Jenkins. One item, in folder 12, was donated by Charles K. Williams (A.B. 1878), great-grandson of Samuel Williams. The documents in folder 11 were found in a book donated to the Harvard University Library by Charles K. Williams prior to 1879.

Online access

All of the papers have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives

  1. A daybook from the office of the Rutland Herald, kept by Samuel Williams, 1798-1802. Edited by Marcus A. McCorison. Worcester, Mass., 1967. (HUG 1877.15)
  2. Student notes on Samuel Williams' Experimental Lectures, April-June 1782 (HUC 8781.370)
  3. Commonplace book of Nathaniel Freeman, 1786-1787 (HUM 41) [includes brief notes taken from three of Williams' lectures]

In Houghton Library, Harvard University

In the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University

  1. Thirteen instruments used by Williams on various scientific expeditions

In the University of Vermont Library's Special Collections

In the Massachusetts Historical Society

  1. Samuel Williams Papers (Ms. –476)

In the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Library

  1. Williams Family Papers, 1705-1865

General note

This document last updated 2018 December 05.

Processing Information

Items in this collection were previously cataloged separately, as individual items or in small groups. The collection was re-processed in 2010, combining all of the Harvard University Archives' holdings of Samuel Williams papers to create one collection. Re-processing involved a collection survey, conservation treatment of selected items, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid.

This finding aid was created by Laura Morris in April 2010.

Preservation and description of the Papers of Samuel Williams was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Williams, Samuel, 1743-1817. Papers of Samuel Williams, 1752-1794: an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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