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Purdue, John, 1802-1876



  • Existence: October 31, 1802 - September 12, 1876

Biographical Information

John Purdue was born in Germany Valley (near Shirleysburg), Pennsylvania on October 31, 1802. He was the only son of Charles and Mary Short Purdue and had four older sisters: Catherine (McCammon), Nancy, Susan (Thompson), Sarah (Prosser), and five younger sisters: Eliza, an unnamed sister who died as an infant, Margaret (Haymaker), Mary (Miller) and Hannah (Clark). Charles Purdue worked at a nearby iron foundry, and the family endured extreme poverty. John began attending a local school at age eight, but had to drop out at age twelve to help support his family as a hired worker.

In the early 1820s, the Purdue family moved to Adelphi, Ohio, 60 miles south of Columbus, Ohio. Charles Purdue died near the time of the move, as did one of the Purdue daughters, Nancy. John Purdue took a job teaching in a one-room school house in Pickaway County, and may have also apprenticed with a local merchant during this time. After brief stints teaching in Michigan and running a farm in Ohio, Purdue was persuaded by his neighbors to take their hogs to eastern markets and sell them, which he did, making a tidy profit and broadening his experience in the business world. Purdue continued to sell crops and livestock for his neighbors on commission, and he began to save as much money as he could while still providing for his mother and sisters.

In 1833, Purdue opened a general merchandise store in Adelphi with James Fowler. Fowler’s brother, Moses, had been one of Purdue’s students and began to work in the store, which prospered and did business with suppliers as far away as New York. Purdue was doing well enough to buy a farm for his mother and sisters in Ohio, as well as land in Warren County, Illinois and 240 acres in Tippecanoe County, Indiana (at the present-day intersection of McCarty and Creasy Lanes in Lafayette).

Around 1834 Purdue left his Adelphi store and moved to Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue quickly became involved in several civic activities: he served on the first board of directors for the Lafayette branch of the State Bank of Indiana and became a member of the Northwestern Freedmen’s Aid Commission. Throughout his long stay in Lafayette, Purdue would donate generously to churches, libraries, schools, and other local organizations.

In 1839, Purdue convinced his old apprentice, Moses Fowler, to join him in Lafayette and start another Purdue and Fowler general merchandise store. In addition to merchandise, Purdue also continued to sell items on commission, traveling extensively to various cities to buy and sell a variety of items. The business prospered and grew further after the Wabash and Erie Canal opened north of Lafayette in 1843. Purdue purchased Lot 1 (the first lot in the first plat of Lafayette) from Eliza and James McCormick, original settlers of the area.

In 1846, Indiana Governor James Whitcomb appointed Purdue to a panel of commissioners to sell stock for Lafayette’s first railroad, the Lafayette & Indianapolis. Purdue was elected to serve on the board of directors, and he also contributed toward a second railroad, the New Albany & Salem. After parting with Moses Fowler, Purdue appointed another young business associate, William Stacy, to partner with him in his general merchandise business. Purdue helped contribute funds for the building of a bridge over the Wabash River, which was completed in 1847.

In 1852, Purdue was appointed as a trustee to Lafayette’s first public school, and helped select sites for three new schools. During this time the Indiana Supreme Court debated the legality of taxation and local schools went without funding; Purdue donated his own money to keep the schools running. Purdue also contributed to the Tippecanoe Battle Ground, Stockwell, and Purdue Institutes, and to the Waveland and Alamo Academies. In Ohio he donated to Otterbein and Oberlin Colleges, the University of Akron, and possibly others.

In the 1858, Purdue bought Walnut Grove Farm in Warren County, Indiana, and employed several family members to help run it, including William and Lucinda Clark, John and Eunice Prosser and their three children, and John McCammon. Besides owning extensive property in Indiana, Purdue also owned real estate in Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado, Minnesota, California, and possibly Texas. Purdue himself spent roughly half of his time living in a hotel in New York and the other half living in the Lahr House in Lafayette.

When William Stacy left, Samuel Curtis became partner in the Purdue merchandise business in Lafayette. In 1863, Curtis left, and Lazarus Brown became a full partner. The following year, Purdue ran for Congress as a Republican against incumbent Godlove Orth. In 1866, Purdue ran once more against Orth, this time as an Independent. Orth favored strong disciplinary measures against the former Confederate States as they rejoined the Union, whereas Purdue espoused a more forgiving approach. William Lingle, owner of the Lafayette newspaper the Courier, was particularly harsh in his criticism of Purdue, so Purdue purchased the rival paper, the Journal, to meet Lingle’s onslaught. Purdue again narrowly lost the election.

Despite his recent disappointments Purdue’s other ventures were as varied and prosperous as ever. In 1867, Purdue and a group of other men salvaged a factory that made mechanical reapers and other farm machinery, renaming it the Lafayette Agricultural Works. When another group of businessmen started Lafayette Savings Bank, Purdue served as the bank’s first president. In 1869, he helped form the Lafayette, Muncie & Bloomington (LM & B) Railroad.

By 1869, Indiana had received funding through the Morrill Act to establish a land-grant college providing instruction in agriculture, mechanical arts, and military science. Purdue first offered $100,000, then $150,000, to the state, as well as one hundred acres of land that he had purchased on the west bank of the Wabash River for the establishment of the college. His only the stipulations were that the college bear his name and that he be awarded a lifelong seat on the board of directors. With the help of Senator John Stein, the Indiana Legislature approved the establishment of Purdue University. Classes at the new-found university began in Fall of 1874.

John Purdue's relationships with the University Board of Trustees and first presidents, Richard Owen and Abraham Shortridge, were marked with difficulties. Nevertheless, the first Commencement took place on June 16, 1875, with one graduate, John Bradford Harper. Purdue gave an address at the event.

John Purdue died September 12, 1876 and was interred on campus, and the following year a subdued headstone was placed at his grave.


Scott, Irena McCammon. Uncle: My Journey with John Purdue. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2008.

Kriebel, Robert C. The Midas of the Wabash: A Biography of John Purdue. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2002.

Topping, Robert W. A Century and Beyond: The History of Purdue University. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1988.

Found in 13 Collections and/or Records:

Baird Family Papers on John Purdue

 Collection — Box: Communal Collections 1, Placement: 05
Identifier: MSP 293
Content Description Two letters written by John Purdue to Mrs. Baird and George Mitchell, 1826-1827.
Dates: April 15, 1826 and February 17, 1827.

George W. Munro papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSF 58
Scope and Contents The George W. Munro papers (1826-1970; 3.5 cubic feet) consist of research materials collected by George Munro on John Purdue and the history of Purdue University, as well as Munro's personal papers. The personal papers contain manuscripts and published articles; work related papers, papers and articles related to teaching techniques; and non-work related papers and articles on various literary and timely topics. The papers cover a variety of topics such as Purdue University, John Purdue,...
Dates: 1826 - 1970

John Purdue framed portrait

 Unprocessed — Box: 1 frame
Identifier: 20090424

John Purdue furniture

 Unprocessed — Box: 1, 1
Identifier: 20090529.1

John Purdue release of mortgage document

 Unprocessed — Box: 1 framed item
Identifier: 000000

Horton B. Knoll papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSF 521
Scope and Contents The Horton B. Knoll papers document Knoll's research, working papers, notes and typescripts for his books, A record of a university in the war years, 1941-1945, published in 1947, and The Story of Purdue Engineering, published in 1963. Also included among the papers is research material, working papers, notes and information related to Purdue presidents Owen, Smart, Stone, Elliott, and Hovde. There is also information Knoll compiled for his intended biography of John Purdue, and historical...
Dates: 1865 - 1981; Majority of material found within 1940 - 1963

John McCammon family papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSP 5
Scope and Contents Correspondence, land deeds, receipts and ephemera documenting the business dealings of John Purdue and his associates, as well as correspondence, land deeds and ephemera documenting the efforts of John McCammon on behalf of the heirs of John Purdue to settle his estate. Please see PDF Finding Aid for collection inventory.
Dates: 1839 - 1890

Purdue, Brown, & Co. business documents

 Unprocessed — Box: Communal Accessions 50
Identifier: 2023-077

John Purdue artifact collection

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSR 1
Scope and Contents The John Purdue Artifacts Collection [1814-1988; 5.2 cubic feet, 1 oversized box, 2 oversized items] consists of personal items, gifts purchased by, and items associated with John Purdue. Items of note include the death mask created by local dentist Anderson M. Moore upon the death of Purdue; a partial set of wedding china purchased by Purdue for his business partner Lazarus M. Brown; a flag used by the Purdue Rifles, a Civil War militia that Purdue founded; and personal items owned by John...
Dates: 1814 - 1988; Other: Date acquired: 11/30/1922

John Purdue newspaper collection

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSP 4
Scope and Contents Newspapers collected by John Purdue. Please see PDF Finding Aid for collection inventory.
Dates: 1834 - 1924

John Purdue papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSP 3
Scope and Contents The John Purdue papers [1814-1897; two cubic feet plus one oversized box] document the life and business career of John Purdue, as well as the business activities of his associates. There are very few items of a personal nature in the papers; mainly, they document the day-to-day business affairs of John Purdue, as well as several other men who were his business partners and who carried on the Purdue-related firms after Purdue’s death in 1876. Types of materials include: correspondence, printed...
Dates: 1814 - 1897

Vater Family scrapbooks

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSP 236
Scope and Contents The Vater Family scrapbooks compiled by Septimus Vater and Williamson Dunn Vater primarily contain newspaper clippings related to Indiana politics and elections as well as obituaries and sports analysis from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Dates: 1869 - 1909

Warranty deed signed by John Purdue giving land to the State of Indiana for use by Purdue University

 Collection — Box: 1
Identifier: MSP 244
Scope and Contents One document, a warranty land deed signed by John Purdue, giving land to the State of Indiana for use by Purdue University, August 1876.
Dates: 1876-1876; Other: Majority of material found in 1876; Other: Date acquired: 10/02/2009