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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 material, account books, and ephemera.


  • 1814 - 1897


Language of Materials

Collection materials are in English.

Access Information

This collection is open for research.

Copyright and Use Information

Some material in this collection are in the public domain, while other material copyrights are held by Purdue University. Consult with Purdue University Archives and Special Collections prior to reproduction of materials.

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.


2.20 Cubic Feet

5 mss boxes, 1 medium oversize box other_unmapped

1.00 mss._boxes

1.00 mss._boxes

1.00 mss._boxes

1.00 mss._boxes

1.00 mss._boxes

1.00 flat_box

Arrangement Note

The Papers are organized into three series.

Other Descriptive Information

Please see the attached finding aid for full collection information.

Processing Information

All materials have been housed in polyester sleeves, acid-free folders, and acid-free boxes.
John Purdue papers
In Progress
Amanda Grossman
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Edition statement
Second edition

Repository Details

Part of the Purdue University Archives and Special Collections Repository

504 W. State Street
West Lafayette Indiana 47907 United States