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William Watts Folwell papers

Identifier: ua-00965

Scope and Content

The collection consists of incoming and outgoing correspondence, personal materials, speeches, and writings of William Watts Folwell. Incoming correspondence is arranged alphabetically by name and chronologically under the name. Correspondents include 19 University of Minnesota Regents, 5 Minnesota Governors, 31 early presidents of U.S. colleges and universities, and many educators of national prominence including legislators and prominent state officials. Outgoing correspondence is arranged chronologically. All of these letters contain biographical information.

Speeches and addresses are filed by subject or by significant events with which they are association such as dedications and unveilings. Since much of Folwell’s writing is not in manuscript form, all written material including manuscripts were arranged under the heading of Writings. Personal materials cover Folwell's early education at Hobart and his time in the Civil War. Professional materials include correspondence with the University Board of Regents, and early schematics of the University and University buildings.


  • 1856-1929


Language of Materials

Collection material in English

Use of Materials

Items in this collection do not circulate and may be used in-house only.


Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code). Requests to publish should be arranged with the University of Minnesota Archives.

Biographical Sketch of William Watts Folwell (1833-1929)

William Watts Folwell, B.A. (1857), M.A. (1960) Hobart College, NY; LL.D. Racine College (1870), Hobart College (1878). Author of A History of Minnesota. Librarian (1869-1903), professor of political science (1884-1907), and first president of the University of Minnesota (1869-1883).

William Watts Folwell was born in Seneca County, NY on February 14, 1833. He attended Hobart College, NY, where he received his undergraduate degree in 1857 and M.A. in 1860. He was awarded LL.D.s from Racine College (1870) and Hobart (1878). After four years of teaching at Hobart, Folwell became interested in comparative philology and enrolled at the University of Berlin in 1861 for further education in the area.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, he returned to the United States to serve in the 50th New York regiment of Volunteers where he rose to the rank of Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel of Engineers (1862-1865). After the Civil War, he went into a business partnership as one of the managers of a cooperative milling business in Ohio. During this period of his career, he studied economics and politics, subjects that become his areas of teaching.

In 1869 he accepted a teaching position at Kenyon College, Ohio. Later in the same year he accepted the presidency of the of the University of Minnesota, the first person to hold this position. In his inaugural address Folwell stated that the state should support the University, advocating free public high schools with curricula to prepare students for entrance to the University of Minnesota. Because of his influence on education in the state of Minnesota, Folwell was able to close the University's preparatory school in 1869, and espoused the creation of junior colleges. He supported a building program for the University and urged the creation of a geological and natural history survey (1872).

Folwell supported agricultural education and, in 1882, the agricultural extension service was established to meet the educational needs of Minnesota’s farmers. He promoted the academic study of education that preserved the University of Minnesota’s status as Minnesota’s land grant college. Folwell also served on a number of civic commissions and committees. In 1876 he was commissioner of the Centennial Exhibition, served as president of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts (1882-1892), member and president of the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners, and president of the Minnesota Historical Society (1924-1927).

After resigning the presidency of the University of Minnesota in 1883, he continued as chair of the political science department where he remained until his retirement in 1907. After his retirement, the University honored him by naming a new building Folwell Hall. In addition to his role as president and professor of political science, Folwell served as University Librarian from 1869-1903. He is also know for his four volume A History of Minnesota, published in 1921 by the Minnesota Historical Society. In 1925, Folwell received the first honorary doctorate awarded by the University of Minnesota. William Watts Folwell died at his Minneapolis home on September 18, 1929.


3.25 Cubic Feet (11 boxes (1 record carton; 10 hollingers))


The collection contains the papers of William Watts Folwell, first president of the University of Minnesota.


The collection has been arranged into the following series:

  1. Correspondence
  2. Professional
  3. Publications and Writings
  4. Speeches and Addresses
  5. Personal
  6. Miscellaneous

The collection was originally organized by file size, with repeating folder numbers. To avoid confusion, folder numbers have since been removed.

Source of acquisition

Donated to University Archives by the Folwell family and the Minnesota Historical Society. The collection is supplemented by one reel of microfilm of originals retained by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Related Materials in University Archives

Folwell family papers

Board of Regents records

Office of the President records

Other Related Materials

Folwell, William Watts, William Watts Folwell: the Autobiography and Letters of a Pioneer of Culture. Edited by Solon J. Buck, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1933.

A collection of papers of the Folwell family (1769-1933) are held by the Minnesota Historical Society.

William Watts Folwell papers, 1856-1929
Alma O. Scott; revised by Penelope Krosch
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Collecting Area Details

Contact The University Archives Collecting Area