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John Elliot Sanford (AC 1851) Correspondence Collection

Identifier: MA.00297

Scope and Contents

The John Elliot Sanford (AC 1851) Correspondence Collection contains correspondence to John Sanford from his parents, especially from his father. Most of the letters were written to John in Yarmouth Port from his parents in Amherst, and then to John in Amherst from his parents in Bridgewater. Frequent topics include the health of the parents – especially that of Reverend Sanford - and their advice to John about how to preserve his own health; money matters, including details of Reverend Sanford’s investment in the new railroad in Amherst; Amherst news, including Amherst College news, and the personal and professional lives of both young John and his older brother Baalis (AC 1845), both of whom were at early stages in their respective careers during the period of this correspondence. Researchers should note that there are no letters from John E. Sanford in the collection – instead, we see John through his parents’ eyes.

The topics Reverend Sanford refers to most frequently in his letters to John are his health and religion – often in combination. Reverend Sanford seems to have been a longtime sufferer of a condition that caused him pain and sleeplessness, with symptoms such as stomach and bowel issues, joint pain, and poor appetite. He mentions taking opium for pain relief, which may have exacerbated his problems, although he may not have seen the connection. During his water cure therapy in Northampton, Dr. Denniston made him stop taking it, and it’s unclear whether he returned to its use. Because of his condition, he frequently reflects on death and the comforts of religion, on the importance of living in accordance with religious values, and on his own philosophy of suffering.

The correspondence also suggests something about a minister’s life that modern readers may not expect; namely, that for an everyday preacher, there needed to be more ways to support a family than “sermonizing” alone. On the contrary, the Sanfords raised some of their own food and had a hay lot, which the minister himself – no stranger to physical labor – worked until he was no longer able to do so. Sanford also invested enthusiastically in the railroad being built in Amherst and had his sons help him manage the investment. The family took in boarders, many of them Amherst College students, but money was always tight in this period of their lives, and Reverend Sanford frequently mentions money matters, especially in his efforts to balance what he owed and what people owed him. Later – and after the period of the correspondence in the collection – both Sanford sons made enough money to support their parents comfortably, but the letters show a fear of poverty in old age that repeats itself in every generation. Reverend Sanford therefore relied on his sons and understood that he would need to do so even more in the future, often reminding them in an almost transactional way of their responsibility to their parents in return for all the parents had done for their children. However, John and Baalis were much more than just a hedge against poverty –both parents also express pride in the accomplishments of their sons, who were clearly a source of emotional comfort to their parents.

Reverend Sanford often mentions local Amherst people and events in his letters, typically only in passing although he provides some useful details for Amherst history, especially about the new railroad. The Sanfords were well-known to the family of poet Emily Dickinson, and young John is mentioned in several of the poet’s letters. Rev. Sanford also mentions the Dickinsons - mostly Austin, whose schooling paralleled John’s.

The first folder in the collection contains correspondence from Sophia Loud (later Sanford) to her sister Deborah Raymond. Although there are only a handful of Sophia’s letters, she reveals herself to be lively, practical, and shrewd – her letter to John of June 6, 1854, provides an down-to-earth summary of her view of her husband’s health problems and what he ought to do about them, and her earlier letters to sister Deborah Raymond are very lively.

The last folder in the small collection contains miscellaneous correspondence to and about John E. Sanford from later in his life.


  • Creation: 1819-1907
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1845 - 1854


Conditions Governing Access

There is no restriction on access to the John Elliot Sanford (AC 1851) Correspondence Collection for research use. Particularly fragile items may be restricted for preservation purposes.

Conditions Governing Use

Requests for permission to publish material from the John Elliot Sanford (AC 1851) Correspondence Collection should be directed to the Archives and Special Collections. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights.

Biographical / Historical

John Elliot Sanford was born in Dennis, Massachusetts, on November 22, 1830. Before entering Amherst College he studied at Amherst Academy and Williston Seminary. After graduating from Amherst College in 1851, he served as tutor (a formal position in the College) in 1853-1854. He then studied law, including with Edward Dickinson (AC 1823), and was admitted to the bar in 1856. From 1856-1899 he practiced law in Taunton, Massachusetts. He served in the Massachusetts legislature for several years and also held several posts and memberships in civic groups. He was a trustee of Amherst College between 1874-1907.

John Sanford married Emily James White, daughter of George S. White of Taunton, on December 10, 1856. The couple had three daughters. Emily died in 1899, and John died in Taunton on October 11, 1907.

Reverend John Sanford, the author of most of the letters in the collection, was born in Berkley, Massachusetts, on September 12, 1788, to Joseph and Eleanor (Macomber) Sanford. He studied at Brown University, graduated in 1812, and was ordained in 1815. A necrology for Rev. Sanford indicates that he had intended to work as a home missionary to the Cherokees in Tennessee, but poor health led him to abandon that plan; instead, he made a career closer to home. In 1824 he married Sophia Loud, of Weymouth, Massachusetts, who was born on May 4, 1790, to Eliot and Sarah (Pratt) Loud. By this time Reverend Sanford was pastor of the church at South Dennis, Massachusetts, where the family remained until 1839, when all four Sanfords moved to Amherst in order that the boys might attend preparatory schools in the area (Amherst Academy and Williston) and then attend Amherst College. After both sons were established in their careers, the Sanford parents moved back to Eastern Massachusetts, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

The necrology of Reverend Sanford may be found in the January 1867 (volume 9) issue of the “Congregational Quarterly” and a lengthy sketch of the Sanford family across several generations but with emphasis on John and Baalis’s may be found in in volume one of “Representative Men of Southeastern Massachusetts.” The privately published “Sanford Sampler” (a copy is in the Archives and Special Collections) contains much more biographical information for the family, including much more on Sophia Loud Sanford. Information about all three publications is listed below.


0.25 Linear feet

Language of Materials



The John Elliot Sanford (AC 1851) Correspondence Collection contains correspondence to John E. Sanford (1830-1907) from his parents, Reverend John Sanford (1788-1866) and Sophia Loud Sanford (1790-1869). The bulk of the correspondence is from Reverend Sanford. Frequent topics include the health of the parents and their advice to John about his; money matters; Amherst news, and the personal and professional lives of both young John and his older brother, Baalis (AC 1845). The last folder in the small collection contains miscellaneous correspondence to and about John E. Sanford.


The collection is arranged chronologically.

Existence and Location of Copies

The entire collection is also available as a PDF by contacting the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.

Separated Materials

Gift also a contained privately published family history called the "Sanford Sampler" (catalogued) and a photograph album created by Emily Hitchcock Terry.

Margaret R. Dakin, Archives and Special Collections Specialist
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections Repository

Amherst College Archives & Special Collections
Robert Frost Library
61 Quadrangle Drive
Amherst MA 01002-5000
(413) 542-2299