The history of Elihu Yale’s donation to the preeminent college that was to become his namesake almost has a life and history of its own. When secondary authors have chosen to include an estimate of its value, there are two key figures commonly cited for Elihu’s donation to the College. Many cite the sums of £500 and £800, both chronicled in multiple eighteenth-century primary sources. The treasurer’s records (figure 1) and Ezra Stiles’ records (figure 2) list Elihu’s donation as “300 volumes of books at £100” and “goods” in 1718 and 1721 together at £400, in total £500 from that Elihu Yale designated as a donation to the College . Elihu’s will left designated allocated £500 “to Connecticote College,” but the College never received that money as the will was deemed invalid (figure 3).
Where then does the £800 come from? That number can be attributed to Reverend Samuel Johnson, a tutor at Yale College between 1717-1719 and later the first president of King’s College (now Columbia University). Johnson estimated the total value of a “large box of books, the picture & arms of King George, and two hundred pounds sterling worth of English goods, all to the value of 8oolb. in our money from Governor Yale of London” (figure 4).
So what is the correct figure, £500 and £800? Neither. The answer is roughly £1162. Elihu estimated the value of the trunks full of ’goods and merchandizes’ he sent in 1718 and 1721 to be £200 and £100, respectively. Stiles, Johnson, and the treasurer’s record all work with these numbers to some degree or another. However, as per Elihu’s instructions, only the goods and merchandise were sold and the proceeds went to the building of the College. In Boston, the goods and merchandise sold for a total of £562. 12s. (figure 5) well above the £300 Yale believed they were worth. The College retained the books and the portrait (figure 6). In Elihu Yale: the American Nabod of Queen Square (1939), scholar Hiram Bingham calculated the value of the books and the portrait to be an additional £600, for a grand total* of £1162 from Elihu Yale to Yale College. In honor of his contributions, and to entice Elihu into additional donations, the Collegiate School changed its name to Yale College.
*Note: Bingham does not include the value of the 32 books Elihu sent in 1713.
PhD candidate in African American Studies and History at Yale University
1. “An accompt of sale of sundry goods and merchandizes…” Folder 9, Box 4, Documents concerning Yale’s founding, 1700–1743. Early Yale Documents Collection (RU 1154). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
2. “Book kept by Ezra Stiles of early gifts to college, with lists of holdings + philosophical apparatus, forms for honorary degrees, diplomas; also copies of documents relating to the funds of 1792. ca. 1785-1794”, Folder 2, Box 370, General Histories, Series IV: Benefactors, 1700-1963
3. Dexter, Franklin Bowditch. Documentary History of Yale University: Under the Original Charter of the Collegiate School of Connecticut, 1701-1745. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916.