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Guide to the Osborn Family Papers
1832-1936
 MS 474

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Susan Kriete

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on December 11, 2015

Biographical/Historical Note

This collection includes personal papers and journals from Henry Fairfield Osborn ("HFO") and his family, forebears and descendants, encompassing several generations of the Sturges, Osborn and Perry families.

HFO's maternal grandfather, Jonathan Sturges (1802-1874), was born in Southport, Connecticut, and in 1821 joined the grocery business of Lumen Reed (1787-1836). Lumen Reed was a highly successful merchant who also assembled one of the earliest and most significant collections of American art. Sturges shared Reed's interest in the arts and became an important patron and collector of American artists in his own right. After Reed's death, Sturges led a group who bought his art collection, which was eventually donated to the New-York Historical Society.

In 1828, Sturges married Mary Pemberton Cady (1806-1894), also born in Connecticut. The Cady family moved to Fredericksburg when Mary was 12 years old, but returned to New York City in 1826. After their marriage, the couple lived in New York City, and had six children. In 1840, they built a country retreat in Fairfield, Connecticut, known as "The Cottage." Still standing, the house is one of the earliest example of American Gothic Revival architecture, and in 1994 was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Well-educated, cultured, and wealthy, the Sturges were connected with the artistic and commercial elite of New York, as described in Mary Sturges' memoir Reminiscences of a Long Life (also held in the N-YHS library). One daughter, Amelia, married Pierpont Morgan in 1861, but died of tuberculosis four months after their wedding. Their oldest daughter, Virginia Reed Sturges (1830-1902), married William Henry Osborn in 1858.

William Henry Osborn (1820-1894) was a railroad executive, becoming President of the Illinois Central Railroad in 1853, and later heading the Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans Railroad. William and Virginia Osborn lived in a sumptuous mansion at 32 Park Avenue, and later also built a mansion known as Castle Rock in Garrison, New York, which served as the family's summer home. The Osborn's had four children, two of whom (Virginia and Frederick) died as young adults.

Their eldest surviving son, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935), became a famous paleontologist and served as director of the Museum of Natural History from 1908 to 1935, building the foundation for its outstanding fossil and dinosaur collection. Deeply religious, Osborn was a proponent of the now-discredited theory of orthogenesis to explain evolution, holding that an ill-defined guiding force shaped life from lesser to greater forms, and was also a firm believer in eugenics. These ideas, reflected in the collection, have tarnished Osborn's scientific and moral reputation with later generations.

Henry Fairfield Osborn married Lucretia Thatcher Perry ("Lulu," 1858-1930) in 1881. Lulu was the daughter of Brigadier General Alexander James Perry and Josephine Adams Perry; her sister, Josephine, married Junius Morgan in 1891. Henry and Lulu had five children, the youngest of whom died in infancy.