Collection Title: Amos Bonsall Family Papers

Collection Number: MS Coll 132

Dates of Collection: 1846-1934

Extent: 0.3 linear feet

RepositoryChester County History Center, West Chester, PA

Language: English

Project Archivist: Nicholas Lock


Explorer Amos Bonsall was born in Delaware County, Pennsylvania in 1830 to Benjamin and Anna Baker Heacock Bonsall. According to his obituary in the Philadelphia Record, he attended the Fels boarding school near West Chester, Pennsylvania and later Bolmer Academy. In 1847, Bonsall entered the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania for a two-year course of study, and 13 years later he graduated from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania Bonsall married Anna Wagner and together they had four daughters, Ethel, Sarah, Mary, and Elizabeth Fearne (1861-1956), a painter and illustrator who studied with noted artists Howard Pyle and Thomas Eakins. 

In 1853, Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857), a United States Navy medical officer and Arctic explorer, invited Bonsall to join his May 1853 to October 1855 expedition to Greenland, known as the second Grinnell expedition, to determine the fate of the explorers who took part in an earlier voyage led by Sir John Franklin to chart the Northwest Passage. Bonsall served as master’s mate on the Advance, and was also the expedition’s daguerreotypist. Even though the Grinnell expedition was unsuccessful, Kane and his men were welcomed home as heroes. Another Arctic explorer, Isaac Israel Hayes (1832-1881), is also represented in the Bonsall manuscripts.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Amos Bonsall, who supported the Union cause, enlisted and organized a company of infantrymen; however, he saw no battle action. Following the war, he resided on his family homestead in Delaware County where he became a farmer. In 1872, Bonsall went abroad and upon his return two years later, moved to 3731 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Bonsall was a 40-year member of the board of managers of the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children, which became the Elwyn Institute, and for more than 30 years was a member of the board of managers of the Philadelphia House of Refuge, which eventually became the Glen Mills Schools.

Amos Bonsall died at his Philadelphia home on January 31, 1915 after having been ill for two weeks.


The Amos Bonsall family papers measure 0.3 linear feet and date from 1846 to 1934.  The papers include letters Amos and Anna Bonsall wrote to each other, as well as to other members of the family regarding daily activities, news regarding family members, financial matters, and the Civil War. Additional letters to Amos Bonsall from Elisha Kent Kane and Isaac Israel Hayes relate to Kane’s second Grinnell expedition to the Arctic (1853-1855), which Amos Bonsall joined as a documentary daguerreotypist.

Collection Scope:

The Amos Bonsall family papers measure 0.3 linear feet and date from 1846 to 1934.  The collection contains correspondence between Amos Bonsall and his wife Anna Wagner Bonsall, and includes other members of the Bonsall and Wagner families as well as their friends and colleagues. Many reveal information about domestic activities, including farming, travel, attending church services, visiting friends, and Amos’ experiences as a soldier in the Civil War.

When Amos and Anna were apart, Amos wrote affectionately about her. On June 18 [no year], in a letter to Anna: “I feel very much like a widower and it is very lonely without you my dear.” And somewhat related, on July 13 [no year] he wrote Anna: “I do not think it was for me to be a Bachelor as I would not be content to live a very domestic life.” In his letters, every so often, Amos commented about the Civil War. From June 18: “I wish the Rebs will keep away until after the harvest and we will give them a reception of they wish it.”

There are also letters Bonsall received from the Arctic explorers Elisha Kent Kane and Isaac Israel Hayes. Topics include preparations to be made prior to the expedition’s departure, requests for information, visiting/travel, and financial matters. For example, on February 28, 1853 Elisha Kent Kane wrote Bonsall saying, in part, that it was necessary “that we take out a very superior Camera.” And since Bonsall was responsible for taking daguerreotypes, “The expedition will have to rely entirely upon you for this branch of the operation.”

Enclosures from Hayes, including a clipping of Dr. Kane and a May 1858 pamphlet reprinted from The American Journal of Science, “The Passage to the North Pole,” are also included.

Information For Researchers:

  • Access: Collection is open for research. Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Chester County History Center Library.
  • Publication Rights/Terms of Use: The Chester County History Center makes its archival collections available for non-commercial, educational, and personal use unless restricted by copyright and/or donor restrictions, including but not limited to access and publication restrictions.  CCHC makes no representations concerning such rights and restrictions, and it is the user’s responsibility to determine whether rights or restrictions exist and to obtain any necessary permission to access, use, reproduce, and publish materials from the collections.
  • Preferred Citation: Amos Bonsall family papers, 1846 – 1934. MS Coll 132. Chester County History Center, West Chester, Pennsylvania.
  • Acquisition Information: The Amos Bonsall family papers were donated by Mary and Elizabeth Bonsall in 1947. 
  • Processing History: This collection was initially processed and a finding aid prepared through support from a grant from IMLS Museums for America, 2004-2006. The finding aid was written by Nicholas Lock in 2005 and updated by Richard McKinstry in 2023.

Names and Subject Terms:

  • Subjects:
    • Arctic regions—Discovery and exploration
    • Bonsall family
    • Daguerrotypes
    • Explorers
    • Grinnell Expedition (2nd : 1853-1855)
    • United States—History—Civil War, 1861-1865
  • Names, Personal:
    • Bonsall, Amos, 1830-1915
    • Bonsall, Anna Wagner
    • Hayes, Isaac Israel, 1832-1881
    • Kane, Elisha Kent, 1820-1857
    • Wagner family

Collection Arrangement:

The collection is arranged as 1 series:

  • Series 1: Correspondence, 1846-1934 (0.3 linear feet; Box 1)

Related Material:

  • The Chester County History Center Museum holds a cloth bookmark brought from the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, London, England, found in a letter to Anna W. Bonsall on September 18, 1873 along with several other objects donated by the Bonsall family.
  • The CCHC Library holds additional materials relating to Arctic Expeditions by Chester Countians, including the Isaac Israel Hayes papers (MS Coll 135) and the Samuel J. Entrikin papers (MS Coll 139).
  • The Smithsonian Institution, holds several items donated by Bonsall’s daughters that relate to his Arctic explorations, including gold and silver medals awarded by the British government, an English rifle, a knife made by Eskimos, clothing, and a daguerreotype.

Collection Contents:

Series 1: Correspondence, 1846-1934

Box 1

Folder 1: Letters from Amos Bonsall, [1861]-1872

  • 16 letters mostly from Amos Bonsall to wife Anna W; many date from Amos’s time in the American Civil War; speaks of various wartime movements and lodgings; after the War, writes letters to Anna from his farm informing her of daily activities and happenings
  • Informs Anna of the trouble in the nation, and of the call for “defenders” against the invaders (Letter 1)
  • Talks of a trip to visit his mother with daughter Sarah (Letter 5)
  • Anna has taken a trip to recover from illness or anxiety (Letter 6)
  • Letter to Bessie Bonsall checking on her well-being and asking her to behave for her mother (Letter 11)
  • Thank you letter to W. C. Cattell (President of Lafayette College) for being awarded an honorary degree (Letter 13, August 8, 1866)

Folder 2: Letters from Anna W. Bonsall, [1862-1868]

  • 2 letters from Anna W. Bonsall to Amos informing him of her improving mental/physical health; talks of being careful not to overexert herself and asks about the children
  • 2 letters to her children; first letter is addressed “Dear Child,” and includes information on the family’s wellbeing, as well as a word from Amos; second letter appears to be incomplete, and talks mainly of a new baby (Bridget went in … )
  • 1 letter to her mother talking of the family

Folder 3: Letters to Anna W. Bonsall from Mother, [1866-1873]

  • 15 letters, mostly undated; include information and requests for information regarding the family
  • cloth bookmark bought from the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, London, England that was given to Anna as a gift on Thursday, September 18, 1873; removed to museum

Folder 4: Wagner Letters, B-W, [1846-1867]

  • 15 letters written/received by Wagner family members; include information and requests for information regarding the family sent from various places including the United States and Europe
  • Writers include Laura E. Bonsall, Daniel Wagner, Sarah and Esther Wagner, Adrien Young, Annie Wagner, Sister M. R. Wagner, R. Wagner, and “Pop” Wagner
  • Letter 1 contains some dated family history (My Dear Miss Mary from Laura E. Bonsall)

Folder 5: Letters to Amos Bonsall from E.K. Kane, [1853-1863]

  • 5 letters containing general conversation on travel, visiting, and financial matters

Folder 6: Letters to Amos Bonsall from I.I. Hayes, 1855-1869

  • 9 letters containing general conversation, requests for information, and financial matters; also 1 pamphlet and 1 newspaper clipping
  • Talks of the development of a bill for “double pay” (Letter 1)
  • Pamphlet “On the Passage to the North Pole” by I. Hayes, from The American Journal of Science, vol. xxv, May, 1858
  • Newspaper clipping “Hans, the Greenlander and the Late Dr. Kane” (Letter 8, June 3, 1858)

Folder 7: Misc. Letters, B-T, [1856-1934]

  • 23 letters from many different authors; content includes personal matters, thank you letters, sympathy letters, business matters, reflections on the American Civil War, and financial matters
  • Also included is an excerpt from a poem about “Pretty B-ns-ll,” which talks of the street scene and ladies at the Chestnut Street Theatre. A notation is included mentioning that the author is still unknown
  • Authors include: Martin W. Barr (2 letters), Jane Campbell (l letter), L. Elwyn (3 letters), William B. Evans (1 letter), Harriet W. Fell (1 letter), John W. Frazir (1 letter), R. C. Hale (2 letters), Mary H. Harrison (l letter), Joseph D. Heacock (2 letters), Isabella James (1 letter), Robert P. Kane (1 letter), Ella G. McIntire (l letter), Edward Preston (1 letter), Mary Shee (1 letter), Aubrey A. Smith (1 letter), John G. Trautwine (1 letter), and the War Department (1 letter)