By the late 1880s, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. was receiving thousands of letters a week asking for charitable donations. He was overwhelmed. "I am so constituted as to be unable to give away money with any satisfaction until I have made the most careful inquiry as to the worthiness of the cause," he wrote.
Here is a sample of the appeals (with original spelling and grammar retained) that drove Rockefeller to seek more organized and efficient ways to give away his money:
Springfield Illinois Mar 5th 1885
You may consider this rather a strange letter coming from a stranger as it does, one whom you never met.
I am not quite forty years of age, was a soldier in the late war, where I was when I should have been at school, studying a proffession, or learning a trade, and while in the service of my country I was taken prisoner and was confined at Andersonville and other prisons for about 10 months, the history of which is known to every one, I might better explain my case by quoting from a letter I wrote to Genl. Lagan in 74 in an appeal to Congress, "There are to day thousands of men whoes constitutions are broken down and are not the same and never will be the same, men who are apparently well, yet whose systems are entirely wrong, who are young in years yet have all the symptoms of old men whose race is about run. Let every man put himself in his (the Prisoner's) place, turned into a pen like cattle with no shelter, nothing to protect one from the storm's blast, or the heat of the sun, filth and vermin surrounding him on every side, starvation staring him in the face day after day, week after week, and month after month, what would compensate you for such a life as this, yet thousands did it," and I was one of them barefooted, shirtless, through winter storms, sickness, no Doctor, no kind nurse, no bed but hard mother earth, such sir was a part of my lot, and to day I am feeling the effects of these fearfull months of starvation.
I have struggled along to try to get a little ahead, but have failed. I have taken an active part in politics in hopes of getting some lucrative position by which I could keep myself and family, but have been unsuccessfull, and so I thought I would write this letter to you, knowing that you had enough and to spare. I felt that it would do no harm to ask even if I did not succeed, for if one does not ask how does one know his needs, for it is written "ask and yea shall receive," "seek and yea shall find," "knock and it shall be opened unto you." I don't know why I wrote the above quotations for I am not a professor, but they came into my head and I wrote them, I am poor but have so much desired to get something ahead so that I might open a small suburb grocerie store where I might hold my own and make enough to live on, and for this reason I write to you hoping that you might be able to help me poor Andersonville boy…
John R. Campbell
308 W. Jackson St.
April 14th, 1888
Reading from time to time, in the papers, of your immense wealth, and of the much good you are doing in the world, I have been led to enquire, if it is possible you are a cousin of mine. I will tell you who I am and perhaps you may recall the facts to memory. I am Harry Avery's youngest daughter, my name is Helen, and will be fifty-one years old, the twenty-seventh of this month. I well remember my dear aunt Lucy Rockefeller, about twenty-five years ago. I went to Marathon to visit her -- she was living then with her son in law Abraham Borz. I also visited to Egbert Rockefellers. A few years later my Mother died and aunt Lucy came and kept house for father nearly a year. I was married and living at that time on a farm adjoining father's. I remember William Rockefeller, his wife and two children that visited us when we lived there. After years of toil to pay for the small farm we had bought, we moved to Cayuga Co. and having sold that one bought another one here, a larger one, and had the times been as good as when we came here we should have been all right. But (Mr. Bush) my husband's health failed him and he has not been able to labor any to speak of since. We have five children. They are all married except our youngest boy. He is fifteen years old and we are trying as best we can to educate him. In order to do this we thought we would let our elder son carry on the farm, and we came to Auburn where we now live thinking to get cheap rent and save paying his board. This we could not do, for circumstances would not admit. We have been here a year, paid twelve dollars and a half per month rent, and find we can not -- with close economy -- keep him in school. He is a lovely boy and -- having a bad habit -- a member of the M.E. Church and we hope to make a man of influence of him, the Lord helping us.
He will go and work through the vacation to help clothe himself. I never thought I would beg, but I am going to ask you to lend a helping hand if you should prove to be my relative, that I may see him educated. We have an indebtedness of two thousand dollars to pay, which keeps our means limited, and only a small rent coming from the farm. I am sure God will reward you and we shall be ever grateful.
Mrs. Helen E. Bush
Long Island City
January 13, 1889
Mr. J. D. Rockefeller
It is with a feeling of misgiving and diffidence with which I address this note to you; and it is only my great anxiety for the cause I present, which prompts me for the first time in my life to "beg" from a total stranger.
I know that a gentleman in your position is approached from every side to aid religious and charitable objects, but I do hope you will take this subject into consideration and give a favorable answer to my request. The enclosed card will speak for itself. There have been three hundred of these cards issued, thirty of which I hold. It is about all our church can do by great effort to keep up or current expenses which amount to about $4,000.
Our building is very much out of repair! It is absolutely necessary to raise it and put it in an upright position; repair the roof and numerous other things which amount to about $2,500.
Our pastor Mr. Randall brought the subject before the Long Island Baptist Association and that body recommended him to the Brooklyn churches to solicit aid from them, provided we would liquidate our debt. That is impossible for us to do alone. The members are none of them in flourishing circumstances, but have done nobly this far. Now would you please interest yourself in us. Make inquiries and you will find all I write and more is true of our struggle. If you could only interest the large company (which has made so much of its money right in this place) to give a very little of their abundance, it would be a Godsend to the Each One Baptist Church of Long Island City.
With many apologies for my intrusion and sincere hopes that my effort will be fruitful of some acknowledgment,
Clara F. Burnett
127 Third St.
Long Island City
Burrill & Driver,
Real Estate and Insurance Agents.
Property Bought and Sold.
Estates taken Charge of, Rents Collected, &c.
453 Fifth Avenue,
Near Ninth Street,
Brooklyn, April 8, 1889
J.D. Rockefeller, Esq.
In reading your successful career, I imagined you might aid me in my struggle to prosperity. I commenced a poor boy & by hard work I got together some $8,000 and invested it in "The Novelty Air Ship" which has proved a success. It will require $2,000 more to put it on exhibition in New York City and with that amount I can make $150,000. I will refer you, as to my character and standing, to Mr. Stocum, President of the Dime Saving Bank of 3 Chambers St., N.Y., Mr. Hazzard, President of the Fulton Bank, Brooklyn, Mr. White, President of the Mechanics Bank, Brooklyn, and many other prominent men in New York & Brooklyn. If you see fit to help a struggling man, I will repay you, with interest by next September. I am not a beggar as you can easily ascertain if you will take the trouble. That amount will be sufficient to place me on the road to fortune.
October 16, 1889
Having seen from our papers that you are a Baptist (and a very liberal one) I am prompted to ask your aid in building Grove Ave Church. It is being erected in a growing part of this city where our denomination is greatly in need of a good commodious house of worship.
The congregation is too small and poor to complete it without help. Will you not kindly aid us in this arduous undertaking! Whatever you may be willing to give, will be gratefully received and promptly acknowledged. I enclose a clip cut from the paper so you may see something of our [unintelligible].
Should you favor me with a donation, please address
Mrs. S. L. Burress
Of Baltimore U.O.C.
East Nashville College,
(School for Young Ladies,)
J. P. Hamilton, President,
Nashville, Tenn. Feby 22, 1890
John D. Rockefeller
We want 20,000$ to place our Baptist Female College on firm footing. Not for me, not for any single individual interested in our commendable enterprise, but for the Baptists of the State. Here we have in our City -- the Vanderbilt; the Fisk; the Central; the Roger Williams (col); St. Cecilia; Words; Price, and other schools, but not one Baptist Female School in the city and few colleges in the State, and with no endowment to them. Here we bought fine property, finely located as in the State, and all paid for; we now press forward to erect such buildings as will afford superior advantages to all young ladies, who wish to be soundly, and thoroughly educated. Ours will be for the higher education of young ladies. We need 20,000 dollars to help us forward the grand movement, for which we all shall feel thankful to the man who will extend the help, and to God who will put it into his heart to give.
For the favor, we propose to give the "Name" "Rockefeller Bapt. F. College" will meet the hopes and wishes of our people. We do not ask you for a million nor a half million, but for a small amount to you, and large to us. We beg to refer you to such men as Drs. T. T. Eaton W. H. Whitsett of the Seminary, Louisville Ky; and to Drs. Gardner, Lofton, Smith, Weaver and Thompson, Baptists Pastors of this city for any information about our Enterprise, that will be a lasting monument to him who gives it his name. We do not limit your giving, either, above or below the sum named. The amount asked would give us 10 acres of grand old forest trees and room for the healthful exercise of our young ladies. They, one and all, now, and hundreds and thousands for ages to come, would rise up and bless the name of "Rockefeller" for any donation he might find it in his heart to give the Baptist Female College of Nashville.
Shall we hear from you?
Fraternally & Respectfully,
P. H. Hamilton
Cleveland, September 16, 1890
Would you like to buy a farm on the Lake Shore? I have a farm of about seventy acres. It has a large frontage on the lake. It is a valuable piece of property and I would not part with it if it was possible to keep it. It is a place my husband bought before going into the army. I have been obliged to get quite a heavy mortgage on it. My health is very poor so my expenses are greater.
Hearing of your kindness to others I thought I would write and ask you if you would buy my place. It is hardly a mile below Point Breeze.
Please let me know and oblige.
Mrs. G. P. Gunn
246 Sibley St.
Chartered 1845. -- Male and Female.
Has 28 Professors and Teachers.
Matriculates over 675 Students Annually.
Rufus C. Burleson, D. D., L. L. D., President
Waco, Texas, Nov. 4, 1890
Mr. John D. Rockefeller
I have no doubt you get so many letters similar to this, that you throw them away -- but I have prayed earnestly to God that he will incline you to read this letter from a Texas Baptist Sister. I presume you have heard of Dr. R. C. Burleson (my husband) who has been struggling for the last forty (40) yrs to build up a great Texas Baptist University. And I am happy to say he has at last succeeded. Baylor University has today the best buildings & campus in the South. Employs 26 Profs & teachers & enrolled last year 687 students and expects to enroll 800 this year. But our money & means are inadequate. We greatly need some finishing touches. We need a dining room. At present we eat in the hall, which is very much crowded & very dark. I succeeded so well in getting two parlors, two society rooms and one library room nicely furnished that I tell our friends that I don't intend to stop till I get our front Parlor elegantly furnished & a dining room built. This is our situation & the object of this letter is to ask you to supply us with means sufficient to build our two story dining room (the upper story to be used for a study hall). Our agents are trying to raise the money & it will probably be raised but I am so anxious to have it completed in our day. When we were at the National Educational Ass. this summer we expected to visit you at your home in Clevelan but learned you were in N.Y. I am sure if we could have seen you & presented our wants in person, you could have better understood our needs. I hope you won't think it bold in thus addressing you, but when I read in the papers of your wonderful gifts & hearing of your great wealth & greater liberality must be my apology. I suppose one of your wealth is so often accustomed to letters of this kind that you will not take time to read half you receive -- but be this as it may. I have a little faith that you will at least read this letter as it comes from Texas.
We want to see all these buildings handsomely furnished & out of debt & then we want to retire & spend our last days in quiet & rest. I was very anxious to write this letter to you when we were in Chicago this summer & get Mr. Chambers & Rev. P. G. Henson to help me & endorse it -- but put it off. After wishing you great success & begging pardon for thus addressing you -- with the hope & earnest prayer that you will consider this request with a favorable response -- will close.
Mrs. R.C. Burleson
579 East 25th St. Paterson, NJ
March 3, 91
John D. Rockefeller
My Dear Sir:
This appeal is sent you because, 1st You have the money and we have not; 2nd It is a worthy cause; 3rd You are a Baptist and interested in the spread of Baptist principles.
Silk business is poor in Paterson. There have been several failures and strikes. If we can get help now our future is assured. The Lord is in this and we will win. My people have given all they can. I am trying to raise $1,000. Have $200 of it. Will you assist? I enclose stamp for your answer and return of the testimonial of Bro. Hon. If desirable I can call on you at your convenience, for explanation. A check to my order will be duly acknowledged.
A. M. Hand pastor (4th Church)
Cleveland, Aug 13 (no year)
121 Lake Street
Mr. J. D. Rockefellow
Knowing that you are a gentleman of means and being in very straitened circumstances I take the liberty of asking a favor of you. I wish to know if you would loan me some money as I have a heavy mortage on my furniture on which I have to pay a heavy interest -- and can-not pay the principal that is why I ask this favor of you. I will secure you by giving you a mortage and pay you a fair interest on your money. I am a lone woman keeping boarders for my living. The amount I wish to borrow is three hundred dollars. If you wish to accomadate me please answer by the bearer or in person.
Very Respt yours
Mrs. M. Camp
121 Lake Street
Received at Consolidated Stock and Petroleum Exchange
June 5, 188?
To John Rockefeller
26 Broadway, New York
How much can you donate for benefit of the Johnstown sufferers. Funds badly needed.
Thomas Hackett, J.C. Morris,
Committee of Relief for Oilmen.
[From the Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, NY]