Early Years

Ezra Cornell was born on January 11, 1807 at Westchester Landing in the town and county of Westchester, New York, the eldest son of Elijah and Eunice Cornell. During his childhood, Cornell and his ten younger siblings lived in Westchester, Tarrytown, and Westfarms in Westchester County, and in English Neighborhood, Bergen County, New Jersey before the family settled in De Ruyter, New York. Opportunities for formal education were limited. As an adolescent, Cornell could only attend school three months each winter.

From the time he was six years old, Cornell helped in whatever way he could in his father's pottery business. He began to work on the family farm in De Ruyter at age twelve, and at seventeen learned carpentry skills when his father erected a new building for the pottery. In 1825 Cornell constructed a two-story house for his parents and family.

Cornell left home in the spring of 1826, and found work in Syracuse as a journeyman carpenter. He helped build sawmills and worked as a contractor getting out timber for shipment by canal. From Syracuse, he moved on to Homer, New York, where he worked in a shop that produced wool-carding machinery. In his free time he studied mechanics handbooks. Throughout his life, he retained his interest in mechanical subjects which would include millwork, the telegraph, railroads, coal oil, agricultural machinery, and photolithography.

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2-Elijah2-Eunice Elijah Cornell, 1771-1862
Eunice Cornell, 1788-1857

Elijah Cornell was born in Swansea, Bristol County, Massachusetts, the second son of Massachusetts farmers. Of Puritan origins, the family had early joined the Society of Friends. At the age of nineteen, Elijah was apprenticed to a potter, a trade he pursued for most of his life. In 1805, he married Eunice Barnard, whose family were seamen and farmers. Elijah was thirty-four; Eunice was seventeen. They were married for nearly fifty-two years and had eleven children, six sons and five daughters, all of whom lived to adulthood.

A Selected Genealogy of the Cornell Family Genealogy

2-house The Cornell House in De Ruyter, New York

After losing money in a ship venture with his older brother, Elijah Cornell decided in 1807 to go west. There was still cheap wild land available in central New York, and Quakers from Columbia and Dutchess County had formed a settlement in De Ruyter, Madison County. The Cornells, with infant Ezra, made the three-week journey overland by team and wagon, purchasing 150 acres on Crum Hill, about three miles east of the village, for $375. In 1810, they returned east, but came back to De Ruyter in 1818. Conditions of pioneer farming were difficult. Ezra and his younger brother Elijah had to clear land so they could plant corn among the stumps. There were also opportunities for recreation: hunting and fishing, quiltings, apple bees, barn and house raisings, and other gatherings, and Quaker meetings. In the winter months, the children could attend the local school.
(Collection Finding Aid)

Elijah Cornell's Pottery

Elijah Cornell was trained as a potter. In 1810, he was employed as foreman in a pottery in Westchester Village, and the following year set up his own earthenware factory in Tarrytown. The War of 1812 halted imports of pottery, which increased the demand for the cheap brown earthenware made locally. Elijah also worked at the Queens Ware Pottery in West Farms, where he learned to produce a high-grade white ware. With the end of the war, the market was flooded with cheaper English ware. Elijah Cornell decided to move to New Jersey where there might be a better market. Ezra, the eldest child, helped his father at his trade, running errands and even serving as a traveling salesman for his father. The Panic of 1819 further reduced the pottery market, and the Cornell family again went west to De Ruyter. In 1842, with the help of his sons, Elijah Cornell built a small pottery in Ithaca.


First book owned by Ezra Cornell
S. Putnam Waldo.,P. Memoirs of Andrew Jackson, Major-General in the Army of the United States and Commander in Chief of the Division of the South. Hartford: J. & W. Russell, 1819.
Handwritten annotation, September 23, 1826

Price one dollar. This is the first book I ever owned. It was offered by a pedler at my Fathers house in De Ruyter Madison Co NY. I persuaded my Mother to buy it for me. She had no money, and to oblige me she picked up paper rags about the house to make up the price of it. I read the book with interest, but when Jackson was a candidate in 1828 for the Presidency, I opposed him and voted for Adams. I favored a protective tariff.
Oct. 6. 66
Ezra Cornell

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