Special Collections was the recent recipient of a significant letter, kindly donated by Thomas W. Broadhead. Joseph Estabrook of Knoxville wrote this letter on Christmas Day, 1835, while he was president of East Tennessee College, which later became the University of Tennessee. In this letter, Estabrook wrote to his cousin, Colonel John Wood, about personal, professional, and political matters. He details the poor health of his wife, Nancy Dickinson Estabrook, who was a relative of the poet Emily Dickinson. Estabrook describes his work as president and notes that the college is set “on a hill like that of Amherst,” in reference to the Massachusetts college where he once taught. He also exhibits Whig sympathies by stating his opposition to Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.
Joseph Estabrook was born December 8, 1792 in Lebanon, New Hampshire to Hobart and Ann Estabrook. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1815, he entered Princeton to train for the ministry, but throat trouble made him abandon this pursuit. Instead, in 1817 he became principal of Amherst Academy and later served as professor of Latin and Greek when it became a college in 1821. Estabrook was married in 1823. He sought a warmer climate to improve his health and so in 1824 became principal of a school for young ladies in Staunton, Virginia. Estabrook became president of the Knoxville Female Academy in 1828 through the arrangement of Dr. Joseph Strong, a fellow native of New England.
As his reputation increased in Knoxville, he was appointed president of East Tennessee College in 1834. Estabrook brought about vast improvement in the college by hiring scholarly faculty, promoting a more organized curriculum, and supervising the construction of new campus buildings. His presidency also featured the establishment of the first literary societies, the creation of an alumni association, and the beginning of military traditions. In 1840, under Estabrook’s leadership, the state legislature changed the name of the college to East Tennessee University. In 1898 the university named a new mechanical engineering building Estabrook Hall in honor of his fifteen years of service as president.
Interested researchers may wish to consult the Nancy Dickinson Estabrook Diary (MS.3368), which covers the years of 1836 to 1838 and elaborates upon the Estabrooks’ life in Knoxville. Other pieces of relevant correspondence from Joseph Estabrook are found in the Richard White Letters (AR.0036) and the East Tennessee College Records (AR.0218). For more information on Broadhead’s fortuitous discovery of the Estabrook letter, see this article.