Guide to the William Jasper Spillman Papers 1891-1940
Cage 250

Summary Information

Washington State University Libraries, Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections
Spillman, William Jasper
William Jasper Spillman Papers
Cage 250
Date [inclusive]
6 containers., 3 linear feet of shelf space., 1125 items.
Collection materials are in English.
3 ft. Summary Correspondence, clippings, research notes, drafts, reports, photographs and other papers of a Washington State University professor and United States Department of Agriculture official. Included are records, notes and reports of the 1927-1928 Survey of Indian Affairs. Also biographical materials collected by his son, Ramsay Spillman, including obituaries, correspondence of family members and colleagues, particularly James Henry Rice, and other papers.

Preferred Citation

[Item Description]. Cage 250, William Jasper Spillman Papers. Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, WA.

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William Jasper Spillman was born October 23, 1863 in Lawrence County, Missouri, the eleventh child of Nathan Cosby Spilman (b. 1823) and Emily Paralee Pruit (b. 1830). His childhood was spent on a Missouri farm among a large family burdened by the accidental death of his father in 1871.

In 1881 young Willie Spilman (he changed the spelling while in college) enrolled at the University of Missouri. He subsequently received his B.S. in 1886 and, following three years as teacher at Missouri State Normal School, Cape Giradeau, where he married Miss Mattie Ramsay (1865-1935) in 1889, received his M.S. in 1890 in absentia. At this time Spillman was teaching botany and physics at Vincennes University where he was fortunate in making the acquaintance of Dr. Enoch A. Bryan who later, as President of Washington Agricultural College, invited Spillman to join the faculty in Pullman.

In 1889 the Spillmans moved to Oregon where he was appointed teacher of science at the Oregon State Normal School at Monmouth. One of the Spillman sisters and her husband were living in near-by McMinnville. Another older sister was living at The Dalles with her family. It was in Monmouth that Ramsay Spillman was born September 21, 1891. The Spillmans remained in Monmouth until 1894 the year that E.A. Bryan became the third president of the newly opened Washington Agricultural College (later Washington State University).

Bryan invited his former colleague to Pullman to teach agriculture. His preparation for this new assignment consisted of his farm childhood, his scientific training and several weeks of observation at the University of Wisconsin.

It was at Pullman that Spillman made a momentous scientific discovery which, if he had not been preceeded by an obscure Austrian monk forty-five years earlier, would have made his name known to the world. Involved in experiments to hybridize wheat adapted to the growing conditions of the Palouse country Spillman independently rediscovered Mendel's Law of Heredity. He has been credited with a major role in the acceptance of Mendel's Law by scientists and agriculturalists.

During his brief tenure at Washington State College Spillman began to concentrate on the economics and methodology of practical agriculture for the farmer. He became known as the man with the knowledge to assist the farmer, not just a laboratory theorist. In 1902 he accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture following the reception of his paper on his wheat-breeding experiments presented at the meeting of the Association of American Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations in Washington, D.C. in November, 1901. Here he, and a select crew which followed him from Pullman (as an earlier group had followed him from Monmouth), laid the groundwork for the scientific management of farms. Although hired as an agrostologist (or expert on grasses) Spillman's overwhelming interest in farm management coupled with the nearly free hand given to him by the Department produced several bulletins, speeches and other communications directed to the farmer's needs. In 1905 the Office of Farm Management was organized with Spillman as the head, a position he retained until 1918 when a disagreement with the Secretary of Agriculture elicited his resignation. Subsequently he obtained a position as editor of the influential Farm Journal. This provided a forum for his many and diverse approaches to agriculture. He retained this position until the farm slump and a subsequent loss of advertising revenue in 1921 forced the Journal to cut back its staff.

Almost immediately Spillman was asked to rejoin the Department of Agriculture and was again given a free hand. Among his many other activities Spillman was asked to participate in the efforts of the 1927-1928 Survey of Indian Affairs. Spillman's role required visiting reservations across the country and reporting on their economic use and potential, particularly in relation to agriculture. The final report of the Survey was published as The Problem of Indian Administration (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1928). He also served as part-time professor of commercial geography at the Foreign Service School of Georgetown University from 1922 until 1931. Spillman remained with the U.S.D.A. until his death July 11, 1931 after an unsuccessful operation.

As teacher and an educator, Spillman drew devoted crowds of students to his classes. As an agriculturalist he was in the front rank of those applying scientific methodology to the problems of agriculture. He rediscovered Mendel's Law while engaged in wheat hybridization experiments. He formulated theories for the application of commercial fertilizer on farms. He founded, practically single-handedly, the study of agricultural economics or farm management. To the farmers he was not the government's expert, but a practical man who knew what he was talking about and, as well, knew when to listen. They said: "Don't send me no experts; send Spillman."

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The circumstances of Ramsay Spillman's biographical efforts were such that he depended to a great extent on his father's extant papers for source material. In addition he collected other materials in an effort to provide a more detailed as well as broader picture of his father's life and activities. This resulted in a lack of distinction between the papers of William Jasper Spillman and the interpolations and additions of his son. While there is evidence that many of the folder headings were originally used by Professor Spillman some have apparently disappeared. An attempt has been made in the reprocessing to restore, as closely as possible, what may have been the original sequence of the papers. They are therefore divided into two major categories: The papers of Professor Spillman and the papers of Ramsay Spillman about his father. Additionally the first of these categories have been sub-divided into correspondence and miscellaneous papers, records relating to the Survey of Indian Affairs and what was obviously a research file containing notes, clippings, articles, addresses, reprints, lecture notes and other papers on a multitude of subjects which Professor Spillman had inquired into or retained some record. There is even a file labeled "Nonsense" which is the typical creation of a man who is often called upon to enliven a speech or address with a little joke apropos the occasion. Some of the research interests indicated by this file never reached fruition while others exist here only in their final form. It is the working file of a curious man. Ramsay Spillman's efforts to memorialize his father's memory added many letters, clippings, obituaries, memorials, and other papers on subjects touching his father's life. Included are several letters by his father to his brother John while at the University of Missouri during the early 1890s which were acquired from the family in the pursuit of this biography.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections  © 2012

Terrell Library

P.O. Box 645610

Pullman, WA, 99164-5610 USA


Revision Description

 The papers were originally processed prior to 1960 and re-processed by Terry Abraham in August and September, 1974.  1974

Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Acquisition Information

The papers of William Jasper Spillman were donated to Washington State University Library by his son, Ramsay Spillman, in June, 1940.

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Related Materials

Related Material

After his father's death Ramsay Spillman determined to write a biographical account of the life and work of William Jasper Spillman. He interviewed friends and relatives and corresponded with many of Spillman's co-workers and colleagues. This biography was completed in 1933 and revised in 1939. In June of 1940 Ramsay Spillman deposited a typescript (carbon) copy of his biography (Archives 370.92 Sp45S) and several boxes of his father's notes, correspondence and papers and other source material he collected in the Washington State University Library. Other Spillman letters are in the Cornell University Library among the papers of the New York State College of Agriculture (NUCMC MS 62-2295) and M.C. Burritt (NUCMC MS 64-841).

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Names and Subjects

Corporate Name(s)

Subject(s) :
  • Washington State University. College of Agriculture
  • United States. Office of Farm Management.

Personal Name(s)

Creator(s) :
  • Spillman, William Jasper, 1863-1931 --Archives
Subject(s) :
  • Spillman, Ramsay, b. 1891
  • Rice, James Henry, 1868-1935


  • Indians of North America--Economic conditions
  • Agriculture -- Economic aspects--Research
  • Agriculture
  • Native Americans
  • Science
  • Washington (State)

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Detailed Description of Collection

The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.

Series 1: Correspondence 


Letterbook. 494 p. 1899-1901 

1 / 1

Correspondence 1901-1931  47 items.

1 / 2

Capper Award correspondence 1930-1931  16 items.

1 / 3

N. C. Spilman pension correspondence 1904-1909  27 items.

1 / 4

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Series 2: Records 


Class book, W.S.U. 1900-1901  1 volume.

1 / 5

Diary of M. R. Spillman 1927  1 volume.

1 / 6

Portrait of W.J.S. 1900  1 1

1 / 7

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Series 3: Survey of Indian Affairs 

box-folder box-folder

Correspondence, clippings, memoranda, reports, photographs, maps, drawings and other papers written and collected by WJS as a member of the Survey of Indian Affairs. Included are copies of WJS' report on agricultural and economic conditions on each reservation visited. 1927-1929  169 items.

1 / 8-10 2 / 11-15

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Series 4: Research File. Notes, clippings, addresses, essays, drafts, articles, reprints, lecture notes and other papers on various subjects of research interest.  650 items.


Agricultural History 

3 / 16


3 / 17


3 / 18

Columbia Lectures 1930-1931 

3 / 19

Country boy data 

3 / 20

Crop yields 

3 / 21


3 / 22

Farm Journal clippings 1918-1924 

3 / 23

Farm relief 

3 / 24


3 / 25

Food production and supply 

3 / 26

Food - Nutrition 

3 / 27


3 / 28

Georgetown University 

4 / 29

Gravitation and Temperature 

4 / 30


4 / 31

Length of day 

4 / 32


4 / 33

Minnesota address 

4 / 34


4 / 35

Mt. Hood 

4 / 36


4 / 37

Newspaper clippings 

4 / 38


5 / 39

Problem series 

5 / 40

Problems - Calculus, algebra 

5 / 41

Problems - Games 

5 / 42

Problems - Gases 

5 / 43

Problems - Physics 

5 / 44

Problems - Weights and measures 

5 / 45

Probability formula 

5 / 46

Ration computer 

5 / 47


5 / 48


5 / 49


5 / 50

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Series 5: Ramsay Spillman's Biographical Research Notes 


Bibliography of WJS (fragments).  2 items.

6 / 51

University of Missouri. Correspondence, grade reports, clippings, concerning WJS at the University of Missouri, 1891-1892. Drafts and biographical notes, Also catalog of Peirce City Baptist College 1933 1888-1889  20 items.

6 / 52

WJS and the Office of Farm Management Correspondence, notes and other papers,  1933  100 items.

6 / 53

Music Notes and transcriptions of "There was a man lived in the West.  8 items.

6 / 54

Kent, William. Draft of a chapter on Dean William Kent and Chancellor Day omitted from the final version. typescript and photocopy. 1933  5 leaves.

6 / 55

Piper, Charles V. Notes and draft of a chapter on Charles V Piper 1933  5 items.

6 / 56

Rice, James Henry. Correspondence with Ramsay Spillman 1931-1932  14 items.

6 / 57

Newspaper obituaries of WJS 1931  38 items.

6 / 58

Resolutions. A resolution by the Southwest Washington Farmer's Club concerning WJS' resignation from WSUResolutions, memorials and obituaries of WJS 1901 1931-1933  12 items.

6 / 59

Personal tributes. Correspondence, clippings, addresses and other papers about WJS 1931-1940  10 items.

6 / 60

Container list, 3 p. typescript. 1960 

6 / 61

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