Biography of Henry Wilson Ely

For three consecutive generations the Elys have been closely identified with the business and professional life of Westfield, Massachusetts; and for nine generations with that of New England. The family in America was founded by Nathaniel Ely, born in the year 1605, supposedly in Tenterden, County Kent, England, of an excellent old English family. The Ely family in England dates back to the hereditary surname epoch (1250-1450 A.D.), when second, or family names first began to come into general use. The name has two distinct derivations, as is proved by that peer of etymologists and orthographers, the late Charles Wareing Bardsley, honorary canon of Carlisle Cathedral and vicar of Ulverstone, in his monumental “A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames” (Second Edition). The same derivations are also given in Lower’s “Patronymica Britannica.” Surnames fall, roughly, into five separate classes of inception, by far the greatest class being that one known as baptismal surnames. Ely was originally spelled Elie, and was used as a fontal or Christen name. When, due to the growth in population and the resultant confusion from the repetitious use of identical fontal names, a second or distinguishing nomenclature became imperative, many assumed their father’s given name as a surname. Hence, Robert, son of William, became Robert fil. William (fil being a contraction of the Latin filius, and meaning simply “son of”), the fil being dropped in the course of time and the name becoming Robert William’s (possessive case meaning William’s son Robert), and finally, Robert Williams. Hundreds of present-day surnames came about in this way. John, fil Elie, of County Lincoln, is mentioned in the Placita de Quo Warranto (temp. Edward I) ; and Reginald fil Elye, of County Lincoln and Gilbert Elye, of County Kent, both appear in the Hundred Rolls (1273, A. D.). The second derivation of this ancient surname falls into the class known as local surnames, that is, a man taking the name of the section in which he lived for purposes of differentiation. Ely is the name of the capital of the Fen district, and in the year 1227 Nicholas de Ely (the de being a French prefix meaning simply “of,” and showing the French influence following the Norman Conquest of Saxon England in the year 1066 A. D.), was bailiff of Norwich. At a later date Alan de Ely was rector of Blickling, County Norfolk, and in the Hundred Rolls of that shire in the year 12,3, A. D., are found the names of Michael and John de Ely. Of these two distinct derivations, the first is the one applicable to the family herein considered, for the reason that the largest branches of the Ely family in England were seated in counties Lincoln and Kent, and it is from Tenterden, in County Kent, that the progenitor of the family in the New World is traditionally believed to have come. The surname Ely, unlike the vast majority of English surnames, has undergone comparatively few orthographic changes, the ancient English archives furnishing us examples of but the following few forms: Elie, Elye, Eley, Eeley (very rare), and finally, Ely-the present and accepted spelling. Nathaniel Ely, the first to bear that ancient patronymic in America, set an example of civic service which his descendants have worthily upheld, and two of his lineal descendants-Henry Wilson Ely and his son, Joseph Buell Ely-have recognized this principle of life in their respective careers. Nathaniel Ely came from Old England to New England in the ship “Elizabeth” in the year 1634, settling first in what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts, then in Hartford, where his name is on the monument erected to the memory. of that town’s pioneer settlers, and finally in Springfield, where he served as selectman for many terms. The line was continued through Samuel Ely, of Springfield, his son Samuel, who died in West Springfield, a third Samuel, whose son Captain Levi Ely, of West Springfield, was killed by Indians in a battle on the Mohawk River, Stone Arabia, near Utica, New York, when in charge of an expedition against them in the year 1780. The next generation was that of the Rev. Elihu Ely, a son of Captain Levi Ely, who removed to Westfield, Massachusetts, where his son, Joseph Minor Ely, was born, lived, labored and died. Joseph Minor Ely was a manufacturer and a pioneer in the whip industry. It is interesting to note that Westfield has always been and still is the centre of the whip industry, for which the city of Westfield is largely indebted to Joseph Minor Ely and a few other manufacturers of his time who founded it. Joseph Minor Ely, in addition to being one of Westfield’s foremost industrialists, published for several years the local paper, and was active politically, serving as assessor, selectman, a member of the school committee, and as a delegate to State, county and district conventions, and the National Convention that nominated Stephen A. Douglas, Samuel J. Tilden and Winfield Scott Hancock for the Presidency of the United States. He was also a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1853. Mr. Ely was a Democrat, and cast his first Presidential vote for Andrew Jackson. He married Elizabeth Gross, of French Huguenot descent. They were the parents of Henry Wilson Ely, of whom this genealogical and biographical review.

Henry Wilson Ely, a son of Joseph Minor and Elizabeth (Gross) Ely, was born in Westfield, Massachusetts, on November 10, 1853. He received his education in the local public schools of his birthplace, which training was supplemented by attending Westfield State Normal School and for a short time, Boston University Law School. Upon his admission to the bar of the State of Massachusetts in 1875, he engaged in the active practice of his profession, and later, with his brother, Charles F. Ely, established a law partnership in Westfield, specializing in corporation law and representing many corporations, including railways in and about western New England. This firm maintained its reputation for proved ability, wide experience, wisdom, honor and high integrity, for a period of thirty years. Henry Wilson Ely was married in Westfield, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1880, to Sarah Naomi Buell, who was born in that city on May 27, 1852, a daughter of Phineas and Phebe (Gilman) Buell. Henry Wilson and Sarah Naomi (Buell) Ely are the parents of Joseph Buell Ely, of whom further mention.



Lockwood, John H. (John Hoyt); Bagg, Ernest Newton; Carson, Walter S. (Walter Scott); Riley, Herbert E. (Herbert Elihu); Boltwood, Edward; Clark, Will L. (Will Leach); Western Massachusetts A History 1636-1925; New York and Chicago: Lewis historical publishing company, inc., 1926

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