Peter Morris Cornell



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Peter Morris Cornell (1829-1892)

The search for Peter Cornell started fairly early in my adulthood and marriage. What a fun journey, pushing me from obsession with genealogy further towards addiction. His daughter Jane, who raised her family in Illinois, was well known to her descendants. But, her father was largely a mystery. Old-fashioned research, helpful strangers, and a lot of luck led me to Peter and his fascinating story.

Peter Cornell.

Peter Morris Cornell was born in Sep 1829 in New York as the child of Isaac Cornell and Julia. He had at least one sibling, namely: Edward W. Cornell. He may have been born in or around Parma, Monroe, New York. That’s where his brother was born a few years earlier. Many people have spent countless hours trying to know more about Peter’s lineage and youth, but thus far not much has been found.

In fact, the names of his parents are only proven by circumstantial evidence. An Edward Cornell signed a marriage certificate for Peter. Based on that and census records, it seemed probable that Edward was a brother to Peter. Edward’s death certificate listed his parents as Isaac and Julia. Peter named one of his daughters Julia. Thus the probability that Isaac and Julia were Peter’s parents. This evidence would not stand up in a court of law or even a DAR application, but it is the best guess we have at this time.

We do know that by the time he was 22-years old, Peter had made his way from New York to Michigan. He married Elvira Mary Palmer, daughter of Austin Palmer and Jane Russell, on 06 Aug 1852 in Napoleon, Jackson, Michigan.

Grass Lake, Michigan

Napoleon, Michigan

Peter Morris Cornell and Elvira Mary Palmer had one daughter:

  1. Jane Elizabeth Cornell was born on 17 Jul 1853 in Grass Lake, Jackson, Michigan. She married George Leifheite Miller on 09 Apr 1871 in Oroville, Butte, California. She died on 27 Jan 1942 in Bristol, Kendall, Illinois, at the age of 88.

Elvira passed away on 05 Feb 1855, leaving Peter a widower with a toddler daughter. At some point, Peter moved from Michigan to California.  Jane was left in Michigan to be raised by her maternal grandmother. Peter went west in search of gold. He and about 300,000 others headed to California as part of the gold rush. We don’t know exactly when he left Michigan. He may have even left before his daughter was born and his wife died. But, in any case, he was in California at the time of the 1860 census. He was recorded in North East Township, Strawberry Valley, Yuba County, California. His occupation was listed as “miner.”

1860 Federal Census, Peter Cornell.

In California, Peter lived among men from eastern states and other countries. There was a large population of men from China living near him. Note that there was not even one woman recorded on this sheet of the census. In all, there were 519 men recorded in the North East Township, Strawberry Valley, Yuba, California. There were only 63 women.

Despite these odds, Peter found a new wife. When he was 37, he married 22-year old Margaret E. Kelley, daughter of Charles Kelley and Mary Doherty, on 20 Nov 1866 in Yuba, California.

Cornell – Kelley, marriage record.
Peter and Margaret Cornell.

Peter Morris Cornell and Margaret E. Kelley had the following children:

  1. Charles A. Cornell was born on 10 Dec 1867 in Clipper Mills, Butte, California. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 22 Apr 1901 in Oakland, Alameda, California, at the age of 33.
  2. Albert Mason Cornell was born on 04 Apr 1870 in Clipper Mills, Butte, California. He married Joanna Schillinisky in 1892 in California. He died on 20 Sep 1959 in Richmond, Contra Costa, California, at age 89. Willis Cornell Finck (1930-2007), a grandson of Albert Mason Cornell, was very helpful in connecting us to Peter’s California family and providing information about Peter’s life. 
  3. George E. Cornell was born on 27 Jun 1871 in Yuba, California. He married Amelia Josephine Becker about 1896. He died on 02 Aug 1946 in Napa, Napa, California, at age 75.
  4. Julia Matilda Cornell was born on 07 Jul 1873 in Challenge, Yuba, California.  She married John Amaral Fray Ferreira on 26 Nov 1891 in Oakland, Alameda, California. She died on 05 Mar 1940 in Richmond, Contra Costa, California, at age 66. Vonda Cooper, a great-grandaughter of Julia Matilda Cornell, has been very helpful in the study of our Cornell family.
  5. Mary Alice Cornell was born on 30 Jul 1874 in Yuba, California. She married Francis S. De Soto. She died on 25 Oct 1947 in Sonoma, California, at age 73.

As Peter was settling down and starting his new family, he purchased a small hotel, called The Pine Grove House, in Clipper Mills, Butte, California. He also sent for Jane, his teenage daughter from his first marriage. Jane traveled from Michigan to California with Peter’s sister-in-law, Kitty Kelly. At the time of the 1870 Federal Census, Peter was recorded has a hotel keeper in Clipper Mills along with his wife, children, sister-in-law, and a cook and servant from China. As was found in many records, he was recorded with his initials as “P.M.” It was also fairly common to see his named spelled, “Cornall.” His eldest daughter Jane married in California, but then soon moved with her new husband to Illinois. There was little, if any, contact with her from that point on.

1870 Federal Census, Peter Cornell.

Running a hotel in a remote area of California was not necessarily easy. Stories passed down to his California descendants told of the Pine Grove house burning and being rebuilt, possibly more than once.

Feather River Bulletin (Quincy, California), 04 Jul 1874, page 3 (
Pine Grove House.

In 1873, Peter Cornell was awarded a land grant from the federal government. The land contained about 118-acres in Mount Diablo Township (019.0N Range 007.0E)

Federal Land Grant, Peter Cornell.
Peter Cornell.

San Francisco, California

Clipper Mills, California

Near the end of 1875, Peter sold the Pine Grove House. He was in his mid-40s, about at the average life expectancy for a man, at the time. Based on stories passed down, there was speculation among his California descendants that he left Clipper Mills because of some “trouble,” but we don’t know his real motivation.  By 1876, he was living in San Francisco working as a carpenter.

1876 California Voter Registration, Peter Morris Cornell.

Between 1876 and 1878, he was listed in voter registration lists and city directories as a carpenter, living at a variety of addresses:

  • 1876: Alabama, b 22 & 23, San Francisco
  • 1877: W s Alabama, nr Twenty-second, San Francisco
  • 1878: Bernal Heights, San Francisco
  • 1879: Brooklyn
  • 1880: Oakland
  • 1881: 1107 Twenty-second av, Oakland
  • 1892: 1513 Ninth, Oakland

The 1892 voter registration list said that Peter was 5′ 10″ tall with blue eyes and gray hair.

1880 Federal Census, Peter Cornell.

The family is very fortunate that some letters between Peter, Margaret, and their children have been preserved. For example, Peter wrote from East Oakland to son George in Brush Creek on 17 Nov 1889. A loose transcription follows.

My dear son George,

We received your most welcome letter last Tuesday & was very glad to hear from you & to hear that you was well & doing well. I hope you will keep well & get a long all right. My health is very good alltho I cough some. I am working all the time alltho the work is very hard for me but I will try & get along with it. Your mother is some better but she is not able to work much. She looks after the work & Julia & Mamey do the most of the work. Julia is getting to be a good house keeper. She gets up every morning at half past five & gets my breakfast. She stays at home all the time. The rest of the folks is all well. You ask me if I see Mr. Harison. No I have not seen him down hear. He nows where I work but has not called on me yet & I do not no where he stops. You say you seing for Mamy Salisbury & Miss Clark. You must be careful & not sing rock me to sleep because they might not be built that way. I have never spoke about the accordian since I came home. The air is so damp that it has swelled up so so it plays all right again. Your mother sends you some pieces that she cut out of the paper about poor Tom Lam.

George you say you will come home Christmas but would like to go back in the Spring. That is a long time ahead we don’t no what will happen by next spring. We all want you to come home before Christmas so you will all be to gather once more. Charley & Julia wrote to you last week after we got your letter.

I never got Mr Marshes letter yet there is no news there. So I will close by saying now a gain in sending our love to you. Remember us to ___ & Albert. No more at present ___ P.M. & M.E. Cornall.

Letter from Peter Cornell to son George.
Letter from Peter Cornell to son George, continued.
Letter from Peter Cornell to son George, continued.
Letter from Peter Cornell to son George, continued.

Margaret Kelley Cornell died on 02 Jan 1890. Though his second wife was fifteen years his junior, Peter became a widower again.

On Monday, 15 Aug 1892, Peter Morris Cornell went to work like he did most days. At 62-years old, he was still working as a carpenter. His current job was to help build the new Clayburgh building on Geary between Grant and Stockton Avenues in San Francisco. While working in the elevator shaft on the fifth floor, the ladder he was on slipped, and he fell to his death. Newspapers gave graphic accounts of the accident.

Account of Peter Cornell’s death in The San Francisco Call.
Account of Peter Cornell’s death in the San Francisco Chronicle.

He was buried at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, Alameda, California.

Peter Cornell, funeral notice.

Where is he in the tree?

Relationship chart, Leona Catherine Miller to Peter Morris Cornell.
Pedigree chart, Peter Morris Cornell.

Selected Sources:

“Letter from Hansonville,” 04 Jul 1874, page 3 ( accessed 13 Sep 2018), Feather River Bulletin, Quincy, California, online images (

“Down An Elevator Well. Terrible Death of P.M. Cornall, an Aged Mechanic: He Fell Sixty Feet From the Fifth Floor of the Clayburgh Building and Was Horribly Mangled,” 16 Aug 1892, page 8 ( : accessed 13 Sep 2018), The San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, online images (

“Cornall,” 17 Aug 1892, page 8 ( accessed 13 Sep 2018), The San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California, online images (

“A Fall To Death. P.M. Cornall Killed In The Clayburgh Block. A Terrible Plunge of Sixty Feet Down the Elevator Shaft,” 16 Aug 1892, page 12 ( : accessed 13 Sep 2018), San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, California, online images (

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