Founding of the Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian Institution "Castle," circa 1860-1880

Smithsonian Institution “Castle,” circa 1860-1880

The Smithsonian Institution (a complex of national museums and research centers in the United States) was founded on August 10, 1846, through legislation signed by President James Polk. The cornerstone of the main building was laid in 1847.

Smithson Bequest

The initial money for the Smithsonian was provided by a bequest in the will of James Smithson (1765–1829), a wealthy English scientist. The will stipulated that if his heir (a nephew) died without children, Smithson’s estate should go to the United States “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

After the death of Smithson’s nephew in 1835, the U.S. Congress debated and eventually approved the acceptance of the bequest in 1836, with support from President Andrew Jackson. The United States received the legacy of more than $500,000 in 1838. 

Planning the Smithsonian

Smithson’s will had been vague, leaving the United States to debate what sort of national institution to create with the money. A museum, library, observatory, scientific institute, and university were among the suggestions, and it was finally decided that the Smithsonian would be a compromise between the various options. 

Founding of the Smithsonian

President James Polk signed the legislation organizing the Smithsonian Institution on August 10, 1846. Construction of the main building (what is now known as the “Castle”; designed by James Renwick, Jr.) began in 1847 and was completed in 1855.

The Smithsonian Institution was established as a trust administered by a Secretary as the chief executive and a Board of Regents. The first Secretary was scientist Joseph Henry, who served in that position from 1846 to 1878. 

Smithsonian Today

From its founding in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution has grown to include 19 museums, 9 research centers, and a zoo.

Learn more about the Founding of the Smithsonian Institution through historical newspapers from our archives. Explore newspaper articles, headlines, images, and other primary sources below.


Articles and Clippings about the Founding of the Smithsonian Institution

British newspaper prints James Smithson's will, including a bequest funding the SmithsonianBritish newspaper prints James Smithson's will, including a bequest funding the Smithsonian 09 Dec 1829, Wed The Standard (London, Greater London, England) Newspapers.comPresident Jackson provides Congress with correspondence related to James Smithson's bequestPresident Jackson provides Congress with correspondence related to James Smithson's bequest 31 Dec 1835, Thu Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, Maryland) Newspapers.comHouse committee gives its opinions on prospective U.S. acceptance of the James Smithson bequestHouse committee gives its opinions on prospective U.S. acceptance of the James Smithson bequest 12 Jan 1836, Tue The Pittsburgh Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) Newspapers.comCongress passes resolution to authorize the president to claim the Smithsonian bequest for U.S.Congress passes resolution to authorize the president to claim the Smithsonian bequest for U.S. 26 Jul 1836, Tue Rutland Weekly Herald (Rutland, Vermont) Newspapers.comRichard Rush is selected to travel to England to pursue the Smithsonian bequest for the U.S.Richard Rush is selected to travel to England to pursue the Smithsonian bequest for the U.S. 26 Jul 1836, Tue The Pittsburgh Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) Newspapers.comSmithsonian bequest suit in English chancery is expected to take more than another yearSmithsonian bequest suit in English chancery is expected to take more than another year 18 Oct 1837, Wed New York Daily Herald (New York, New York) Newspapers.comEnglish courts grant funds from the Smithsonian bequest to the United StatesEnglish courts grant funds from the Smithsonian bequest to the United States 21 Jun 1838, Thu Madisonian (Washington, District of Columbia) Newspapers.comLetter to the editor opposing the United States' acceptance of funds from the Smithsonian bequestLetter to the editor opposing the United States' acceptance of funds from the Smithsonian bequest 06 Jul 1838, Fri The National Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) Newspapers.comRichard Rush returns to the United States in August 1838 with funds from the Smithsonian bequestRichard Rush returns to the United States in August 1838 with funds from the Smithsonian bequest 29 Aug 1838, Wed The Evening Post (New York, New York) Newspapers.comBest method of executing the Smithsonian bequest Best method of executing the Smithsonian bequest "begins to excite a good deal of interest" 30 Jan 1839, Wed Vermont Telegraph (Brandon, Vermont) Newspapers.comBrief biography of James Smithson and a proposal for how to use his bequestBrief biography of James Smithson and a proposal for how to use his bequest 02 Feb 1839, Sat The Madisonian (Washington, District of Columbia) Newspapers.comProposals that the Smithsonian bequest be used for an observatory or school of agricultureProposals that the Smithsonian bequest be used for an observatory or school of agriculture 10 Apr 1840, Fri The Charleston Daily Courier (Charleston, South Carolina) Newspapers.com"What has become of the Smithsonian bequest?" 06 Nov 1843, Mon Vicksburg Tri-Weekly Sentinel (Vicksburg, Mississippi) Newspapers.comDebate in Congress continues about how to use the Smithsonian bequestDebate in Congress continues about how to use the Smithsonian bequest 17 Jan 1845, Fri The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee) Newspapers.comU.S. House of Representatives considers bill to establish Smithsonian InstitutionU.S. House of Representatives considers bill to establish Smithsonian Institution 24 Apr 1846, Fri New York Daily Herald (New York, New York) Newspapers.comCongress passes the bill to establish the Smithsonian Institution on August 10, 1846Congress passes the bill to establish the Smithsonian Institution on August 10, 1846 11 Aug 1846, Tue The Washington Union (Washington, District of Columbia) Newspapers.comPresident Polk informs the House of Representatives that he has signed the Smithsonian billPresident Polk informs the House of Representatives that he has signed the Smithsonian bill 11 Aug 1846, Tue The Evening Post (New York, New York) Newspapers.comText of the law passed by Congress establishing the Smithsonian Institution (Public - No. 178)Text of the law passed by Congress establishing the Smithsonian Institution (Public - No. 178) 02 Dec 1846, Wed The Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina) Newspapers.comJoseph Henry is elected as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in December 1846Joseph Henry is elected as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in December 1846 03 Dec 1846, Thu The Washington Union (Washington, District of Columbia) Newspapers.comDescription of plans for the main building of the Smithsonian Institution as reported in April 1847Description of plans for the main building of the Smithsonian Institution as reported in April 1847 09 Apr 1847, Fri Weekly Raleigh Register (Raleigh, North Carolina) Newspapers.comNewspaper account of 1847 ceremony for laying of the cornerstone for the Smithsonian InstitutionNewspaper account of 1847 ceremony for laying of the cornerstone for the Smithsonian Institution 01 May 1847, Sat The Washington Union (Washington, District of Columbia) Newspapers.comProgress report on construction of Smithsonian building & opinion about Smithsonian's futureProgress report on construction of Smithsonian building & opinion about Smithsonian's future 27 Jul 1847, Tue The Daily National Whig (Washington, District of Columbia) Newspapers.com1904 newspaper feature on James Smithson, including photo of Genoa tomb and picture of Smithson1904 newspaper feature on James Smithson, including photo of Genoa tomb and picture of Smithson 24 Jan 1904, Sun The Washington Times (Washington, District of Columbia) Newspapers.comAlexander Graham Bell brings James Smithson's remains to U.S. in 1904 for interment at SmithsonianAlexander Graham Bell brings James Smithson's remains to U.S. in 1904 for interment at Smithsonian 28 Jan 1904, Thu The Elwood Free Press (Elwood, Indiana) Newspapers.com1904 newspaper picture of James Smithson and the Smithsonian Institution1904 newspaper picture of James Smithson and the Smithsonian Institution 06 Feb 1904, Sat Muscatine News-Tribune (Muscatine, Iowa) Newspapers.com
"Founding of the Smithsonian Institution," Newspapers.com Topics (https://www.newspapers.com/topics/science/founding-of-the-smithsonian-institution/ : accessed September 23, 2021)