The Riggs Papers

The family of Elias Riggs, who is seated third from left, with Martha beside him.Whereas most of the American Board Archives consists of official documents and administrative records, this collection offers a unique assortment of private correspondence and other material, including five diaries and close to 2,000 pages of personal letters, notes, and sermons. These items relate to the Riggs family of missionaries, principally Rev. Elias Riggs (1810-1910), his wife Martha Dalzell Riggs (1810-87), and three of their children, Elizabeth, Emma, and Samuel.

One of the first and longest serving missionaries of the American Board in the Ottoman Empire, Elias Riggs spent most of his career in Istanbul, mainly engaged in translating the Bible, hymns, and religious tracts into the various languages of the region. He is reputed to have had a scholarly mastery of twelve tongues and a respectable knowledge of six to eight more. After leaving the United States with his wife in 1832 as a Board missionary, he returned only once to his native land for a two-year furlough (1856-8) and passed away in Istanbul at the age of 91.1

A number of Elias Riggs’ descendants also served as missionaries, both in the same area and elsewhere, and the family name is one of the most prominent in the annals of the American Board. Testifying to their exceptional role, the Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions states that “the family accounted for more than a thousand years of missionary service through five generations.”2

American Board missionaries standing next to Elias Riggs’ grave at Istanbul’s Feriköy Protestant Cemetery, Memorial Day 1924. The tombstone is inscribed with epitaphs in several of the languages into which he translated the Scriptures.Upon Elias’ death, the personal papers in this collection, which he had gathered over the years, were incorporated into the archives at the American Board’s Istanbul headquarters. Besides the family letters, perhaps the most interesting items are the diaries of Elizabeth and Emma Riggs, which record the thoughts and reflections of missionary children born and raised in the field. Such intimate young voices existent in these journal pages are rarely heard through official mission records, or even via the correspondence of their parents and elders.

SALT Research: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions / Riggs Papers »

1. For further information about Elias Riggs, see his obituary (Henry O. Dwight, “A Mighty Worker Before the Lord,” The Missionary Herald, 1901: 98-103), as well as his records in the American Board Memorial Book ( and Personnel Card File (
2. Gerald H. Anderson (ed.), “Riggs, Elias,” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, New York 1998, 570-1.