Jane Elizabeth Lathrop was born August 25, 1828 in Albany, New York, to Dyer and Jane Ann Shields Lathrop. "Jennie," as her husband would call her, was raised and educated at home, as were most young women of her generation, although she briefly attended the Albany Female Academy. She remembered her childhood as quiet and uneventful. Jane was the third of seven children (six of whom survived infancy), and was said to be her father's favorite.
Jane married Leland Stanford, a young lawyer, on September 30, 1850. The Stanfords made their first home together in Port Washington, Wisconsin, where Leland had established a law practice. But in 1852, a fire destroyed Leland's office and extensive library. Soon after, he departed for California to join his five brothers in Sacramento. Over the next three years, Leland established a career in business, selling supplies to the miners in the gold fields of California. Jane, at the insistence of her family, returned to her parents' home in Albany, New York, where she cared for her sick father for the next three years. The separation was devastating for Jane, who missed Leland desperately and felt the Albany community judged her to be an abandoned wife.
In June 1855, after learning of his father-in-law's death, Leland returned to Albany. He and Jane decided to settle in Sacramento and traveled to California in late 1855. Jane enthusiastically departed Albany for life in a comfortable but modest house in California's capitol, where she was later joined by her sister, mother and eventually three brothers.
In 1861, the year Leland became president of the Central Pacific Railroad and won his campaign for governor of California, the Stanfords acquired a much larger house in Sacramento at Eighth and N Streets. Jane was left to manage the move into the new house and furnish it appropriately. A flood on the day of Stanford's inauguration caused the new governor to travel to the festivities in a rowboat and the state government to move to San Francisco for four months. Returning to Sacramento in June 1862, Jane put the house to good use and earned a reputation as a fine hostess.
On May 14, 1868, at age 39, Jane Stanford gave birth to a son at her Sacramento home. Leland DeWitt Stanford, who later asked to be called Leland Stanford Jr., was the couple's only child and became a prominent focus of their lives.
Leland Stanford Sr. was a well-established businessman by the time of his son's birth, but over the next ten years he purchased significant acreage in northern California and became involved in growing grapes and breeding horses. In 1871, the Stanfords remodeled and tripled the size of the Sacramento house. Just two years later, following the move of the Central Pacific Railroad offices from Sacramento to San Francisco, they began constructing a mansion on Nob Hill in San Francisco. This house was completed in 1876, the same year that Leland acquired the 650-acre Mayfield Grange, located south of San Francisco near Menlo Park. Over the next decade he added to his land holdings by acquiring neighboring farms and experimenting successfully with new methods for breeding and training trotters and thoroughbred horses. Palo Alto Stock Farm, named after a redwood tree on the banks of San Francisquito Creek, was to become the site of Stanford University.
During the 1880s the Stanford family undertook two tours of Europe. Leland Jr., though only in his early teens, used the trips to gather historical objects for the museum he hoped to someday establish in San Francisco. But on March 13, 1884, after several weeks of illness, Leland Jr. died in Florence of typhoid fever. Leland and Jane were devastated by the loss of their only child. Because the Stanfords were public figures, their tragedy quickly became public knowledge. Newspapers carried detailed stories of the boy's death, and letters, cards, and telegrams of sympathy poured in from friends and family, as well as complete strangers.
The Stanfords quickly began planning several projects in their son's memory. After their return from Europe, they consulted with educators at major universities on the east coast about the possibility of creating an educational institution in California in memory of their son. On November 11, 1885, Jane and Leland signed the Grant Founding and Endowing The Leland Stanford Junior University. Over the next several years, while Leland Stanford took an active role in the planning and construction of the university, Jane focused on plans for a memorial museum to house Leland Jr.'s collections of antiquities and ethnological artifacts as well as the Stanfords' own collection of art. The Leland Stanford Junior University opened on October 1, 1891 with 15 faculty and more than 400 students.
On June 21, 1893, Leland Stanford died at his Palo Alto home at the age of 69. His death created a significant financial crisis for the university because Stanford managed the university as if it were part of his estate. His assets were frozen and all income to the university was halted. Jane Stanford refused to allow the university to close and used her own income ($10,000 a month to run three households) as executor of the estate to support the university through six difficult years, during which the federal government sought early payment on the long-term loans made in the 1860s for the building of the Central Pacific Railroad. Determined to keep the university open, Jane traveled to London in 1897 with the hope of selling her treasured jewel collection during Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration, but the world economy was depressed and she found no buyers.
In March 1896, the United States Supreme Court rejected the government's claims against the estate of Leland Stanford and its assets were released from probate in December 1898.
Following the resolution of Leland's estate, Jane focused financial resources on the completion of the university's physical plant. The Memorial Arch at the front of the Quad was completed in 1902. Memorial Church, dedicated to the memory of her husband, was completed and dedicated in January 1903. Jane's original project, the Museum, received new wings, making it the largest privately-owned museum building in the country. A new library, gymnasium, and chemistry building also were constructed.
Although her focus was primarily on buildings, Jane continued active involvement in other areas of the university's operation. In May of 1899, worried that the record number of women enrolling at Stanford would turn the university into a women's school and dilute the men's education, Jane limited the number of women to 500. The following year, she established the first student scholarship, which covered room, board and fees, since the university did not charge tuition until 1920. The scholarship was funded by an account which had belonged to Leland Jr., and a room in Encina Hall was designated The Leland Stanford Jr. Memorial Room and set aside for the scholarship's recipient.
On June 1, 1903, Jane granted control of the university's endowment and management to the Board of Trustees. She hoped to encourage the board to take a more active role in building graduate student enrollment, enhancing the academic program, and supporting research and teaching. However, as the transfer of power was not legal until her death, Jane was elected as a member of the board and subsequently president. In her address to the board on the occasion of her election on July 6, 1903, she took a final opportunity to direct the board's activities and remind the members of their obligations. She also informed the board that she intended to pursue a life of a quieter nature and therefore would travel for a year or two.
Jane soon embarked on an extended trip to Australia, Asia, and the Middle East, using the opportunity to visit with university alumni and collect materials for the museum. In February of 1905, while preparing for a second world trip, Jane wrote to the Board of Trustees to authorize the establishment of a "Jewel Fund" to be used for library purchases. The money for the fund was to come from the proceeds of the sale of her jewelry. The fund was established in 1908 with a starting sum of $500,000. To this day the fund supports the purchase of hundreds of books and other materials for the use of students and faculty.
This was to be Jane's last trip. She died on February 28, 1905 in Honolulu. The circumstances of her death were controversial; the previous month, at her San Francisco home, Jane had consumed a glass of spring water with a bitter taste. Chemical tests revealed a suspicious amount of strychnine in the water. Weeks later, on the night of her death, Jane took a dose of bicarbonate of soda (a popular remedy which she used frequently). Witnesses reported that, before dying, she declared that she had been poisoned. Trace amounts of strychnine were found in her body and in her bottle of bicarbonate, but two autopsies yielded conflicting results. Her cause of death was never conclusively determined.
University president David Starr Jordan and trustee Timothy Hopkins traveled to Hawaii and escorted Jane's body back to California. Her funeral was held in Memorial Church on March 24th, 1905, with the crowd of over 6000 overflowing into the Inner Quad. After the church service, mourners followed the casket, which was carried by varsity football players, down Palm Drive to the family mausoleum, where Jane was laid to rest between her husband and her son. Her will included numerous bequests to charities and relatives, but the university founded in memory of Leland Stanford Jr. remains Jane's most prominent legacy.