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Lyman C. Draper - The Draper Manuscripts

The Lecture - By James Holmberg
Curator of Special Collections, The Filson Historical Society

By Kathy Cummings    Photos by Jim Cummings


Jim Holmberg hit just the right note with his presentation about Lyman C. Draper. Because the audience was made up of members of Historic Locust Grove and history buffs, his information was a blend of both well known and little known facts about Draper.

The fact that Lyman Draper spent a lifetime amassing a large collection of historical papers from the early pioneers was a well known fact to this audience. How he went about it, facts about his life and the sometimes less than ethical means he used, were the lesser known facts.


The audience at Locust Grove


Taking questions from the audience

Holmberg talked about Draper’s collection which is housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society. Although his ultimate goal was to author a book or books from the materials he collected, Draper never managed to achieved these plans. “It was just never quite enough for Draper,” said Holmberg. He managed to publish only one book entitled King's Mountain and Its Heroes: History of the Battle of King's Mountain, October 7Th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It   “No matter how many documents he had, in his mind there was always just something else that he didn’t have, something that just eluded his grasp. In reality countless books have now been written based on his collection and it has provided source material for generations.

Draper did add to the primary documents with voluminous notes of his own. He saved newspaper articles, letters, and every imaginable scrap of paper. Yet when letters arrived asking for the return of family papers they conveniently never got answered. Or he would explain he just wasn’t quite finished with them. Draper also bought some of the articles in the collection. He traveled extensively, he talked to families and a few of the old pioneers themselves, he copied in longhand, he pleaded and cajoled. And by whatever means necessary - he got what he wanted. Were his means always ethical- probably not implied Holmberg. But there are 478 volumes in the collection. That equals 123 rolls of microfilm (of which the Filson has a set). There are 33 volumes about Daniel Boone along with 5 additional volumes of his notes. There are 22 volumes about the Mohawk Chief, Joseph Brant, 13 volumes about Simon Kenton and for many in this area the highlight are the 65 volumes about George Rogers Clark.

Lyman C. Draper - His Story


Born in New York in 1815, Lyman Draper grew up with an interest in the pioneers that first crossed into the land beyond the mountains - what he referred to as the Trans-Allegheny region.

As a young man he was known as a bit of a scholar. He held a variety of jobs and moved around the country. He attended Granville College in Ohio for two years. In 1836 he spent a year at Hudson Valley Seminary in New York. One of the highlights of his life was his association with Peter J. Remsen. Remsen had married Lydia Chadwick a cousin to Lyman Draper. Remsen took Draper under his wing. He paid for his college and his travels. Draper at times worked for Remsen but mostly acted as a companion to Lydia while Remsen traveled on business.

The years from 1844 to 1852 were his ‘nomadic years.’ He traveled by horseback, coach, wagon and train. And everywhere he went he made notes. Notes and more notes. It was his mission in life to set to paper the stories of pioneer, soldier, Indian and scout. He traveled through Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Virginia. He planned dozens of volumes on what he learned. He estimated that he traveled over 60,000 miles. When accommodations were unavailable as in the backwoods regions of Kentucky and Tennessee he simply stayed in the homes of those he visited often spending weeks or months with a family. It was in these cabins that he made notes from the families that had few written records of their own. He interviewed and listened to all of the stories they could tell of their lives and of their parents and grandparents.

In 1852 Peter Remsen died and Draper was forced to make some life changes without the benefactor he had long depended on. He moved with Lydia and her adopted daughter, Helen, to Madison Wisconsin. Lyman and Lydia were married there the following year.

In 1854 he became corresponding secretary for the Wisconsin Historical Society a post he held from 1854-1886. In Wisconsin he continued his massive correspondence, trying to obtain by mail what he had not gotten during his travels.


And still the only full volume he ever completed was “King’s Mountain and It’s Heroes” published in Cincinnati in 1881.

 Helen Remsen had died of a fever in 1865 and his wife Lydia died in 1888 after suffering a series of strokes. Draper married Catherine T. Hoyt in 1889.

Upon his death in 1891 most of his collection passed to the Wisconsin Historical Society. There his successor Rueben G. Thwaites had the daunting task of bringing order to Draper’s chaos. Although many of the early volumes of his collection were bound there were also numerous pages of un-catalogued and unbound pieces that he had collected.

Draper had stored much of his collection in a stone outbuilding on his property known as “the barn.” Although safe from fire and the elements it was far from secure from rodents and other damage.


Lydia Draper with her adopted daughter Helen

Although his inability to publish his many planned books plagued him throughout his lifetime and his detractors point to his sometime questionable methods of collecting, Lyman C. Draper’s legacy is an admirable one. Housed in one place, by one man are records that would have probably been lost forever. Fire, carelessness and lack of interest could have seen many of these documents fade into obscurity.

But Draper’s dogged determination and his desire to always have more information have given historians rare sources to return to time and time again for information on the years from the French and Indian War in 1754 to the War of 1812 which ended in 1815 .

Draper’s Barn - where he stored his papers

For further reading and study:

The Filson Historical Society
The Wisconsin Historical Society
Biographical Sketch of Lyman C. Draper
The Life of Daniel Boone - Edited by Ted Franklin Belue - Stackpole Books

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Special thanks to Jim Holmberg of the Filson Historical Society and Historic Locust Grove for their afternoon lecture series.


Historic Locust Grove - Louisville, KY

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