Using the Draper Manuscripts

Have you used the Draper Manuscripts in your genealogical research? Although I have known of them and actually heard a couple of professionals talk about them at conferences, I haven’t ever tried to access them.

The Draper Manuscripts has been a topic on my blog post “to do” list and I thought had written about them some time ago. However, I can’t find any evidence of that and decided it was time to talk about a potentially rich resource for those lucky enough to have a family member who was interviewed.

Lyman Copeland Draper (1815-1891) was a librarian with a keen interest in local history, so much so that he not only corresponded with early settlers in the Trans-Allegheny region, he also traveled often, meeting and interviewing people who could share the area’s early history with him.

The Trans-Allegheny area roughly covers Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, the Ohio Valley (today covers part of Indiana, Kentucky, southwest Pennsylvania and northwestern West Virginia), and the Mississippi Valley (today covers parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin). Geographically, that is a huge part of the United States. This large area basically formed the original Northwest and Southwest Territories of the United States from colonial times (c1740) to 1830.

How prolific was Lyman Draper in his note taking? Well, 491 volumes of information is not exactly tiny. Massive is more like it!

The good news is that the Draper collection was bequeathed to the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, where they are housed today. The bad news is that only some volumes are indexed and even those are described as possibly not being complete.

In 1983, Josephine L. Harper published the Guide to the Draper Manuscripts back in 1983 and there is currently a 2004 printing, although it isn’t clear if the earlier guide was updated or if 2004 is simply a reprint edition. As it is under copyright, no digital version is available. The Wisconsin Historical Society has it in their store for $50 and a couple of online websites offer the book for $47-$50+.

That’s a hefty price to pay for the opportunity to glance at the book, hoping to find useful information. Instead, first check WorldCat to see if a library near you has a copy you can browse.

Navigating this collection is somewhat complicated, so rather than trying to duplicate what some other websites have done well, I will instead provide links.

The first website to visit is the FamilySearch Draper Manuscript Collection wiki page. There is a detailed description of the various calendars and series and possible indexes available.

Second, review the Lyman Draper page on Wikipedia.

Next, head over to the Wisconsin Historical Society. An excellent overview of the collection is provided.

I can only imagine what genealogical treasures are to be found in the Draper Manuscript Collection. However, browsing the books requires a trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society or a visit to one of the many libraries in 34 states that owns the microfilmed copies.

I am curious – Readers, have any of you been fortunate enough to use the Draper Manuscripts in your research?


5 thoughts on “Using the Draper Manuscripts”

  1. I am grateful to Jeremiah Edwards, who has been abstracting Ohio references from the Draper Manuscripts for publication in issues of the Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly since 2012. Those issues are available online to members of OGS. As you might expect, the Ohio references include many that involve Pennsylvania and Virginia residents, too.

  2. I have the digital version of Harper’s book, “Guide to the Draper Manuscripts” dated 2014, but assume it’s actually either the 1983 or 2004 version. I bought it on Amazon several years ago, and I have it loaded on my Kindle app on my phone. I checked this morning (12 Oct 2020), and it’s $9.99 on Amazon for the Kindle version.

  3. I was able to find quite a lot of information about 2 of my daughters kinsman, James Harrod. Don’t ask me which volume because I do not remember.

  4. I’ve been using the Draper Manuscripts extensively in my research on a book on Lewis and Clark. Many research libraries (and a few public libraries) in America and Canada own the complete set of microfilm and will make it available to interested readers. But reading this much material on microfilm is a chore, particularly when the readers don’t permit sharply focused images and downloads of pdfs to flash drives. It would be so much better if the Wisconsin library would enlist Family Search to digitize the whole batch, but I suppose they have contractual reasons not to–proquest sells the complete set for over $20K. An additional problem is the one that besets all of us: penmanship. There’s nothing worse than finding what appears to be a relevant document that simply can’t be deciphered.

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