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Guide to finding your ancestors in the Draper Manuscript Collection

This guide is based on a presentation given by the History and Genealogy Department staff member Dan Lilienkamp on Sept. 15, 2012. This guide can also be downloaded as a single PDF (318 kb). A list of sources related to the Draper Manuscript Collection and held by the History and Genealogy Department can also be downloaded as a PDF (32 kb).

More information about the Draper Manuscript Collection is available by contacting the St. Louis County Library History and Genealogy Department. 


Born on 4 September 1815, Lyman Copeland Draper grew up listening to the Revolutionary War stories told by his grandfather and the War of 1812 tales of his father. He became fascinated with American history, particularly the history of the west.

After securing the financial backing of his cousin’s husband, Peter A. Remsen, Draper began collecting information about the Revolutionary War and the settlement of the west. Travelling extensively, he met with and interviewed pioneers, veterans, and their children. He copied documents, clipped or transcribed articles from newspapers, wrote and received letters, and occasionally was given original documents. He copied maps and drew new ones. He even purchased parts of the collections of John Dabney Shane and Samuel J. Rea, historians working in the same time and places as himself. These he complied into volumes by subject matter.

Upon Remsen’s death, Draper was forced to find another source of income. He secured a position at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and continued his collection of documents and other information and continued to compile and re-compile them into volumes.

Draper’s intention was to use his manuscripts to write a book on western history and biography tentatively titled "Sketches of the Lives of the Pioneers." He died before his efforts came to fruition. In this, Draper was like a graduate student who never publishes because there might be some, presently unknown, piece of information that will render his current conclusions obsolete. In truth we are the same, waiting forever to publish our own family histories in the hope of one more clue identifying an elusive ancestor.

Upon his death, Draper willed his collection of manuscripts to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, the society took possession of the papers, and Society Executive, Reuben G. Thwaites, oversaw the efforts to make the collection available for public use. This involved continuing Draper’s arrangement of loose manuscripts into bound volumes.

The society arranged the volumes by subject into fifty series, each one given a one or two letter pressmark (A through ZZ with I and II not being used). Subsequently, the volumes were microfilmed and made available to libraries and other institutions. Any item can be found on film if the series, volume, and page number are known. Typically they are recorded in the format volume series page. For example, the citation 25 C 12 references volume 25 of the Daniel Boone Papers (series C), page 12. Sometimes the “page number” is actually an item number in that particular volume rather than the page number.[1] These became the 491 volumes that are now known as the Draper Manuscript collection.

The History and Genealogy Department at St. Louis County Library Headquarters has the only complete collection of the Draper Manuscripts in the St. Louis area.

Content of the Collection

In the twenty-first century, our vision of the American West tends to be colored by our experiences of television and movie westerns.  We think of the Wild West as the land of cattle rustlers, outlaws, and desperados, a land of stage coaches, saloons, ranchers, and a few Native Americans, with noble lawmen barely able to keep trouble at bay. Draper’s west is the Trans-Appalachian west (see map on page 1), a place infinitely wilder than the west of our imaginations. The courthouse and the lawman were both on the other side of the mountains. The Indians were at least an equal if not greater force than the settlers. The two groups, in the best of conditions, lived in an uneasy truce. People had to rely on themselves. There was no cavalry to ride to the rescue.

By the time Draper began his collecting, this Trans-Appalachian west was a settled land. In talking to the children and the grandchildren of the pioneers and listening to the revolutionary war stories, he felt he was on a mission: A mission to preserve a history that was already receding, at least in part, into memory.

How to find records

Although the Draper Manuscripts are rich in information, they are not the easiest resource to use.  There are a number of indexes and finding aids that will help a researcher use the collection.  Each will be considered below (follow the links).


[1] For alternative ways to cite the Draper Manuscripts, see Harper, Josephine L, Guide to the Draper Manuscripts.  Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1983, p vii. [R929.3 H294G and 929.3 H294G] or Mills, Elizabeth Shown, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2007, p129 [R 907.2 M657E and 907.2 M657E].