Boone Blog # 4 — An Unlikely Hero
Updated: Mar 16, 2022
At the end of his life, Lyman Draper considered himself a failure. “I have wasted my life in puttering,” he wrote. His goal had been to write the definitive history of the late eighteenth-century pioneers who’d settled in the wilderness areas of what would eventually become the states of Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Ohio. Born in 1815 in upstate New York, even as a youth Draper was fascinated by tales of the American Revolution, and he began collecting documents in earnest around 1838, afraid that the deeds of the pioneers would be forgotten.
Despite being physically frail, Draper estimated he’d traveled more than 60,000 miles on foot, horseback, steamboat, and carriage, seeking out, not just the words of the famous, but also the reminiscences of ordinary folk, creating an invaluable resource for anyone interested in studying eighteenth-century frontier America.
In the early years, Draper was sometimes able to interview the pioneers themselves, but even after most of that generation had passed on, he continued to gather material by visiting or corresponding with their children and grandchildren. Draper spent three weeks interviewing Daniel and Rebecca’s youngest child, Nathan, and Nathan’s wife, Olive, gathering more than 300 pages of handwritten notes. At the end of his visit, Nathan entrusted Draper with Daniel’s most prized papers, still rolled up in a deerskin, just as his father had left them.
Draper’s sincerity and stated intention of memorializing his subjects meant families routinely handed over their original documents, sometimes with the understanding they’d be returned after Draper copied them, but often with no expectation of getting them back. When Draper wasn’t roaming through the backcountry, he made his home in Wisconsin, and after his death his extensive collection formed the foundation of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s archives.
Draper’s collection is a crucial resource for anyone studying frontier America, but researchers don't have to travel to Wisconsin to access it, because the documents are available on microfilm at research libraries around the country. Fortunately for me, the McClung Collection, housed in the East Tennessee History Center in downtown Knoxville, owns the complete set.
To say reading microfilm is tiresome is an understatement. I spent hours sitting in a darkened room, slowly spooling through often barely legible documents, frame by frame. The good news is that Draper was a packrat and saved everything, which is a blessing for historians. The bad news is — packrats are messy. God love the librarians who did their best to organize Draper’s unwieldy collection, but despite their herculean efforts, working one’s way through the documents is a tedious, often frustrating, process.
As I searched for any mention of Rebecca, it was soon clear that what most interested Draper were memories of military campaigns and Indian skirmishes, but sometimes, amid the tales of derring-do, I found invaluable vignettes of everyday life that opened a door into Rebecca’s world.