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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Roosevelt and Draper

In 1886, an aspiring young historian in New York wrote to Wisconsin Historical Society director Lyman Copeland Draper: "Although personally unknown to you, I take the liberty of writing to you. I am now engaged on a work in reference to the extension of our boundaries to the southward from the day when Boone crossed the Alleghanies, to the days of the Alamo and San Jacinto.

"I know of no one whose researches into, and collections of material for, our early western history, have been so extensive as your own, so I venture to ask you if you can give me any information how I can get at what I want."

The writer was 28-year-old Theodore Roosevelt who, after two years spent mourning the simultaneous deaths of his young wife and his mother, had decided to become a historian.

The letter's recipient, Draper, was 71 years old, and had just retired after three decades spent running the Wisconsin History Society. His invaluable manuscripts did not belong to the Society, though. They were his personal property, and Draper intended to spend his golden years finally writing the books that had eluded him for so long.

Access Denied

"I wish," Roosevelt continued, "to particularly get hold of any original or unpublished mss; such as the diaries or letters of the first settlers, who crossed the mountains, and their records of the early Indian wars, the attempt at founding the State of Franklin, etc. Do you know if there are any records in existence, in ms. or otherwise? Trusting you will not think I have trespassed too far on your good nature, I am, Most Truly Yours,...

In fact, Roosevelt had definitely trespassed too far -- directly onto the turf that Draper considered his own. Over the next five years, despite Roosevelt's repeated appeals to see the papers, Draper denied him access. Ironically, the older man never wrote his own books: "I can write nothing," he once confessed, "so long as I fear there is a fact, no matter how small, as yet ungarnered."

May that be a warning to every graduate student who reads it.

Access Supplied

After Draper died in 1891, he left his manuscripts to the Historical Society. Two years later his successor, Reuben Gold Thwaites, enabled Roosevelt to consult them during a visit to Madison.

By then the future president had published the first two volumes of his epic work, The Winning of the West. In the third volume he thanked the Society: "These valuable Draper MSS, have been opened to me by Mr. Reuben Gold Thwaites, the State Librarian; I take this opportunity of thanking him for his generous courtesy, to which I am so greatly indebted."

:: Posted in Curiosities on November 6, 2013
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