Lyman Draper was a lifelong student of early American history who devoted his life to rescuing and preserving pioneer stories and documents on frontier history. His extensive collection of material became the foundation for the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society, of which he was the first secretary and librarian.
Born in Lockport, New York, on September 4, 1815, Lyman Copeland Draper grew up working on his family farm and clerking in shops. Only 5'1", Draper was ill-suited for heavy physical labor or sports, so he spent much of his time reading and hearing stories about his father's captivity by the British during the War of 1812.
His interest in history triggered, Draper wrote letters seeking reminiscences from pioneers, delivered speeches, and wrote articles on historical and archaeological topics. Supported by his cousin's husband, Peter Remsen, Draper was able to pursue a variety of jobs that allowed him time to gather documents and bits of information on the frontier. Draper soon conceived plans for a series of books on western history and biography titled Sketches of the Lives of Pioneers.
Draper made nine research trips to the South and West in the 1840s, gathering materials for his proposed volumes that filled several thousand pages. When Remsen died, Draper, without the financial means to continue his research trips, moved to Wisconsin where he became the corresponding secretary of the newly formed State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1854.
For the next few years Draper devoted his time to acquiring books, manuscripts, maps and artifacts for the library and museum. Draper returned to his own research and collecting in 1857 while still performing his duties at the Society. Over the next 34 years, Draper made several major trips for interviews and corresponded with Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, among others, while working on several proposed books. Only one, King's Mountain and its Heroes (1881), was ever published. For the Society, Draper founded and edited the first 10 volumes of the Society's Wisconsin Historical Collections. Although his planned volumes on frontier history were never produced, his collected manuscripts, correspondence and notes survive in the archives of the Society.
Draper retired from his administrative duties at the Society in 1886. Busily engaged with his manuscripts and research, Draper suffered a stroke and died in Madison on August 26, 1891.