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Searching for New Sources in Western History

by William S. Reese

Yale University Library Gazette Vol. 67, Nos. 3-4, April 1993

 All historians must be concerned with their sources.  In many instances these are easily accessible, far more so today than in the past, in the relative convenience of professionally run university libraries, historical societies or museums.  Since World War II academic institutions in the United States have enjoyed an extraordinary growth in their collections of the raw materials of American history, coupled with technological advances which have made it vastly easier to catalogue, locate and reach the original documents within the protective web of institutional control.  It has never been easier to reach the books and manuscripts that are the bases of historical research.

The documents that draw researchers to libraries were not always so accessible, of course.  They used to be on the loose out beyond the walls of the academic fort.  The sources of our sources often lie in a world with only minimal interest in the goals of historical researchers.  Collectors in a variety of fields from books to firearms, descendants with motivations ranging from greed to idealism, and dealers both genteel and buccaneering, are all actors in the marketplace for rare books and manuscripts.  As in any market, a primary factor is price and, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, nothing concentrates the mind so wonderfully as the thought of a bargain (or paying too much), but far more than most markets, sentiment, pride and serendipity influence this one.  Through this filter many original source materials must pass before they reach a place where they are available for study.

Perhaps the most surprising thing in the Western Americana market is the amount of important early material which is still coming to light.  Amazing things still turn up, sometimes in the most unlikely places.  In the past few years as a dealer in books and manuscripts, I've been involved in the transfer of several notable archives from private to institutional hands.  The stories of some of these collections illustrate the perils of the marketplace and the uncertain path documents may follow before they become available to researchers.  The three I discuss here, happily, are now safe and sound in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

My first such experience was the Edwin James letterbook.  James is best known as author of the official account of the Edwin Long expedition across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains in 1820, and his book on that intriguing character, John Tanner, the "white Indian."  The letterbook, consisting of his bi-monthly letters to his brother, John James, an Albany physician, gives a detailed account of his doings from the time he signed up for the Long Expedition through his experiences in the upper Midwest in the 1820s.  It is not a fair copy book but the actual original letters, with address leaves and postmarks intact, which John James evidently had bound up for presentation.  When I heard about the letterbook, it was in the possession of a New England hoarder of philatelic material who turned out to be a former Harvard SDS organizer surely one of the few radical stamp collectors around.  His only interest in the letters were the postal cancel marks on the address leaves, which included the only known copy of the first Council Bluffs cancel on James' last letter home before the expedition set out.  He wanted to sell the letterbook to buy a carved ship figurehead which had struck his fancy, and was on the verge of breaking up the volume and selling the letters individually in the philatelic market.  He assumed I would do the same; in fact, we calculated the price based on the value of the cancels.  It I hadn't shown up, the letterbook would have been scattered to the winds.  I want to emphasize that there was no malice involved on the part of my collector friend.  It was simply a matter of perception of importance.  This same person carefully saved every poster the SDS made in Cambridge and recently gave them to the Boston Public Library, so he is not without a sense of history.

The story of the Adelsverein archive and the Maximilian of Wied papers is a tale both of differing perceptions and dismemberment by market forces.  The papers relating to Prince Maximilian's trip to North America and the Upper Missouri River in 1832-34 are now at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.  They include, of course, Karl Bodmer's extraordinary watercolors, some of the most famous works of art of the American West.  The papers related to the North American trip remain together, but they were once part of a much larger archive, which included all of the records of Prince Maximilian's earlier Brazilian trip, his natural history specimens, and the papers of the Society for the Protection of German Emigrants to Texas, or Adelsverein, an enterprise with which Maximilian was closely associated.  In fact, the Adelsverein papers were separate until World War II, when they were moved from the schloss of the Solms-Braunfels family to a hunting lodge near the neighboring castle of Maximilian for safe keeping.  In the late 1950s, all of the material was purchased by the New York art dealers, Knoedler's.  Failing to find a buyer for the whole, and having an investment to recoup, they broke it up.  The Brazilian archive went back to Germany and is now owned by the Bosch Foundation in Stuttgart, who have recently published a lavish and beautiful catalogue of it.  This archive provides an interesting contrast to the Prince's later North American expedition which would certainly have been studied more extensively if the material had stayed together.  The natural history cabinet went to a private collector and was later dispersed.  The rest of the Maximilian archives went to the Northern Natural Gas Company, and later the Joslyn.  The Adelsverein archive was offered to the University of Texas, to whom a few choice pieces were eventually sold, notably the original treaty between the Comanches and the German settlers.  Other material was extracted and sold to a New York book dealer.  The great bulk of the archive went into Knoedler's Brooklyn warehouse.

There it seems to have been forgotten.  It wasn't "lost" or "undiscovered" really just warehoused.  Knoedler's changed hands several times in the 1970s, and no one remained with the firm who was present when the original deal took place.  The difficulty from my point of view was to persuade them that the large trunks were worth the trouble of exhuming, but worth little enough that I could purchase it.  This ultimately took four years of outwardly casual negotiation.  When I finally got to examine the archive, it was in a small room filled with dissembled Alexander Calder mobiles.  Despite the high risk of getting stuck by art dealers or the art itself I was able to strike a deal.  After I sold the material to Yale, the Beinecke was able to reunite the material removed by the New York bookseller in the early 1960s, and so the Adelsverein archive, despite its adventures, is now substantially intact and available to scholars.

The story of the Kern papers is one more directly frustrating to historians.  This extraordinary cache of diaries and watercolors by Richard and Edward Kern, relating to their expeditions with Fremont and later as topographical artists in New Mexico and Arizona, was discovered by a couple renovating an old hotel in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, literally between the floorboards.  Initial publicity and an absurdly low offer by a prominent New York bookseller only served to frighten the owners, who put the papers in a safety deposit box and refused all scholars access.  Thus Robert Hine, in writing his book on Edward Kern, was in the painful position of knowing of the papers' existence and not being able to see them.  Decades later, ownership having passed to the son of the discoverers, David Weber was more successful and was allowed to use some of the papers in his book on Richard Kern, where many of the images are published for the first time.  Shortly thereafter, I was approached by the owners, who somewhat ironically were moved to finally sell due to the contemplated cost of college tuition.  After protracted discussions and suggestions of selling pieces of the collection, we were able to come to terms for the whole.  All of the material is now in Beinecke, including Edward Kern's still unpublished diary on Fremont's third expedition in 1845-46.

Each of these stories has a happy ending for historians, because all three of the archives are now awaiting readers in a large research library.  In each case, though, the vagaries of the market threatened to break up the collections.  The dangers of dispersal become more acute with higher prices, especially with works of art.  In the 1930s the firm of Edward Eberstadt and Sons had all of Ludovik Choris' watercolors made on the Kotzebue expedition to the Northwest Coast and islands of the Pacific in 1815-18.  The Eberstadts offered them to William Robertson Coe as a group, but Mr. Coe had very definite prejudices about which geographical areas were of interest to him, and he wanted only the watercolors of the Northwest Coast.  The collection was divided, and the original works are now at Yale, the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, and the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.  The desire or need to make a sale, and in this case the need to please a client, may often sunder material from its context.

In recalling Mr. Coe's resistance to buying all of the Choris watercolors, it is instructive to remember that many of the big collections of Western Americana now in institutional libraries in this country are based on collections built and donated by private collectors.  Likewise, a substantial amount of the bibliographical works in the field were created by collectors or booksellers, or are catalogues based on their collections or sales efforts.  The motives of these individuals are often quite different than those of academic historians or librarians.

How do they differ?  There are, I think, two primary motives which guide those seeking rare books and manuscripts: accessibility of text and the preservation of icons.  Historians are primarily concerned with access to text, although the form in which that text has survived if often of some interest and importance.

Private collectors, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with the preservation of icons, the possession of the original object or edition.  I don't mean by this that collectors don't read their books a surprising number do, in my experience but their driving concern is collecting scarce, rare, beautiful or unique artifacts.  In their eyes, a book of great rarity may have more value than a book with a text of great merit.  This greatly influences what they choose to buy and consider important, what they compile bibliographies of and, to a degree, what is ultimately available for study.   For example, in Western Americana, travel narratives have long been popular with collectors.  The first real bibliography in the field, The Plains and the Rockies, compiled by a collector, Henry R. Wagner, is a catalogue of overland narratives.  From its first publication in 1920, it has inspired collectors and created a virtual cult of collecting overland diaries brought to its apogee by William R. Coe, the founder of the Yale Western Americana Collection.  Another example is the collecting fascination with Indian captivity narratives.  Has this bias in source materials had an effect on the focus of western historians over the years?

In short, the interests of private collectors often have a good deal of influence on what is available in library special collections, both directly, by gift, and indirectly, to the degree that acquisitions librarians have continued to collect along the lines most clearly laid out by existing bibliographical tools and the material emphasized in the marketplace.

Private collectors also have a negative impact on the materials which are available in special collections in those areas where the marketplace has reached price levels at which few institutions can compete.  This makes little difference to the scholarly world if the icon at stake is a previously published Washington letter, or the first printing of the Declaration of Independence.  But, in the case of works of art, or images by photographers who are deemed important, it probably means that pictures once considered to be primarily texts are now considered to have far greater value as separate master images.  Twenty years ago the primary market for an album of Timothy O'Sullivan photographs of surveys in the American West would have been large research libraries.  Now, thanks to the great rise of interest in photography and the assiduous promotion of the myth of the transcendent master image by art dealers and curators, such an album would probably be quickly broken up and sold individually.  Its context, of great value to scholars but now discounted in the marketplace, is gone.  If the Karl Bodmer watercolors of Prince Maximilian's expedition were to come on the market today, they would almost certainly be widely scattered, and many would disappear into private collections.

To add to these difficulties, these are tough times for institutional libraries.  From the end of World War II until the mid-1970s, a period of unprecedented growth in special collections was fueled by abundant materials in the marketplace, hefty governmental subsidies for library growth, the rapid expansion of the institutions which housed them, and tax laws which encouraged private collectors to give their books and manuscripts to libraries for deductions.  All of this was naturally to the benefit of historians in quest of research materials.  It was often difficult for the private market to compete with the buying power of the libraries.

Since 1975 the tide has turned.  The cost of maintaining facilities skyrocketed in the wake of rising energy prices and inflation, the government gravy train ended, and the very success of the institutions in gathering collections dramatically increased prices for the shrunken pool of material in private hands.  Changing tax laws have greatly lowered the incentives for private collectors to give, and removed them entirely for authors, who can now only claim the value of their ink and paper in giving their manuscripts.  It will be harder and harder for special collections to afford to gather raw materials for historians.

If these forces in the marketplace seem stacked against the institutional libraries, and by extension the historians they serve, there are some possible alternatives.  Their best direction may be away from the more traditional areas of Western Americana collecting.  As we approach the twenty-first century, many private collectors remain largely concerned with a Turnerian view of American history which terminates interest in the West along with the frontier in 1890 or so.  Western literature is an exception, where Larry McMurtry and other modern writers already command sky high prices.  But much of the historical material of the twentieth century remains beyond the interest of the private sector and is the natural focus of the institutional collector.  Even within the nineteenth century, there are areas of pamphlets and ephemera, family correspondences, engineering and urban maps and plans, private diaries and papers of ordinary people, business ledgers, and similar undervalued material in which the private market is less aggressive and the institutions have greater purchasing power.  The focus of gender and ethnic studies or environmental history will lead inevitably to materials which have been ignored by both private collectors and historians in the past.  How the marketplace will respond to new scholarly initiatives remains to be seen.  In the marketplace, attitudes will probably stay the same.  The market will move on, full of pride of ownership, and sometimes remarkably negligent in its treatment of the raw materials of history.