The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820

About the Collection

The First American West presents a digital resource created from selections drawn from the collections of the Filson Historical Society and the University of Chicago. Each of these institutions has realized the critical role that primary source material plays in the research and teaching of history. The First American West draws on the interconnected holdings of the two institutions to create an integrated collection that preserves critical primary sources and presents a fuller and more diverse picture of the exploration and settlement of the trans-Appalachian west.

The Filson Historical Society's origins and the University of Chicago's holdings on the trans-Appalachian west both have their roots in the activities of Reuben T. Durrett (1824-1913). Durrett was an honorary Kentucky Colonel; Louisville lawyer, editor, writer, and civic leader; and a passionate collector of historical materials about Kentucky. In 1884 Durrett gathered a group of friends to form the Filson Club, named after John Filson, who had published in 1784 The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, a promotional tract recognized as the first history of the state. The Filson Club, now the Filson Historical Society, set as its goals preserving documents of the state's history, promoting its study, and publishing historical works. During years of assiduous collecting, Durrett also amassed a large body of historical printed and manuscript materials on Kentucky and the Ohio River valley. Two University of Chicago historians, William E. Dodd and Andrew C. McLaughlin, were greatly excited by the potential of the historical materials Durrett had assembled, and they played a critical role in the eventual purchase of the collection by the University of Chicago in 1913, just a few months before Durrett's death. With The First American West project, the historical sources collected by Durrett and those acquired by the historical society he launched will continue to stimulate and sustain investigation of a time and place crucial to an appreciation of early American history.

The collection documents the travels of the first Europeans to enter the trans-Appalachian west, the maps tracing their explorations, relations with Native American peoples, and theories about prehistoric mounds and other ancient earthworks. Naturalists and scientists describe western bird life and bones of prehistoric animals. Books and letters document acquisition of land, migration to the west, navigation down the Ohio River, planting of crops, and trade in tobacco, horses, and whiskey. Leaders from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to Isaac Shelby, William Henry Harrison, Aaron Burr, and James Wilkinson comment on politics and western conspiracies. Documents also reveal the life of trans-Appalachian African Americans, nearly all of them slaves, the position of women in frontier society, and the role of churches, schools, and other western cultural institutions.

Materials digitized for the First American West were selected from the holdings of the University of Chicago Library and the Filson Historical Society, described more fully below. Items were chosen on the basis of their historical significance and the degree to which their content supported the central themes of the project.  Selection was also guided by an interest in representing a variety of physical formats and a balanced distribution across chronological periods.

The University of Chicago Library

The Durrett Collection acquired by the University of Chicago contained a wide variety of published and documentary materials on the settlement of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley. The printed portion of the Durrett Collection included 20,000 bound volumes; 250 files of pamphlets; 200 volumes of atlases and loose maps; and 249 newspaper titles. In addition, there were 50,000 pages of handwritten, typed, or photocopied transcripts; magazines; clippings; and photographs, all bearing on the history of the exploration and settlement of the trans-Appalachian west.

Rare and valuable books were separated from the rest of the Durrett material, cataloged, and added to the Library's Rare Book collection. Non-rare monographic and serial titles, which constituted the great majority of the Durrett purchase, were cataloged and added to the Library's general book collection. The manuscript material in the Durrett purchase, together with unbound broadsides and circulars, was established as a separate research collection, and in 1951 these Durrett materials were incorporated within the holdings of the Department of Special Collections. In 2002, the department was renamed the Special Collections Research Center.

The Durrett rare book collections in the Special Collections Research Center include works of literature, travel and description, early histories of Kentucky, biographies, legislative acts, and other legal documents. The Durrett manuscript collections comprise a wide array of letters, journals, military reports, business records, legal documents, speeches, sermons, and maps spanning the period from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. Among the individual collections are the personal papers of Mann Butler, Richard H. Collins, George Nicholas, and Joshua Lacy Wilson, all figures with important connections to the Ohio River Valley frontier and its early history. The Durrett manuscripts also include plantation records of Kentucky families such as the Lewises and the Lynes. Beyond these, the Durrett Miscellaneous Manuscripts contain individual manuscripts and groups of letters from a range of historical figures who played key roles in the development of the Western country, from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and James Wilkinson to Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, Isaac Shelby, Harry Innes, and Henry Clay, to name only some of the most notable.

For further information about the historical collections of the University of Chicago Library, please visit the Web site of the Special Collections Research Center.

The Filson Historical Society

In May 1884, ten prominent citizens of Louisville, Kentucky, gathered at the home of Reuben T. Durrett and founded the Filson Historical Society. Kentucky's oldest privately supported historical society was named to honor Kentucky's first historian, John Filson. An early pioneer of Kentucky, Filson was best known for his book, The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, and his map, the first to focus solely on Kentucky. The Filson grew through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries from its beginning in the library of Durrett's house to a professionally staffed and fully operating historical society.

The Filson has continued the mission of its founders by building and maintaining four permanent collections to serve and educate the public: a library (50,000 titles), a manuscript collection (1.5 million items), a photographs and prints collection (50,000 images), and a museum (10,000 items). Spanning more than three centuries, the Filson collections contain original manuscripts, portraits, landscapes, photographs and prints, genealogical materials, printed family histories, local business records, and other primary historical materials with nationally recognized strength in the history of Kentucky, the Ohio Valley, and the Upper South.

The Filson's library and special collections are particularly strong in materials documenting the exploration and settlement of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley during the period 1750-1820. The Filson Club Historical Society library collection consists of an excellent collection of early newspapers in original form, rare books and pamphlets, including travelogues and farmers almanacs, broadsides, periodicals, and early maps. The manuscript collection is the single richest resource in Kentucky for the study of the frontier period. It includes family papers and correspondence concerning exploration of the land, land speculation, migration to the frontier, Indian and Euro-American relations, the establishment of communities and cultural and political institutions.

For further information on the collections of the Filson Historical Society, please visit the Filson's Web site:

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