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Column: He never wrote the book

Posted: June 21, 2018 2:47 p.m.
Updated: June 22, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Thank heavens Lyman C. Draper stayed away from Camden when he visited South Carolina in 1871! He got close, though, as close as Stateburg. I shudder to think what might have happened if he had come here. Let me tell you about this guy!

Lyman Copeland Draper was a self-appointed historian of the American frontier. The son of a farmer, he was born in Erie County, New York on September 4, 1815. He grew up hearing first person tales of the American Revolution from his paternal grandfather and stories of the War of 1812 from his mother, whose father died while defending Buffalo from the British in 1813.  Stories of the Revolution and the settling of the American frontier were the fireside stories Lyman grew up with. When General Lafayette visited America in 1825, Lyman Draper saw him from afar, and Lafayette became the topic of his first school composition. He received an average education but was never considered an intellectual. His lifelong ambition was to write the stories of the trans-Appalachian frontier.

To that end, Draper began his life’s work of interviewing and corresponding with early settlers and old soldiers and their descendants. By 1838, when he was 23 years old, he conceived the idea of writing a series of books which narrated the lives of those early Americans of the Revolutionary War and the westward movement. He began his collection of stories by traveling the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North and South Carolina.

He collected notes of his interviews with descendants of early settlers and Revolutionary War soldiers. When he could persuade the families to give them their original family papers he was even happier. Sometimes the families would only allow him to make transcriptions of their old papers, which in many cases survived the later destruction of the original documents.  He visited government repositories to transcribe official records about the early American experience. All in all, Draper estimated that he traveled 60,000 miles as he crisscrossed the states to collect information and documents.

Draper was supported by a relative through the first decades of his history gathering. By 1854, his relative had passed away and he sought employment with the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, a newly formed institution whose mission was to collect and document Wisconsin’s early history. All of his work seems admirable, until one understands that Lyman Draper told all of the hundreds of people whose history and original manuscripts he collected that these would be used to write books about their heroic deeds on the frontier. When it was all said and done, Draper’s manuscript collection filled 500 bound volumes. What began as a personal research collection became his obsession. In the end, he published only one book – “King’s Mountain and Its Heroes” - and it was a failure.

One of Draper’s biographers states, “Here -- in this failure to publish -- lies the crime of Lyman Draper. He collected materials on the promise to write the stories of the pioneers. He promised descendants to acclaim the memories of their heroic ancestors. He promised survivors that he would celebrate the days of their glory and see that history gave them due credit for their achievements. But he did not write the books.”

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