Reuben T. Durrett Collection on Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley

Acquisition of the Durrett Collection

In 1910, William E. Dodd and Andrew C. McLaughlin, two members of the faculty of the University of Chicago Department of History, visited Louisville, Kentucky, to examine the private library of Reuben T. Durrett (1824-1913). Durrett was an attorney, editor, writer, civic leader, and honorary Kentucky colonel; he was also an amateur historian and passionate collector of historical materials on the state of Kentucky.

In 1884, Durrett and nine colleagues founded the Filson Club, an organization dedicated to collecting primary source materials on Kentucky, encouraging historical study, and publishing literature on historical topics. The club was named after John Filson, who published in 1784 The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, a promotional tract that was later recognized as the first history of the state.

Although Durrett had hoped that a local college or the city or state government would provide permanent housing for his library, he was not able to secure their support. In increasingly poor health, Durrett was persuaded in 1910 to find a buyer who would agree to keep the collection together and make it available for scholarly research.

Following lengthy negotiations, a contract for purchase of the collection by the University of Chicago was signed in 1913, several months before Durrett's death. When the Durrett collection was shipped from Durrett's home in Louisville to Chicago in May 1913, it filled 287 large packing crates.

Content of the Durrett Collection

The Durrett Collection 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.

Durrett Rare Books and Periodicals

The Durrett rare book collections include works of literature, travel and description, early histories of Kentucky such as Mann Butler's, biographies, legislative acts, and other legal documents.

Examples include Henry McMurtrie's Sketches of Louisville and Its Environs (1819); a collection of humorous verses, The Kentucky Miscellany, by Thomas Johnson, Jr. (1821), one of two known copies of the fourth edition, the first known to survive; and The Confession of Jereboam O. Beauchamp ... (1826).

Among the newspapers are 135 titles published in Kentucky, beginning in 1788 with the Kentucky Gazette, the first newspaper established in the state. Other important titles include the Mirror, the Palladium, the Guardian of Freedom, the Farmer's Library or Ohio Intelligencer, and numerous campaign newspapers such as The Patriot and The Spirit of '76 from 1826.

Durrett Manuscript Collections

The Durrett manuscript collections include 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 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.

The Durrett manuscript collection in the Special Collections Research Center is organized into the following series:

  • Broadsides, Broadsheets, and Circulars
  • Mann Butler Papers
  • Richard H. Collins Papers
  • Reuben T. Durrett Personal Papers
  • Joel Tanner Hart Papers
  • Lewis Family Papers
  • Edmund Lyne Estate Papers
  • George Nicholas Papers
  • Joshua Lacy Wilson Papers
  • Pictures, Maps, and Sketches
  • Durrett Miscellaneous Manuscripts
  • Durrett Codices

For further information on rare books or manuscripts in the Reuben T. Durrett Collection, please contact:

Special Collections Research Center
University of Chicago Library
1100 E. 57th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60637