Resources in Early American History

Guide Summary
Digital Guide Design
A Note on Topic Definitions
Observations on the Collections as a Whole

Guide Summary

The Early American History Guide, made possible by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, consists of 791 manuscript collections held at the American Philosophical Society (APS). Of these, 219 are microfilm collections, some of which are of particular interest to early American scholars, such as the Thistlewood Diaries. The remaining 572 entries consist of original manuscript collections housed at the APS. Each manuscript collection in the guide has a description written for it. A typical description has a general overview of the collection (which ranges from a few sentences to a couple of pages depending on the collection’s size and scope), the type of material found in the collection (correspondence, business records, diaries, etc.), and its general subject strengths (Business History, Science and Technology, etc.).

The size and scope of the early American guide means that collection surveys could not be exhaustive. Descriptions are based on surveys of collections, not item level assessments. The written descriptions aim to highlight the strengths of a collection. It is inevitable, however, that some important documents and insights have been missed. The web-based nature of this guide means that the guide can evolve and grow more comprehensive over time. Researchers are therefore encouraged to help contribute to the guide’s development, to keep the guide alive and updated. If, for instance, a collection contains important African American content that the guide missed, researchers should let the librarians know of the content so they can update the data on the web.

Digital Guide Design

Formatting the Early American Guide posed an interesting dilemma. This guide is the first one at the APS that was designed specifically for the web. Earlier printed guides had a standard format in which entries were organized alphabetically and researchers either read through the guide searching for specific collections or consulted the index to find relevant collections. Such a design did not make sense for a web-based guide. Instead, we designed the interface to be web-friendly. The site aims to put an index first, organized by subject categories and by types of materials. We believe that this format provides an easy way for researchers to narrow down their search and quickly identify relevant collections at the APS.

The portal page consists of three sections. The first, “Topics,” offers researchers the opportunity to narrow their search by broad subject categories; the second, “Genre,” allows researchers the ability to narrow their search by the type of documents held in a collection; the third, “Subjects,” contains more granular subject categories. The “Topics” created for the guide reflect the various strengths of the APS Collection. Topic definitions are discussed at greater length below. The “Genre” refers to the type of primary sources contained within a collection, such as commonplace books, correspondence, business records, and the like. The “Subjects” are mostly Library of Congress categories that are more specific and often consist of only a few collections.

Through this design, users will thus have three different ways to access the collection and to identify materials that may be of interest to them. If one is looking for information on the American Revolution, they can select that subject; if one is looking for scientific data, they could select the subject “Science and Technology” or they could select the genre “Scientific Data.”

Researchers may also find it easier to search the Guide using traditional search and sort functions. Therefore, researchers may view the entire guide by Author or Title.

Finally, once researchers have selected a way to access the guide through a “Topic,” “Genre,” or “Subject,” they are brought to a new page where the relevant collections are displayed. Here, they can further narrow their search using the navigation bar that is displayed on the left hand side of the screen.

A Note on Topic Definitions

The “Topics” categories created for this guide aim to help researchers approach the APS archives. The categories are broad and inclusive. They are not meant to isolate specific collections, nor are they intended for scholars with highly specialized research agendas Instead, the intent with these subject headings is to create broad-based categories that will help researchers narrow their search within the 572 manuscript collections that are part of the Guide. The topic headings are not exclusive; many collections are listed under several different topics. Researchers searching for more granular ways of searching can do so by using Library of Congress Subjects, which are also part of this guide.

Some “Topic” definitions are self-explanatory. “Diplomatic History” contains collections that have documents relating to diplomacy (ranging from treaties with Native Americans in the colonial era to U.S. relations in India in the nineteenth century).

A few of these topics demand further explanation and discussion.

“Literature, Arts, and Culture” is a catchall category for collections that deal with intellectual and artistic creations. Poetry, sketches, essays, and works of fiction are included in this subject. Institutional records on museums and other cultural institutions in the creative arts are also included in this subject category.

Sometimes topics overlap or differences may be blurred. The differences between “Natural History” and “Science and Technology” are difficult to distinguish. Many collections listed in one are listed in the other. These topics were created to provide researchers with multiple ways to access relevant collections. If there is one differences, earlier collections (1800 and earlier) dealing with the natural world are more likely to be listed only in Natural History. Collections focused on 1840 and later are more likely to be listed only in Science and Technology, as are collections focusing on internal improvements and engineering. This categorization gives researchers multiple access points to find relevant collections. If one is researching science in early America, they should check both subjects.

“Trade” tends to deal with merchants and mercantile trade, while “Business and Skilled Trades” deals primarily with business accounts, manufacturing, and labor. Notably, many businessmen had interests in both trade and manufacturing. Therefore there is much overlap between these two subjects.

As discussed below, The APS has a notably strong and expansive collection of family papers. These collections often contain deeply personal and private discussion of family life, courtship, and society. These collections fall under the topic titled “Marriage and Family Life.”

“Social Life and Custom” was a catchall category aimed at social historians. These collections range from sources of quantitative data, such as lists of immigrants or enlistments in the Seven Years’ War, to more qualitative collections that provide insight into everyday life in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“Women’s History” is filled with collections that have a significant amount of correspondence from, to, and/or among women.

Observations on the Collection as a Whole

The APS already stands out as a premier site for research on early America. Historians of medicine, science, and Native American history regularly seek out the APS’s holdings for their research. While this perception of the APS’s traditional strength is true, the guide also highlights the depth and breadth of the Library’s holdings in other areas”. The APS’ early American holdings are particularly strong for the period from 1750 to 1840. Within this time frame, there are particular areas of strength, which, in no particular order, include

  • Philadelphia history and society, especially 19th century elite society.
    • Within this category, there is an enormous amount of family correspondence, personal correspondence, business and financial records, and various other documents from some of the most well-established Philadelphians. These collections often provide a window into individuals’ private lives as well as their public activities. The correspondence tends to be long and detailed, and their commentary can often discuss events of national importance. For instance, the John Kintzing Kane Collection has a wide array of private correspondence among members of this well-connected elite family. Kane was an active Democrat, and there are also records of his work trying to coordinate various elements of the party in Pennsylvania and beyond. As a lawyer, he also helped prominent institutions, including the African Methodist Church. The Hare-Willing Collection is enormous, and notable for how much of the correspondence was to other family members. But the events they discuss often provide insight into large issues affecting the globe. For instance, one of the members of the Willing family married a wealthy Englishman who was bankrupted during the Panic of 1837, and their struggles are relayed in a series of letters to other family members. The extent of family correspondence at the APS cannot be overstated.
  • Science in early America, especially in medicine, education, and institution-building.
    • The APS also houses an enormous array of scientific data. There is a notable collection of meteorological data ranging from the amateur metrological studies done by people such as James Madison to the highly specialized work of ship captains who also recorded such data. There are many types of data, including engineering sketches, mathematical notebooks, and works of art, as well as LeConte’s eight volumes of entomological drawings that constitute a major artistic as well as scientific and accomplishment.
    • Many of the APS Collections come from individuals who were involved with the University of Pennsylvania as professors and/or students. Their papers provide insight into the growth of the University of Pennsylvania, and the material includes lectures, student notebooks, and various institutional records in Philadelphia. Many of these same people were active in cultural institutions and charitable institutions. Although these institutions were often based in Philadelphia, that is not always the case. Alexander Dallas Bache, for instance, is credited with professionalizing scientific study in the United States through his appointment as the head of the U.S. Geological Survey.
    • Collectively, the APS contains an archive of early scientific education. There are notebooks, lectures, and other educational materials at the APS, many of which come from unknown sources. These materials capture educational practices and the general state of knowledge in the early republic.
  • Military records for Seven Years and American Revolution.
    • The APS has an extensive number of documents dealing with the history of the Seven Years’ War in Pennsylvania. The heart of this collection is in the Shippen-Burd papers, but the Horsfield Collection and various official colonial records, such as treaty minutes and official minutes of the governor’s office, add to the strength of this area.
    • While the APS’s holdings on the Seven Years’ War are notably Pennsylvania-centric, its holdings on the American Revolution are far broader and richer. The APS has a wide assortment of documents from the revolutionary era. Among those are official government documents and correspondence, military records that range from the Continental Army to Pennsylvania county records, and personal correspondence from various historical actors. Notable collections of correspondence include the Thomas Paine Papers (Gimbel Collection), the Nathanael Greene Papers, the Peale Papers, the Richard Henry Lee Papers, and the William Temple Franklin Papers.
    • Of particular note is the record of the American missions to Europe during the American Revolution. The William Temple Franklin Papers, the Arthur Lee Collection, the Benjamin Franklin Papers, and the Benjamin Franklin Bache collections provide a nearly complete window into America’s diplomatic maneuverings in Europe during the American Revolution. The William Temple Franklin Papers are particularly rich because he was Benjamin Franklin’s personal secretary and therefore received reports from many people throughout Europe that chronicle the activity of Americans abroad during this period.
  • Americans Traveling
    • The APS houses a wide-ranging collection of diaries, journals, and correspondence of Americans traveling abroad from the colonial period to the nineteenth century. Some of these are quite remarkable for their content and for their relative underutilization. James Bancker, for instance, spent years in Asia in the 1840s and witnessed the British takeover of Hong Kong. He wrote long, detailed letters about his experience that would be of interest to researchers interested in American relations abroad. Miers Fisher’s experience as a merchant trying to open trade to Russia is very well documented in the Fisher Family Collection. The APS already has a guide to scientists traveling to Europe in the nineteenth century, but that is just one aspect of a far richer collection of travel journals, diaries, and correspondence.
    • International travel is not the only focus – or even the primary one – in the APS’s holdings. Many of the APS’s collections came from elites who made numerous journeys within the United States for business and pleasure. Most of these journals contain rich and detailed descriptions of life in the nineteenth century. Some contain sketches of buildings, towns, and landscapes.
  • Native American History
    • The APS has a wide array of collections that deal with Native American history from the colonial period through the antebellum period. The language materials have been well catalogued and described elsewhere. In addition to these, the APS houses numerous other types of documents that provide information on the experience of Native Americans from the colonial era to the antebellum period with a particular emphasis on their relations with European and American institutions. Of particular note is the original manuscript of David Brainerd’s journal, colonial era documents from Pennsylvania’s colonial government and its officials, including treaty minutes and correspondence, the papers and essays of John Heckewelder from the 1800s, and the papers of Ely Parker, who was a prominent Seneca in the 1850s.
  • Exploration
    • As described in William Stanton’s American Scientific Exploration, 1803-1860: Manuscripts in Four Philadelphia Libraries, the APS houses a large number of collections chronicling expeditions in North America and beyond. The nature of these expeditions often dovetails with the APS’s other areas of strength in science and in Native American history. As the title of Stanton’s work suggests, most of these collections date to the nineteenth century, but there are some interesting colonial antecedents in the APS’s archive. The APS has a report authored by Robert Rogers in the 1760s from the Detroit area that described the territory and its potential value. The APS also has a report from George Gauld, a British Army officer stationed in West Florida in the 1770s, that describes the geography of the newly acquired territory. This document was submitted to the APS for publication. It was rejected, but as the note states it became “one of the first manuscripts entered into the Society's collections.”
  • Philadelphia Arts and Culture
    • Taken together, the APS has a remarkable assortment of collections that relate to the arts and culture in nineteenth century Philadelphia. This area of specialty is known, but perhaps not as well-known as it could be. For instance, the collections of artists and works of medical arts, such as those of the Peales and the drawings of Benjamin Smith Barton, are publicized and frequently used. But the APS also contains a rich assortment of literary writing and sketches, often in collections not regularly consulted or not consulted for those purposes. Of particular note is the William Foulke Collection, which contains works of fiction and long essays on writing and the production of knowledge; the Eastwick Collection, which contains numerous works of poetry and belles letters as well as diaries; the Sherman Day Collection, which contains sketches of Pennsylvania from the nineteenth century; and the Sellers Collection, which contains intricate sketches of nineteenth century life. As often as possible, collections that contain sketches and unpublished essays with literary or intellectual value have been noted.
  • The history of printing in Philadelphia and beyond
    • In addition to the Franklin Papers, which have an obvious relation to this topic, the APS also has the records of the Aitkens, Benjamin Franklin Bache, David Hall, the Duane Family, and photocopies of records from printers beyond Philadelphia, such as Royale in Virginia. The members of the Sellers family were involved in the printing industry in the early republic as well. The APS also has letters from individuals that lend insight into the history of printing and publishing in early America – among them are letters written by Audubon, Strahan, Peale, Lea, and Barton.


I spent two years at the APS working on this project. During that time, I accumulated numerous debts. Having spent most of my professional career researching in archives, I came to the APS with little knowledge of what happens outside of the reading room. I learned a great deal about archive and archival techniques while here. All of the APS staff also made for great and supportive colleagues. In particular, I’d like to thank Richard Shrake, Valerie Lutz, Roy Goodman, Charlie Greifenstein, and Marty Levitt. Rich designed and built the site. Val helped me find my way around the archives and was always great fun to talk to. Roy provided good conversation about public history, careers, and life in Philadelphia. Charlie provided that too, and interesting discussions about future research projects, good books, and good writing. Marty served as a wonderful sounding board on issues personal and profession and was a great mentor. Most of all, I would like to thank The Pew Charitable Trusts for supporting this project.

Patrick Spero, Project Historian