Saturday, September 18, 2010

Archives, Oil, the "Trail of Tears" and a View of New France


Last week, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa announced a joint project that would add 25,000 square feet to the Gilcrease Museum, a repository not well known to many genealogists east of the Mississippi.  The new addition will create space for what will be known as the Helmerich Research Center and the Gilcrease National Archive.  This $15 million project will be paid for largely through private funds, seeded with a $5 million matching gift from Walt Helmerich III, chairman of Helmerich & Payne, a large Tulsa based contract oil drilling company with more than 5,000 employees.

The Gilcrease Museum (subtitled “The Museum of the Americas”) was started as a private museum by Tulsa oilman Thomas Gilcrease (1890 – 1962)  and was deeded to the City of Tulsa in the mid-1950s. While mostly known for its art and anthropology collections, the Gilcrease also has a little known, but highly significant library and archives, housing more than 100,000 rare volumes of Americana and some amazing documents.

Much of the collection focuses on Native Americans – Thomas Gilcrease himself was an enrolled member of the Creek nation – and on the early exploration of the Mississippi Valley, once part of New France. For example, the Gilcrease archives has more than 40,000 manuscript pages of Spanish colonial records,  the papers of Cherokee Chief John Ross (1790 – 1866) – who was known as the Cherokee “Moses” and who drafted the Cherokee constitution after his tribe’s removal to Oklahoma.  The Gilcrease also holds the papers of Choctaw Chief Peter Pitchlynn (1806 -1881), who was elected Principal Chief of the Choctaws in 1864.

Perhaps the best known gem in the Gilcrease manuscript collection is a document known as the “Codex Canadiensis”, a 79 page heavily illustrated manuscript most likely created by Jesuit missionary Louis Nicholas, who was born in France in 1634 and arrived in New France in 1664. The Codex dates from about 1700 and is filled with drawings of the plants and animals of New France and also contains rare first-hand information (and drawings) of the “First Nations” peoples and artifacts that Father Nicholas encountered.

Several years ago, the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collaborated with the Gilcrease to create a virtual online exhibition featuring the Codex. A completely digitized version of the original manuscript is available here on LAC’s website.  You can examine it page by page and marvel at the images therein.

Of particular interest to researchers with ancestors in North America by 1700, the first two pages are manuscript maps. The first shows the Mississippi valley from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and the second shows eastern Canada and the area to the south as far as Virginia.  It is interesting to note that the coast of New England (“Nouvelle Angleterre”) , as seen through Father Nicholas’ eyes, has few recognizable features – no “Cape Cod hook”, for example- , while Lake Champlain is the size of an inland sea. The territory of the Five Nations of the Iroquois is shown west of New England.  To the east is shown the “Ocean de Canada”.

The lesson here is brief and simple: there are great manuscript collections in archives all over North America waiting to be explored, especially if we are willing to look beyond the usual imaginary geographic “boxes” that we all tend to lock ourselves in as a matter of custom and convenience.

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