Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Jacob Butler Varnum Papers, 1811-1888; bulk 1811-1833

Finding aid created by
Philip Heslip, March 2011

Summary Information
Title: Jacob Butler Varnum papers
Creator: Varnum, Jacob Butler, 1788-1874
Inclusive dates: 1811-1888
Bulk dates: 1811-1833
Extent: 79 items
The Jacob Butler Varnum papers contain letters and documents related to Varnum's career as a factor at United States Indian trading posts in Sandusky, Ohio, and Fort Dearborn, Chicago; as a captain in the 40th Massachusetts Infantry during the War of 1812; and as a Washington D.C. merchant after he left government service. Included are letters and instructions from government officials concerning trade with Indians, as well as letters from Varnum to his father, Senator Joseph B. Varnum, concerning his activities as factor.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1960-2012. M-1143, M-1367, M-1417, M-4945.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown

Processing Information:

Cataloging funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the "We the People" project.

Preferred Citation:

Jacob Butler Varnum Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


This collection is organized into four series:

  • Series I: Correspondence
  • Series II: Diary
  • Series III: Documents and Financial Records
  • Series IV: Miscellaneous

Each series is ordered chronologically.

Biographical/Historical Note

Jacob Butler Varnum (1788-1874) was born in Dracut, Massachusetts, to Mary Butler and Joseph Bradley Varnum (c.1751-1821), senator from Massachusetts. Between 1811 and 1812, Varnum served as a factor (trade agent) at the United States Indian trading post at Sandusky, Ohio. After the outbreak of the War of 1812, Varnum returned east, and was appointed captain of the 40th Massachusetts regiment (1813-1814). Captain Bradley appointed Varnum as Matthew Irwin's replacement as factor for the Chicago Trading House in the North Western Territory, an office he held from 1816 to 1822. While in Chicago, Varnum witnessed the 1821 Treaty of Chicago signed by Lewis Cass and Solomon Sibley representing the United States, and the Ottawa, Ojibwe, and Pottawattamie tribes. In 1816, Varnum married Mary Ann Aiken of Detroit. She died during childbirth in 1817, while living with her husband in Chicago. Next he married Detroit native Catherine Dodemead (b.1800) in 1819. Varnum left government service in 1822, and moved to Washington D.C. where he made a living as a merchant. By 1833, he and his wife had moved to Petersburg, Virginia. At the time of his death in 1874, only his son, George W. Varnum, survived him.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Jacob Butler Varnum papers (79 items) contain letters and documents related to Varnum's career as a factor at United States Indian trading posts in Sandusky, Michilimackinac, and Fort Dearborn, Chicago; as a captain in the 40th Massachusetts Infantry during the War of 1812; and as a Washington D.C. merchant after he left government service. The collection is comprised of 59 letters, 1 diary, 13 documents and financial records, and 5 miscellaneous items. Included are letters and instructions from various government officials concerning trade with Indians in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, as well as five letters from Varnum to his father Senator Joseph B. Varnum (ca.1751-1821) concerning his activities as factor.

The Correspondence series (60 items) comprises the bulk of the collection. Forty-nine items document Varnum's governmental career spanning 1811 to 1826, during his service as Indian trade factor in Sandusky, Michilimackinac, and Chicago; and as captain of the 40th Massachusetts Infantry during the War of 1812. Varnum received instructions from various Indian agents and government officials concerning the regulation of trade with the Munsee, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Ottawa, Sioux, and Wyandot Indians, among others. Many letters came from the United States Office of Indian Trade at Georgetown, including four from Indian Officer John Mason (1812 and 1815), and 21 letters from Superintendent of Indian Trade Thomas Loraine McKenney (1816-1822). These contain discussions of trade operations, types of merchandise, questions arising about the sale of goods, and instructions for the reporting of financial accounts. Also of note are five letters from Varnum to his father, Joseph Bradley Varnum (1750-1821), in which he described his experiences at Sandusky and at Michilimackinac, as well as with the business of the trading house at Chicago (December 3, 1811; January 14, 1812; May 21, 1816; November 3, 1817; March 1, 1818).

Other items of note include:

  • August 8, 1811: Joseph Bradley Varnum to John Mason, accepting the appointment of his son as agent of the United States Indian trading house at Sandusky, Ohio
  • March 1, 1818: Varnum to his father predicting the outbreak of a great war with the Indians "from the Simenoles to the Sioux"
  • February 8, 1820: Thomas L. McKenney letter to Jacob B. Varnum, giving instructions about the handling of money given to Varnum by Government Indian agents

Most of the 1823-1826 material concerns government reimbursements for military expenses at Fort Dearborn. The collection contains 11 letters documenting Varnum's post-governmental career as a merchant in Washington D.C. and Petersburg, Virginia (1826-1860).

These include:

  • February 1827-August 1832: Five items regarding Varnum and John Biddle concerning mutual business interests in Detroit
  • December 17, 1833: John H. Kinzie to Varnum concerning Chicago lands owned by Kinzie, a fur trader

The Diary series (1 item) contains a 26-page notebook with Varnum's description of his trip from Chicago to Dracut, Massachusetts, by way of Detroit and Buffalo (August 17-October 22, 1822), and from Detroit through New York and Philadelphia, to Washington D.C. (May 28-June 22, 1823). Varnum reported on his manner of travel (horse, ship, steamboat) and his travel route, describing stops at many of the major towns along the Erie Canal. He commented on the towns that he passed through including Rochester, New York, which had grown considerably since the opening of the Erie Canal (page 6). He also noted prices for room and board. The final five pages contain financial accounts for Varnum's military expenses incurred from 1813 to 1815.

The Documents and Financial Records series (13 items) contains material documenting Varnum's finances and his service in the War of 1812.

This includes:

  • June 8, 1813: Affidavits (and a fragment of the same item) documenting the capture of Joseph B. Varnum's trunks, taken by the British as they were being transported from Michilimackinac to Detroit
  • 1814: Six military district orders related to promotions, responsibilities, and discipline in the 40th Massachusetts Infantry, in which Varnum was a captain under Acting Adjutant General George P. Peters
  • August 22, 1815: Copy of a bond oath signed by Varnum as factor for Indian trade at Chicago, and a copy of his father, Jacob Butler Varnum's oath of office
  • 1816-1827: Four financial records of debts and receipts for goods purchased by Varnum
  • Undated [1808]: Deposition of Richard Smyth regarding the sale of a lot in Detroit owned by Varnum's father-in-law John Dodemead

The Miscellaneous series (5 items) contains 3 envelope covers, one of which includes a recipe for a "Lazy Daisy" cake (c.1930). Also present are a photograph of a man and two women outside of a tent next to a car (c.1930), and a typed 13-page biography of Joseph Bradley Varnum, undated and unattributed.

Subject Terms

    • Chicago (Ill.)
    • Dracut (Mass.)
    • Fort Dearborn (Ill.)
    • Indians of North America--Illinois.
    • Indians of North America--Michigan.
    • Indians of North America--Ohio.
    • Fort Michilimackinac (Mich.)
    • Michigan--Description and travel.
    • New York--Description and travel.
    • Munsee Indians--History.
    • Ojibwa Indians--History.
    • Ottawa Indians--History.
    • Sandusky (Ohio) .
    • Trading posts--North America.
    • United States--History--War of 1812.
    • Washington (D.C.)--Description and travel.
    • Wyandot Indians--History.
    • Adams, John R.
    • Biddle, John, 1792-1859.
    • Bradley, Hezekiah, d. 1826.
    • Brown, William.
    • Cutts, Richard, 1771-1857.
    • Dias, Joseph Lopes.
    • Dousman, Michael.
    • Egerton, Robert C.
    • Forster, Thomas.
    • Graham, George, ca. 1772-1830.
    • Irwin, Matthew.
    • Joy, James Frederick, 1810-1896.
    • Kinzie, John H., d. 1865.
    • McKenney, Thomas Loraine, 1785-1859.
    • Mason, John, 1766-1849.
    • Peters, George P.
    • Pleasonton, Stephen.
    • Smyth, Richard.
    • Trowbridge, Charles C., 1800-1883.
    • Varnum, Joseph Bradley, 1750-1821.
    • Varnum, Joseph Bradley, Jr., 1785-1867.
    • Wheeler, John.
    Genre Terms:
    • Diaries.
    • Financial records.
    • Letters (correspondence)
    • Photographs.
    • Recipies.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Correspondence [series]
    Box   47, Small Collections Folders   11-25
    Diary [series]
    Box   47, Small Collections Folder   26
    Documents and Financial Records [series]
    Box   47, Small Collections Folders   27-29
     1813-1827 and  undated
    Miscellaneous [series]
    Box   47, Small Collections Folders   30-31
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Related Materials

    The Clements Library's War of 1812 collection contains an article of capitulation for the surrender of Moose Island, Eastport, Maine, signed by Varnum

    The Detroit Public Library has a collection of Jacob Butler Varnum material and a collection of Varnum family papers, including an autobiography Varnum wrote for his son George W. Varnum

    The Chicago Historical Society has a Jacob B. Varnum diary documenting his time as a factor at Fort Dearborn, Chicago (1816-1822)


    Varnum, Jacob Butler. "Recollections." The Great Lakes Reader. Havighurst, Walter, ed. The Macmillan Company: New York, New York, 1966.