Berdan family papers  1819-1857
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Berdan family papers contain the journal of David Berdan, Sr. describing his travels through Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois in 1819-1820 on behalf of the New York Emigration Society, and the correspondence of David Berdan, Jr., while working as law clerk in New York City and on a trip to Europe. The collection also contains correspondence and humorous writings of James Berdan and other miscellaneous material. The collection is arranged into four series by author: David Berdan Sr.'s journal, the correspondence of David Berdan Jr, correspondence and manuscripts of James Berdan, and additional material from other authors.

The journal of David Berdan, Sr., is a detailed account of an Odyssean journey through New York, Pennsylvania, and the frontier towns and wilderness of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, mostly on horseback. The travelers endured winter blizzards, mud, ice, swollen rivers, and lame horses, all faithfully recorded in Berdan's journal. There were some dramatic moments on the journey, of near-starvation, near-freezing, and near-drowning, all related in Berdan's phlegmatic style.

Because of the nature of the mission, Berdan made diligent notes on topography, soil conditions, timber, and access to waterways of all potential settlement sites. He provides physical descriptions of the towns visited en route, including St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Erie. In Cincinnati, he stopped long enough to meet with General (later President) William Henry Harrison, who advised him on the route ahead and provided him with a passport, addressed to his Native American acquaintances, to provide safe passage for Berdan's party.

Berdan's journal records his experience when taken to meet Captain Anderson, chief of the Delaware Nations. Anderson had recently sold the Delaware lands to the United States government as part of a treaty agreement, and planed to leave, with his tribe, for the Arkansas Territory. Anderson says to Berdan that the whites "would sometimes bring whiskey among them of which they were very fond and when intoxicated would be very troublesome and revengeful. He had warned his countrymen when hunting to keep on their own grounds and not molest the whites." (p. 62) In St. Louis, Berdan observes a local custom in which a party of townsfolk -- made up of men and boys armed with cow and sheep bells, conch shells, horns, and pots and pans -- proceeds to the residence of a newlywed couple. Making noise until the groom appears, the crowd demands either a "grand ball" or money enough to treat the entire company. Despite having failed in his primary mission, Berdan's account remains as a depiction of the western wilderness of 1819-1820, its nascent settlements, and the harsh realities of early travel.

The correspondence of David Berdan, Jr., to his friend and fellow Union graduate James Marshall, provides a glimpse into the life of an educated, sensitive young man of limited means struggling to find his way in New York City in the 1820s. His letters describe his life of work and study in New York City, with keen observations of the progress (and foibles) of fellow Union graduates. He himself gradually matures from the fond reminiscence of his dissipated days at Union to a growing repudiation of the drinking and gambling lifestyle -- the results of which he observes at first hand.

Another subject in the correspondence is Berdan's experiences (or lack thereof) with women. He fondly remembers female acquaintances at Union, presses James Marshall for descriptions of women he encounters, and relates several instances of his own brief social contacts. David gradually accepts that his pecuniary existence and limited prospects will afford him no opportunity to associate with suitable women, much less to entertain the prospect of marriage in the near future.

"Let me be coldly indifferent or stupidly unconscious of the fascination of refinement in society and I shall spend a few more years in quiet study and in the indulgence of those delicious reveries attendant upon solitude. The pleasures I shall receive from such habits will be less substantial and less productive of excitement but they will be purer and better adapted to my situation. Adieu then to the airy hopes I have in my happier moments encouraged -- my way is plain before me. The road is strewn with thorns that will tear me in my eagerness to advance but philosophy shall cover me as with a garment and protect me from impediments that will be thrown in my path. Henceforward Literature shall be my mistress and in her embraces and in still stronger attachment to my friends I shall be prepared to endure the contention of the world and to commence and continue the arduous work of building up my fortune and my fame." (David Berdan, Jr. to James Marshall, 11, 18 February 1823).

David's letters also describe his time as a teacher at a boarding school. He finds little satisfaction in the work, but paints a colorful and entertaining picture of the working class family with whom he boards, predicaments brought about by the promiscuous behavior of the eldest daughter, and his struggles to resist his attraction to her younger sister.

David's letters reflect his enthusiasm for a trip to Europe suggested by his friend. The prospect of the journey helps him to forget his occasional bouts of "melancholy" and dissatisfaction with his current career, and inspires an almost spiritual longing. He views it "as a light sent down from heaven to illumine the darkness of the path which fate has spread before me...". (David Berdan, Jr. to James Marshall, 25 July 1824). He mentions his illness only in passing, hoping that it does not fasten upon him until after the completion of his journey. He begins his travels with a trip back to Union College, through New York and Ohio to Virginia, and then sails for Gibraltar. Only two letters from Europe are included in the collection. In them David describes the richness of its history and strangeness of the sights. "The Moors are bare legged, wear long grizzled beards and are wrapped in winding sheets so they contrive to look as grim and ghastly as ever Lazarus did." (David Berdan, Jr. to James Marshall, 10 November 1825) He doesn't neglect to report on the charms of the Spanish women at the theater: "But the dancing -- Lord preserve a poor fellow who has been out of sight of women for forty days. The female dancer seemed to exult in the complete exposure of a very handsome pair of legs." David died on the voyage home and was buried at sea. He was 24 years old.

Also included in the collection are 15 satirical pieces, unsigned, but possibly written by David's brother, James Berdan. These sketches, with titles such as "Manifesto of the Ugly Club" and "The Society for the Diffusion of Gumption," parody cultural events of the time -- social clubs, lecture series, and debating societies. Eight letters from James Berdan are also in the collection including three to his future wife Jane Simms.

Additional material consists of various letters and papers related to the Berdan family including the resolution of the New York Emigration Society authorizing David Berdan Sr.'s eplorator trip, a letter describing the death of Margaret Irving and a letter describing David Berdan Jr.'s death.

Also with the additional material is a handwritten manuscript of the eulogy for David Berdan, written by William H. Seward and presented to the Adelphic Society of Union College on July 21, 1828. It contains an account of David Berdan's personal history, excerpts from his letters, and much praise of his character and academic prowess, all in high oratorical style: "...he never spurned from him aught but dishonor, he despised nothing but what was low, he knew not in his own bosom the existence of envy, and affectation never dwelt in a heart so humble as his." (p. 10)

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