Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Berdan Family Papers, 1819-1857

Finding aid created by
Terese Austin, February 2008

Summary Information
Title: Berdan family papers
Creator: Berdan family
Inclusive dates: 1819-1857
Extent: 61 items
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 in the 1820s.
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:

Gift of the Clements Library Associates, 1975. M-1720.

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:

Berdan Family Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


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.


David Berdan, Sr. (1766-1821) and his wife Susanna Simmons Berdan raised a family of six children in New York City in the early part of the nineteenth century. Their children were Rachel (b. 1793), Peter (b. 1797), John (1798 -1840), Margaret (1800-1832), David (1803-1827), and James (1805-1884).

In 1819 David Berdan, Sr., served on the exploration committee of the New York Emigration Society. Berdan and two others were authorized to explore the frontiers of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to purchase land for society members and lay out a town. The expedition left New York City on October 12, 1818, and traveled 3,244 miles in the course of five months. However, at the end of his arduous journey Berdan and his companions are not compensated for their exertions. Nothing came of the venture; high land prices and the panic of 1819 combined to discourage the subscribers, and the society was disbanded in 1820. Berdan died the following year.

David Berdan, Jr., attended Union College in Schenectady, New York and graduated in 1821. Shortly thereafter, his father died, stipulating in his will that David receive only a minimal allowance, with a larger sum to be distributed upon his entrance into a profession. David's own inclination was to pursue the life of the intellect -- he was a voracious reader of literature -- but he was forced to dedicate himself to the study of the law, or endure a life of penury. He loathed the idea of a legal career. "I do not feel much repugnance at the study of the theory but I look forward with horror to the certainty of being obliged to rack my brains for legal quibbles and for arguments against the most undeniable positions." (David Berdan, Jr. to James Marshall, 30 May 1823).

After graduation David Jr. studied law in New York City in the offices of John Anthon. There he met and befriended a fellow apprentice, William Henry Seward. He also became acquainted with Pierre Irving, the nephew of Washington Irving, with whom he planned to travel Europe on foot. Pierre Irving and David Berdan spent many months studying in preparation for the trip. After David received his license to practice law, they finally sailed for Gibraltar in September 1825. David's failing health forced them to limit their travels, and he died of consumption on July 20, 1827, during the voyage home.

Pierre Irving continued his association with the Berdan family, marrying David's sister Margaret on September 19, 1829. Margaret died of consumption in New York City on October 4, 1832.

The four remaining Berdan children journeyed west to the frontier states of Ohio and Illinois. John became a successful merchant and was elected the first mayor of Toledo, Ohio, in 1839. James started a law practice in Jacksonville, Illinois, eventually becoming a judge. Peter Berdan and Rachel Berdan (later Mrs. Frederick Root) settled in Brunswick, Ohio.

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)

Subject Terms

    • Adelphic Society (Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.)
    • American wit and humor--19th century.
    • Bond County (Ill.)--Maps, manuscript.
    • Delaware Indians.
    • Europe--Description and travel.
    • Family--New York (N.Y.)
    • Illinois--Maps, Manuscript.
    • Illinois River (Ill.)--Maps, manuscript.
    • Indiana--Description and travel.
    • Indians of North America--Indiana--History.
    • Law--Study and teaching --New York (State)--New York--History.
    • Illinois--Description and travel.
    • Madison County (Ill.)--Maps, manuscript.
    • Migration, Internal.
    • New York (N.Y.)--Social life and customs.
    • New York Emigration Society.
    • Ohio--Description and travel.
    • Pittsburgh (Pa.)--Description and travel.
    • Saint Louis (Mo.)--Social life and customs.
    • Saint Louis (Mo.)--Description and travel.
    • Tuberculosis--New York (State)--New York.
    • Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.)
    • Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.)--Students.
    • Berdan, David, 1766-1821.
    • Berdan, David, 1803-1827.
    • Berdan, James, 1805-1884.
    Genre Terms:
    • Correspondence.
    • Diaries.
    • Manuscript maps.
    • Maps.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Box   1  
    Journal of David Berdan, Sr.,  October 15, 1819-March 26, 1820 [series] (254 pp.)
    Detailing the exploration of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois on behalf of the New York Emigration Society, With a colored, topographical map of surveyed part of Illinois along the east side of the Illinois River from its mouth to the Spoon River. Shows range and township lines in early versions of Madison and Bond counties. Forested river valleys shown by color.
    David Berdan Jr. correspondence [series]
    Box   1 Folder   1
     October 27, 1821-February 18, 1823
    Box   1 Folder   2
    April 13, 1824-July 25, 1824
    Box   1 Folder   3
     September 2, 1824-November 7, 1824
    Box   1 Folder   4
     December 13, 1824-March 18, 1825
    Box   1 Folder   5
     May 13, 1825-June 19, 1825
    Box   1 Folder   6
     August 9, 1825-January 10, 1826
    Box   1 Folder   7
    James Berdan correspondence and manuscripts [series]
    Box   1 Folder   8
     March 18, 1826-November 22, 1827
    Box   1 Folder   9
     March 13, 1827-December 18, 1828
    Box   1 Folder   10
     January 14, 1830-August 7, 1847
    Box   1 Folder   11
     January 10, 1854-August 9, 1857
    Box   1 Folder   12
    Material by other authors [series]
    Box   1 Folder   13
    Resolution of the New York Emigration Society authorizing the journey of David Berdan, Sr., George Nixon, and Isaac Roe October 12, 1819.
    License to practice law to Pierre Munro Irving from the State of New York October, 29  1824
    Letter from A. H. Everett to Daivd Berdan Jr.   July 5, 1826
    Letter from Pierre Irving to Peter Berdan with the details of David Berdan Jr.’s death   August 29, 1827
    Box   1 Folder   14
    Seward, William H. "Memoir of David Berdan read before the Adelphic Society of Union College"   July 21, 1828 ( 41 pp.)
    Box   1 Folder   15
    Letter from Jack Storer, to Rachel Berdan Root describing the death of her sister Margaret Irving   October 9, 1832
    Deed in the name of James Taylor, for land in Morgan County, Illinois   May 20, 1833
    Box   1 Folder   16
    An illustrated pamphlet detailing the history of the “House of Berdan” a banking business run by the Berdan family in Toledo, Ohio
    Miscellaneous material
    Additional Descriptive Data

    Personal Name Index

    • Berdan, David, 1766-1821
    • Berdan, David, Jr., 1803-1827
    • Berdan, James, 1805-1884
    • Berdan, Jane Simms
    • Berdan, John, 1798 -1840
    • Berdan, Peter
    • Harrison, William Henry, 1773-1841
    • Irving, Margaret, 1900?-
    • Irving, Pierre Munroe, 1803-1876.
    • "Captain Anderson"

      (The Delaware chief mentioned in David Berdan, Sr.’s journal other names as listed in treaties of the day are Kicktohenina, Kithtuwheland, Kithteeleland)

    • Marshall, James
    • Nixon, George
    • Roe, Isaac
    • Root, Rachel Berdan
    • Seward, William Henry, 1801-1872
    Related Materials

    The manuscript map located in David Berdan, Sr.'s journal has been cataloged separately: Berdan, David. [Map of West-central Illinois]. 1820.

    William Henry Seward Papers. Correspondence, David Berdan to Seward, May 4, 1822, to July 21, 1828. University of Rochester, Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, Rochester, NY.

    Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving: A Collaboration in Life and Letters. By Wayne R. Kime. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1977. (University of Michigan, Buhr). Contains information on the preparations for the European trip by Pierre Irving and David Berdan, and more details of their travels in Europe than are included in David's letters. Also contains information on other Berdan family members and Pierre Irving's continued association with the family after David's death