The Mystery of the William A. Wolfe Atlas Collection
Forty years ago on August 1, 1977, I started my career in the library of the Nebraska State Historical Society. The Library was located on the second floor of the building at 1500 R Street, with the Reading Room (current Capitol View Room today) being the main focal point for research. At that time the public was still allowed to conduct research in one library stack level. The first thing I learned was that part of my job included responding to genealogical research inquiries. The Alex Haley movie Roots in 1976 had introduced a new generation to researching their family history. Unlike today with the use of so many online resources, those doing research beyond Nebraska were still using various sources that were not always readily available. For example, computers were just starting to be used to index the various old U.S. federal census records before 1860. A company produced various printed indexes for the U.S. census records from 1790 to 1850. The Historical Society purchased most of the eastern United States census indexes to help Nebraska researchers extend their research to other states. Researchers found these indexes to be very popular, along with an 1888 Standard Reference Atlas of the World. This atlas was so heavily used that by the time we closed the stack level to researchers, I basically had to put it away in a box because of the damage it had suffered.
Image of Wm. A. Wolfe from the Omaha World Herald, Sept. 5, 1920.
Fast forward to June 2017. Linda Naticchioni contacts the Nebraska State Historical Society about a collection of maps that her great-grandfather Wm. A. Wolfe, a banker from Beatrice, was reported to have accumulated in his life time. The major source of reference was an Omaha World-Herald article dated September 5, 1920 in which a reporter had written an article about the valuable set of original maps and atlases that he had in his private collection. The collection was already deemed valuable at that time and included atlases that were reported to be extremely rare. He allowed the public to use his collection, including William Jennings Bryan, and he expressed his intentions to turn over the collection to the Nebraska Historical Society. Mr. Wolfe, however, passed away from influenza in May of 1921.
Wolfe left a wife and daughter who continued to live in the home where his reported collection was in a large room along with his “curio” room of “Indian basketry that included work from all tribes of Alaskan and Spanish territory origin…” His wife, Grace Harriet Coit Wolfe, passed away in 1937 and although his daughter (Abbie Elizabeth Wolfe Eyth d. 1981) and husband (Arvid Worsham Eyth d. 1988) continued to live in the home, their daughter Gracia has no recollection of what happened to the entire collection. When she was growing up, there was nothing in the house of any of the items listed in the OWH article. Between this article and others, it was implied that Mr. Wolfe’s collection consisted of 40-60 atlases, as well as other individual maps.
Linda’s material also included a Beatrice newspaper article referring to the Historical Society librarian Mrs. Knotts visiting Mr. Wolfe in 1915, and according to the article, Mr. Wolfe gave to the Society various maps from his collection. For whatever reason, information about the items he may have given to the Society was not well documented. Mrs. Knotts did report at the 38th Annual meeting of the Historical Society in January 1916 that Mr. Wolfe had given to the library in 1915 an atlas from 1820 and another from 1858. Linda could not find any references in the estate filings of her great-grandparents or her grandparents regarding the Wolfe map/atlas collection. Unfortunately there was no further documentation in the Historical Society records during this period from the 1920s into the 1940s that I could locate at this time.
In 1989 my former supervisor found a typed, undated listing titled, “List books presented by W.A. Wolfe, deceased, to the Nebraska State Historical Society.” On the list was included incomplete notations regarding atlases that ranged in dates from 1769 to 1888. With this list, I could finally start to reconstruct the atlas collection of Wm A. Wolfe. In working with the old library shelf list cards it appeared as though the atlases were given during the 1950s. However, the more I worked with them, it became apparent to me that perhaps the atlases were actually given in the 1920s and were not cataloged by the Historical Society until the 1950s. Although the bibliographical information provided on the list was incomplete, I was able to locate and document at least 18 of the atlases that still remained in the Nebraska History Library.
Some of the atlases had been inscribed by Mr. Wolfe. For example, he had autographed the one that he presented to the Historical Society on July 20, 1915: A Complete Genealogical, Historical, Chronological, and Geographical Atlas by C. V. Lavoisne published by M. Carey on September 1, 1820. Most of the atlases also include Mr. Wolfe’s personal bookplate.
One of the atlases dated 1838 included a newspaper clipping referencing the 1820 atlas mentioned above, as well as another atlas that was deemed valuable by Mr. Wolfe, that being the Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas of the World published by Alvin Jewett Johnson in approximately 1860 (no title page). Mr. Wolfe specifically noted the 1858 Johnson & Browning map that was included in the atlas.
Wm. A. Wolfe bookplate
1858 Johnson & Browning map
Linda, her sister Julie O’Connell and their mother, Gracia Henkle, visited the Historical Society library/archives reference room on Friday, July 21. They enjoyed reviewing the atlases and seeing the notations that in many cases were written by Mr. Wolfe. Finally, the 1888 atlas that I first used over 40 years ago….inscribed in the front cover “From Library of Wm A. Wolfe, Beatrice, Neb.” The atlas I treasured all of these years and that helped so many genealogists came from Mr. Wolfe.
Cindy S. Drake
Nebraska History Library
Linda Naticchioni, Julie O'Connell, and Gracia Henkle
Linda Naticchioni and Cindy Drake