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Date posted:  February 3, 2016

Thomas Gilcrease is known as having been a collector of Americana at a time when few others were interested in materials relating to the history of the Western Hemisphere. His library collection—which contains manuscripts, books, photographs, maps, imprints, and broadsides — expanded to more than 100,000 items.

Extensive travel to European museums and libraries during the 1920s and 1930s seems to have prompted Gilcrease’s aspiration to create his own collection. Pride in his Native American heritage and interest in the history of the American West provided a focus for collecting activities. But the items chosen for inclusion in the library also demonstrate Gilcrease’s belief that the history of America was not confined within the boundaries of the continental United States.

Gilcrease’s library collection grew rapidly. While building it, he was not assisted by full-time advisors but would seek out single works as well as purchasing large groups of books or documents from dealers and other collectors.

In his biography of Thomas Gilcrease, David R. Milsten recounts and encounter between Gilcrease and book dealer Charles P. Everitt. Following several months of purchases from catalogues, the two men met, and Gilcrease admonished Everitt to remember that he always wished to purchase not only a first edition but also a fine copy of any book considered. Everitt proceeded to lecture Gilcrease that later and expanded editions could be much more important than simply a first edition. He recalled that Gilcrease smiled and responded, “I guess I shouldn’t have said first edition. I should have said best edition.”

Several large collections greatly increased the size of the Gilcrease library. In January 1944 Gilcrease agreed to purchase the entire collection of Philip G. Cole (1884-1941), to be delivered after the final payment three years later. In addition to the art, the collection included hundreds of books, portfolios, photographs, and illustrated letters from numerous artists. The focus of the Cole collection was western and Native American life. During the late 1940s, Gilcrease also acquired other important documents. Some of these come from the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), one of the greatest book collectors of all times. The dispersal of Phillipps’s library after his death occurred in a series of sales that continued for the better part of a century. It was through a dealer and from the Phillipps estate that Gilcrease purchased paintings, volumes, and extensive correspondence between the artist George Catlin and his sometime patron, Sir Thomas Phillipps. In 1948 Gilcrease obtained the majority of the Thomas Moran studio collection from the estate of Moran’s daughter. Again, in addition to artworks, there were numerous journals, letters, and photographs.

In the early 1950s Gilcrease acquired some of the most notable documents in the library collection through the rare book and manuscript dealer Philip Rosenbach in Philadelphia. These included certified copies of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, authorized by the Continental Congress and bearing the signatures of Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. The handwritten works were accompanied by a letter from the two American ambassadors to the Prussian minister Baron de Schulenburg and latter’s response. Gilcrease also purchased the volume including the first transcriptions of Christopher Columbus’s own accounts of his voyages, written by Spanish curate Andres Bernaldes, as well as letters written by Diego Columbus and Hernando de Soto. Gilcrease’s interest in Hispanic material continued into the early 1950s as he acquired the collection of George Robert Graham Conway (1837-1951). Conway, an Englishman living in Mexico, had for almost thirty years collected 16th-through-18th-century manuscripts relating to Spanish activities in the Western Hemisphere. These thousands of pages of documents were added to the library directly from the Conway estate.

Throughout his career as a collector, Gilcrease maintained an interest in the native peoples of the Americas. In 1946 he purchased a collection that included thousands of rare published items, many of which related to tribes that had been relocated to Indian Territory. The collection had originally been assembled by Lester Hargrett (1902-1962). Hargrett was subsequently hired as director of the Gilcrease Foundation, a position he held until 1949. This collection, containing pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and government documents, is a tribute to Hargrett’s skill as a collector and bibliographer. Because of Gilcrease’s interest, however, the collection remains intact.

Other important acquisitions include extensive collections of the manuscripts of elected Cherokee chief John Ross and Choctaw leader Peter Pitchlynn. Gilcrease also assembled the papers of Creek journalist and poet Alexander Posey. The lives of the two men first crossed in a log cabin in the mid 1890s — Gilcrease in his first year of school and Posey in his first year as a teacher.

Expansion of the library special collections have continued, although at a slower pace, since the museum came under the guidance of the City of Tulsa in 1955. This growth has primarily been through donations. The 1964 acquisition of the studio collection of William R. Leigh, a gift from the artist’s family, included numerous letters, scrapbooks, and photographs. In 1985 another artist’s studio collection was bequeathed to the museum, that of Solomon McCombs. It represents the research and artwork of this Oklahoma artist of Muscogee-Creek heritage.

In the early years, the library may have lacked a standard organization, but it never lacked the interest of its founder. Many people who worked in the library as staff or as scholars discovered Gilcrease’s amazing knowledge and appreciation of the material. He not only collected the books and documents but also studied them. The Gilcrease Museum Library does not comprise the largest body of materials relating to the history of the people, places, and events of the Americas. However, the special collections of unique or rare items that Gilcrease accumulated have preserved an important aspect of American history that might otherwise be lost.