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RG5326.AM:  William Henry Tappan, 1821-1907

Diary:  1848

Nebraska Territory:  Explorer, artist, engraver

Size:  3 items


William Tappan was born on October 30, 1821, in Manchester, Massachusetts, the home of four generations of the Tappan family whose ancestors had arrived in nearby Newbury from Pately Bridge, Yorkshire, England, in 1632. His great-grandfather, the Reverend Benjamin Tappan, was the pastor of the Manchester church for forty-five years and his grandfather, Colonel Ebenezer Tappan, served in the Revolutionary Army. His father, Ebenezer, Jr., was a storekeeper, ship builder, furniture manufacturer, builder of fire engines, member of the Massachusetts State Legislature, and the colonel of a regiment of militia.

William became an artist and an engraver of portraits in mezzotint and worked with the engraver Joseph Andrew in Boston in the early 1840s. While there, he and George G. Smith opened a business for engraving photographs in mezzotint. Somewhat later he found employment in Philadelphia as a draftsman for the federal government. Tappan was also employed by Jean Louis Agassiz to make drawings to illustrate the Harvard professor’s books and lectures.

In 1848 William Henry Tappan spent nearly six months with the Missouri Mounted Volunteers in present day Nebraska. A civilian, he was invited to accompany the soldiers because of his proven artistic ability. Tappan’s instructions during the tour were to make drawings and collections that would illustrate the botanical, zoological, and geographical features of the country. In 1849 Tappan again became a guest of the regiment at the invitation of Secretary of War George W. Crawford. This expedition continued the work of establishing military posts along the overland immigrant routes and among the Indian tribes in Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

Tappan stayed in Oregon where he was appointed postmaster in Oregon City and was also employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1851 he helped to lay out the town of St. Helens and remained in that area where he served as a merchant and legislator. He designed the seal of Washington Territory.

In April of 1857 Tappan married Margaret Anderson and in 1864 they moved to Colorado to partner with his brother, Lewis, in mercantile businesses in Denver, Golden, and Central City. After a disastrous fire in Central City, Tappan returned to Manchester where he was engaged in surveying and dealing in real estate. He was elected to the state senate for a term in 1885-1886 and was also one of the founders of the Manchester Historical Society. Tappan’s wife Margaret died in April of 1867, and in 1881 he married Augusta Wheaton, a Manchester native. William Tappan died in 1907 at the age of eighty-six. He was survived by his wife and a sister.

[Excerpt from Nebraska History, Fall 2001, Vol. 82, No. 3, Introduction, by Richard E. Jensen]


This collection consists of the original diary of William Henry Tappan, a photocopy of the diary, and transcripts of the diary published in the Nebraska History magazine. The original diary is restricted for preservation; researchers must use the photocopy and transcripts.

Tappan’s diary begins in April of 1848 when he joined the Volunteers at Fort Kearny on the Missouri River. The unit was about to set out for a site on the Platte River to begin construction of Fort Childs, later renamed Fort Kearny. Tappan described a variety of events but tended to avoid the mundane. When he wrote about the weather, it was when conditions were extreme including one entry that suggests he was dangerously near a tornado. Plains animals, which were largely exotic species to this New Englander, received more attention. Tappan also wrote about the people he met, but not always in complimentary terms. His early comments about the native peoples reveal an unabashed racism but epithets later disappear suggesting a change of heart. Midway through the journal Tappan described an argument between an army colonel and a Pawnee chief, which the Pawnee clearly won. Although he made no further comment, Tappan must have smiled inwardly when the chief presented the soldier with a Bible and suggested he read it because it “would make him a better man.” In early October, Tappan left Fort Childs to return to Boston. The diary ends while he was on an Ohio River steamboat east of Evansville, Indiana.

[Excerpt from Nebraska History, Fall 2001, Vol. 82, No. 3, Introduction, by Richard E. Jensen]



  1. Original diary [Restricted]

  2. Photocopy of the diary

  3. Nebraska History, Fall 2001, Vol. 82, No. 3. See pp. 90-121




Discovery and exploration

Expeditions and surveys

Fort Childs (Neb.)

Fort Kearny (Neb.)

Forts and fortifications — Nebraska

Frontier and pioneer life — Nebraska

Great Plains

Historic sites — Nebraska

Indians of North America

Indians of North America — Great Plains

Indians, Treatment of — North America

Missouri Mounted Volunteers (Mo.)

Nebraska Territory

Tappan, William Henry, 1821-1907

West (U.S.)


KFK   03-24-2003

Revised TMM   11-03-2009