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Collection John G. Nicolay Papers

About this Collection

The papers of presidential secretary and biographer John G. Nicolay (1832-1901) consist of 5,500 items (14,555 images) scanned from original materials. Spanning the years 1811 to 1943, with the bulk concentrated in the period 1860-1901, the collection particularly reflects Nicolay’s tenure as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and documents his numerous literary activities. A limited amount of material relates to the literary activities of his daughter, Helen Nicolay (1866-1954). The collection is composed mainly of correspondence and research material, supplemented by notebooks, scrapbooks, and miscellaneous material.

The Notebooks and Bound Correspondence series is relatively brief, but the General Correspondence series contains a wealth of material pertaining to Nicolay’s public and private activities. The correspondence is especially valuable for the years 1860-1865, when he served as Lincoln’s private secretary. Numerous letters from Nicolay to his future wife, Therena Bates, offer an intimate glimpse into the character and activities of the war president and the individuals who shaped national policy, as well as Nicolay’s evaluation of the important political and military decisions made during these crucial years. Scattered memoranda written by Nicolay both before and during Lincoln’s administration supplement this correspondence. Nicolay’s postwar correspondence documents his career as a public officeholder and writer, particularly his collaboration with John Hay as coauthor of Abraham Lincoln: A History External, their ten-volume biography of Lincoln.

Prominent correspondents include John Bigelow, Simon Cameron, Schuyler Colfax, William Dennison, John A. Dix, Richard Watson Gilder, James Harlan, O. M. Hatch, John Hay, Robert Todd Lincoln, Alexander K. McClure, Charles H. Philbrick, and A. C. Woolfolk. Also represented in the collection are Anson Burlingame, Roscoe Conkling, James Dixon, George Gilman Fogg, Horace Greeley, James Tracy Hale, Joseph Medill, Edwin D. Morgan, Whitelaw Reid, Carl Schurz, Charles Sumner, Leonard Swett, Theodore Tilton, and Horace White.

The collection contains little correspondence from Therena Bates Nicolay (1836-1885), who apparently requested that her letters be destroyed. Nicolay signed his name as “George” in letters written to Therena, who is referred to as “Maggie” in some postwar correspondence.

Letters written by Abraham Lincoln that were formerly in the John G. Nicolay Papers have been removed and placed in series 2 of the Abraham Lincoln Papers.

Nicolay’s literary career, particularly his years of work on the Lincoln biography, is the subject of the Research File series. The notes, memoranda, and other material collected by Nicolay and his daughter have been organized into material relating to Abraham Lincoln and material unrelated to Lincoln. The first half of the series, particularly the copies and extracts from the diaries of prominent Civil War political and military figures, includes much pertinent material relating to Lincoln and his administration. Nicolay’s other literary endeavors are documented by notes, memoranda, and other material in the second half of the Research File series.

A finding aid (PDF and HTML) to the John G. Nicolay Papers is available online with links to the digital content on this site.

This collection is arranged in seven series:

  • Series 1: Notebooks and Bound Correspondence, 1856-circa 1910 (Container 1)
    Consists of correspondence, notes, clippings, and memorabilia bound in one scrapbook, one volume of official correspondence, and three small notebooks.
  • Series 2: General Correspondence, 1811-1943 (Containers 2-6)
    Contains letters sent and received by John G. Nicolay and his daughter Helen, supplemented by numerous memoranda and occasional copies of letters written by Abraham Lincoln. The material is arranged chronologically.
  • Series 3: Helen Nicolay General Correspondence, 1901-1914 (Container 6)
    Includes letters received and copies of letters sent by Helen Nicolay, supplemented by occasional memoranda. The material is arranged chronologically.
  • Series 4: Transcripts, 1860-1865 (Container 7)
    Consists of typed copies of letters in this collection from John G. Nicolay to Therena Bates and others, as well as copies of his memoranda. The material is arranged chronologically.
  • Series 5: Research File, circa 1860-1942 (Containers 8-16)
    Contains notes, memoranda, occasional correspondence, drafts of chapters and articles, newspaper and article clippings, printed matter, extracts from diaries, and memorabilia collected by John G. Nicolay and Helen Nicolay. The series is organized in three parts: a Lincoln file of material gathered by the Nicolays for their published works relating to Abraham Lincoln; transcripts of diaries and notes of Lincoln’s associates; and a miscellaneous file containing material collected by John G. Nicolay for literary projects unrelated to Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln file and transcripts are arranged largely as received by the Library of Congress according to the title or file name provided. The miscellaneous file is arranged alphabetically by title or topic.
  • Series 6: Miscellany, 1852-1942 (Containers 17-19)
    Includes scrapbooks, sketchbooks, a book of poems, autograph collection, pencil sketches, cards and invitations, patent material, article clippings, and material collected by Helen Nicolay for her biography of John G. Nicolay. The material is arranged alphabetically by type of material.
  • Series 7: Oversize, 1861-1871 (OV-1 and OV-2)
    Consists of a broadside from the Charleston Mercury announcing dissolution of the Union and a magazine article by John Hay. The items are arranged and described according to the series, container, and folder from which they were removed.
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