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Francis Harper papers

Call Number: MS 245


The Francis Harper collection consists of the scientific and personal papers of the naturalist Francis Harper (1886-1972). It includes correspondence, scientific field notes and photographs, historical research materials, manuscripts and published works, as well as personal and family records, etc. The papers reflect his wide-ranging interests, but the major research topics represented are the animals and people of the Okefinokee [i.e. Okefenokee] Swamp and of northern Canada, as well as the 18th-century naturalists John and William Bartram.


  • Creation: 1899 - 1973


Conditions Governing Access

This collection, other than oversize materials at MS R9, MS S3, and MS S14 and the photographic series at Series VII. are stored in the KU Annex off-site storage area.

All researchers interested in reviewing this material must consult Spencer Research Library staff (785-864-4334, 8-5 M-F CST) no less than three days in advance of a planned visit. Be advised that drop-in requests for this material can not be accommodated.

Conditions Governing Access

No access restrictions.

Biography of Francis Harper (1886-1972)

Francis Harper was born on November 17, 1886, in Southbridge, Massachusetts. His father, William Harper, who was Canadian and born in Ontario, studied in the United States and also in Germany, where he met Francis’ mother, Bertha Tauber. William Harper was a preacher and a teacher, eventually becoming a superintendent of schools in Massachusetts, Georgia, and New York.

Francis had two brothers and two sisters: Roland, a botanist for the Alabama State Geological Survey in Tuscaloosa, AL; Otto, an insurance salesman in Napa, CA; Hermina, poet and editor in Charlotte, NC; and Wilhelmina, a librarian at Redwood City, CA (throughout their correspondence, both Roland and Wilhelmina addressed Francis as “Booie”).

In 1923, Harper married Jean Sherwood of Cornwall, New York. Jean Sherwood had served as tutor to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s children, Anna and Elliot, and was active all of her life in women’s and environmental causes.

Francis and Jean had four children: Mary Sherwood, born in 1926, always called “Molly”; Robert Francis, born in 1928, always called “Robin”; Lucy Lee, born in 1933, nicknamed “Boobles”; and David Bartram, born in 1937, nicknamed “Diddy.”

Dr. Harper was a “naturalist” in the earlier sense of the word, taking all of nature as his province: plants, insects, fish, amphibians, birds, mammals, and people (and their languages and culture).

He attended Cornell University from 1903 to 1905, 1912 to 1914, and 1921 to 1924, earning an AB in 1914 and a PhD in 1925. From 1917 to 1919 he served in the United States Army in France with the 79th division and then in New York and Maryland.

After completing his doctor’s degree, except for a short stint at Swarthmore College, Harper did not aspire to be a college professor. Instead, he made his living from grants or from working for museums, government agencies, committees and commissions, and research agencies. Among these were the Boston Society of Natural History, the American Society of Mammalogists, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Science Foundation, the Arctic Institute, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.

He participated in numerous scientific expeditions to Canada and the Okefinokee Swamp, as well as throughout the southeastern U.S. in search of the route of the Bartrams. From these he produced a whole series of studies and publications. Among his colleagues, the best known of Harper’s publications were the studies of the caribou of Keewatin, the birds of the Ungava Peninsula, the Ungava Montagnais, and the extinct and vanishing mammals of the Old World. His major contribution, however, is the Yale University Press edition of William Bartram’s Travels (1958).

His publications do not adequately reflect the range of his interests. His letters are replete with references to subjects that were especially important to him. Chief among these is the Okefinokee Swamp: the environment, its people, and their culture. Harper owned land in the Okefinokee and was accepted by its inhabitants. He studied their language and arts, making recordings for the Library of Congress of their music and "hollerin’" as he called it. He was also a fierce defender of the integrity of the Swamp and was instrumental, with Jean Sherwood’s influence, in having the Okefinokee declared a National Wildlife Refuge.

He also pursued Bartram flora (Franklinia and Elliotta), Native American mounds, and tree frogs (Psuedacris), and involved himself in debates ranging from fire ant control to his opposition to racial integration. All in all, what the letters reveal are strongly held, often passionate and contrarian, opinions concerning important biological and social issues of his time.

Many of Harper’s correspondents were also his life-long friends. A glance at the finding aid reveals that some of those to whom letters were addressed in the first decade of the twentieth century were still writing to him when he died. Much of the exchange concerned scientific matters, but much of it also concerned social and political issues as well as domestic news. A study of the subjects contained in the letters reveals a lively interest in most current issues. In addition, the correspondence includes information about both the Harper and Sherwood extended families.

Harper died on November 17, 1972, on his 86th birthday. Although he remained active in his profession right up until the time of his death, he left several major projects unfinished. One was a book about the people and lore of the Okefinokee Swamp. Okefinokee Album, by Francis Harper and Delma E. Presley, was published posthumously by the University of Georgia Press in 1981.


128.75 Linear Feet (Approximately 128.75 linear feet: 237 boxes + 67 shoeboxes, 6 oversize boxes, 45 oversize folders)

Language of Materials


Scope and Contents

The correspondence series of the Francis Harper collection consists of thousands of items, mainly letters, but also correspondence-related material such as memos, drafts, forms, applications, questionnaires, junk mail, and the like. Dr. Harper was an enthusiastic correspondent, to the point that he answered almost every personal letter that he received and made a copy of almost every letter he had written. Furthermore, he saved and filed everything.

The earliest letters are from about 1910, the last from 1973. The most recent letters in the collection are by his widow, Jean Sherwood Harper, discussing the bequest of the collection the University of Kansas with E. Raymond Hall. Though Dr. Harper never visited Kansas, he left his papers to the University because of the influence of E. Raymond Hall, one-time director of the KU Museum of Natural History, both an advocate for and publisher of Harper's work.

In addition to the numerous letters, the collection contains field notes, journals, Okefenokee (spelled "Okefinokee" here in accordance with Harper's practice) notes, manuscripts of papers and printed works, published material, maps, and a photographic record of Dr. Harper's interests.

Where the most significant scholarly value of this collection lies is somewhat hard to determine. One thinks first of its scientific worth, but it also contains a picture of life in America in the first three quarters of the 20th century. It also reveals the history of a family man struggling to find support for his research and of a scientist who was absolutely convinced of the importance and value of nature.

There are other insights here into the workings of the agencies and institutions which support and promote American science-the Smithsonian Institution, the National Science Foundation, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society-not to mention numerous institutions, museums, commissions, and volunteer committees active in the study and preservation of nature. Taken together, Harper's papers and letters are not a conscious study of the practice of science during his active career, but they do contain valuable keys to such a study.

Physical Location

MS 245

Physical Location

MS Q33

Physical Location

MS Qa3

Physical Location

MS S3, MS S14

Physical Location


Physical Location

SC AV 40

Physical Location

Annex (Contact Spencer Library Public Services)

Other Finding Aids

Box contents lists by series are available at,, and

Processing Information

When completing processing on Series VII, the photographic materials, and an addition to the collection in 2021-2022, Spencer Library staff attempted to update terminology in the online finding aid and pdfs to reflect terms used by Indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States. This includes replacing "Eskimo" and "Indian" with "[Inuit]" and "[First Nations/Native American]" when terms were not used in published titles, geographic names, and other official ways. These updates are not reflected in folder labeling. Terms and language used throughout the collection materials are reflective of the time period and Francis Harper's perspective.

Guide to the Francis Harper Collection
Francis Harper papers
Finding aid prepared by sd and sy, 2005. Finding aid encoded by sd and sy, 2005. Finding aid revised by ksc, 2006; mwh, 2021; lmw, cd, mah, jw, mwh, 2022.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Finding aid written in English.
Finding aid permalink
Preferred citation
Francis Harper papers, Department of Special Collections, MS 245, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas

Repository Details

Part of the University of Kansas. Kenneth Spencer Research Library Repository

1450 Poplar Lane
Lawrence KS 66045-7616 United States