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John D'Wolf letters

Call Number: MS Q46


John D'Wolf was a ship captain and uncle of the writer Herman Melville. He traveled extensively and was involved in international business transactions of many different trades. He is most known for his role in inspiring Melville's writing of sailing abroad. After seafaring, he retired to farming with his wife and children. This collection includes three letters and two financial documents.


  • 1816 - 1872


Conditions Governing Access

No access restrictions

Conditions Governing Use

Spencer Library staff may determine use restrictions dependent on the physical condition of manuscript materials.

Biography of John D'Wolf

John D'Wolf was born September 6, 1779 to a distinguished Rhode Island merchant family. He went to sea at a very young age and participated in many voyages as a businessman. He navigated to new lands and made international business contacts during his successful career. He married Mary Melville, aunt to the writer Herman Melville, in 1814. They had two children, Nancy and John. Mary died July 3, 1858 followed by John on March 6, 1872.


1.5 Linear Feet (1 oversize box)

Scope and Contents

John D'Wolf was a sea captain and had many international business dealings. The D'Wolf family was heavily involved in the slave trade, which D'Wolf participated in during his younger years. In 1803, he took the opportunity to end his involvement in the slave trade and navigated the Northwest coast, now known as Alaska, to expand trade routes with China. There, he established relationships with several prominent Russian businessmen, eventually leading to an important trade depot on the Colombia River.

D'Wolf is most notably known for inspiring his young nephew, Herman Melville, in the writing of Moby Dick, and John D'Wolf appears by name in the novel. He frequently corresponded with his wife's father, Thomas Melville. The final item in the collection was written shortly after John's death and highlights "Nor'West John's" life and personal characteristics.

Physical Location

MS Q46

Immediate Source of Acquisition


Related Materials

John D'Wolf wrote of his travels in "A Voyage in the North Pacific and a Journey Through Siberia More Than Half a Century Ago," published in 1861, which is currently held by KU Libraries at G480.D3 1968x.
Guide to the John D'Wolf Collection
John D'Wolf letters
Finding aid prepared by cmh, 2010. Finding aid encoded by cmh, 2010.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Finding aid written in <language encodinganalog="language">English</language>.
Finding aid permalink
Preferred citation
John D'Wolf letters, Department of Special Collections, MS Q46, 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