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From Apples to Oranges: Portrait and Biographical Albums

I am always curious - and sometimes dubious — about who writes genealogical resources. Lately I have been researching a number of tomes with titles that all begin with "Portrait and Biographical Album of...," all published by either Chapman Bros. or Chapman Publishing. It seems impossible that so many of these coffee-table size leather-bound books the size of a family Bible include so many biographies of local residents, especially since they were written in the last decade or so of the 1800's. So how was all this information collected a century before bloggers and genealogy databases?


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The Chapman family, which formed Chapman Bros. and Chapman Publishing, traces its history back to John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed to most of us. Johnny's journeys resulted in part of the family migrating to Chicago. In the Windy City, Frank M. Chapman and Charles O. Chapman went into business as Chapman Bros. Located at 71 and 73 W. Monroe Street in Chicago, Chapman Brothers were printers, publishers, and lithographers.

Their most prolific publications were the "Portrait and Biographical Albums." They had stumbled onto a creative way to write all those biographies. They charged customers to have their biography included - and then the customer did the writing!

Read a few of these albums and you'll soon realize they seem tedious because the Chapman process used a template and plugged in the names and dates and other information. Sometimes a family would supply an interesting life story but, for the most part, the biographies are just fill-in forms. Anyone who bought a "subscription" not only got to see their name in print but they received one copy of the book.

But skim over the boilerplate text and you'll discover fascinating accounts. Many of these are probably not recorded any place else. Women pioneers' stories are among the rough and tumble tales of families sleeping on the ground, of men being robbed, of people migrating from the Mayflower to the Mississippi, and generally trying to create a new life in a strange land with none of the comforts of home.

By 1893, Frank and Charles saw money heading their way, in the form of Chicago's Columbian Exposition. When the White City was under construction, the Chapman brothers temporarily suspended the publishing business and established the Vendome Club Hotel (62nd Street and Monroe Avenue in Chicago) and the DeSoto Hotel to accommodate the thousands of visitors to the World's Fair. They advertised the Vendome Club Hotel in promotional materials for the Columbian Exposition.

By August of 1893, Frank M. and Charles O. Chapman were in financial trouble. After settling some accounts in court, Chapman Bros. became known as Chapman Publishing. Frank M. Chapman went into ornithology.

Another relative, Charles Clark Chapman, took part in producing some of the histories. Born in Macomb, Illinois, Charles Clark Chapman had hoped to attend Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois, but could not afford the tuition. Instead he headed West and made his fortune in California real estate and is credited with introducing the Valencia orange to the American market.

While he never did attend college, Charles Clark Chapman does have a university named in his honor. Hesperian College was foundering financially and Charles Clarke Chapman bailed them out. It probably wasn't too difficult since he was one of the founders of the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Fullerton, Calif. Later the bank become known as the Bank of Italy and eventually it became what it is today: the Bank of America. Out of gratitude, the college renamed itself Chapman University.

When he wrote his autobiography, he said, "The new name is like a happy dream to me as memory carries me back to the day when a longing desire burned in my heart to go to Eureka College (in Eureka, Illinois and Ronald Reagan's alma mater), but I was unable to raise the necessary $100."

But between Johnny Appleseed's apple orchards and Charles C. Chapman's orange profits, the Chapman family's most widespread legacy is one created by and for the American citizen: the Portrait and Biographical Album.

The Chapman's had developed a reliable format that collected pertinent information. Each biography includes the subject, their parents and their children. Sometimes the grandparents and grandchildren are included. Education, occupations, religion and land-ownership are key points, punctuated by glowing descriptions of how a man started with nothing and ended up with the envy and respect of all who knew him.

Sources were not required. Documentation of facts was not a concern. The biographies were the responsibility of the submitter. This process is what it possible to churn out volumes with as many as 900 pages or more. Granted, the first 200 pages or so consisted of Presidential and governor information.

But skip to the county information and you'll find probably the most reliable record of the late 1800's since so many pioneers had been trekking across the country to settle in the West for some 75 years prior or visiting the gold mines in the mid-1850's. It was hard to nail people down for a census. Some pioneers mention that they actually settled into squatters cabins already on land they purchased. Not even they knew the identity of the temporary resident who spent some time there and then moved on.

Since the biographies were for-pay, they only document those with enough cash to purchase inclusion in the albums. But many of the stories trace the route immigrants followed and tell the tale of how they settled the frontier.

New arrivals would sometimes spend a year or two in New York City, or sometimes go directly to Ohio or Pennsylvania to join up with a friend relative. Then they would move a bit farther West - and sometimes return, due to political unrest in Kansas or elsewhere. A census will tell you where a person was but the "Portrait and Biographical Album" may tell you where they were NOT and why.

The Chapman publications are good resources for research. The albums were primarily focused on the states of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, and Michigan, and not all counties were ever completed by the Chapman enterprises. But if you are researching these states, the Chapman albums are a great resource.

Some of the counties are now online via electronic libraries such as the University of Illinois, and some have been reprinted. There were a handful of other companies attempting the same task about the same era.

The Chapman boys' version all begin with the title "Portrait and Biographical Albums of..." followed by the name of the county, or counties, and ending with "containing full page portraits and biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens of the county, together with portraits and biographies of all the governors of Illinois, and of the presidents of the United States."

Counties completed and printed by the Chapmans are as follows:

Adams County, Chapman Brothers, 1892
Champaign County, Chapman Publishing Co., 1892
Coles County, Chapman Brothers, 1887
DeKalb County, Chapman Brothers, 1885
DeWitt and Piatt Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1891
Jo Daviess and Carroll Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1889
Knox County, Chapman Brothers, 1886
Livingston County, Chapman Brothers, 1888
McLean County, Chapman Brothers, 1887
Morgan and Scott Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1889
Ogle County, Chapman Brothers, 1886
Sangamon County, Chapman Brothers, 1891
St. Clair County, Chapman Brothers, 1892
Stephenson County, Chapman Brothers, 1888
Vermilion and Edgar Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1889
Warren County, Chapman Brothers, 1886
Whiteside County, Chapman Brothers, 1885
Will County, Chapman Brothers, 1890
Woodford County, Chapman Brothers, 1889

Benton County, Chapman Brothers, 1887
Clinton County, Chapman Brothers, 1886
Jackson County, Chapman Brothers, 1889
Lee County, Chapman Brothers, 1887
Linn County, Chapman Brothers, 1887
Mahaska County, Chapman Brothers, 1887
Wapello County , Chapman Brothers, 1887

Jackson, Jefferson and Pottawatomie Counties, Chapman Publishing Co., 1890
Marshall County, Chapman Brothers, 1889
Sedgwick County, Chapman Brothers, 1888
Sumner County, Chapman Brothers, 1890
Washington, Clay and Riley Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1890

Barry and Eaton Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1891
Branch County, Chapman Brothers, 1888
Clinton and Shiawassee Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1891
Gratiot County, Chapman Brothers, 1884
Gratiot County, Michigan, Chapman Publishing Co., 1894
Hillsdale County, Chapman Brothers, 1888
Huron County, Chapman Brothers, 1884
Ingham and Livingston Counties, Michigan, Chapman Brothers, 1891
Ionia and Montcalm Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1891
Isabella County, Chapman Brothers, 1884
Lenawee County, Chapman Brothers, 1888
Mecosta County, Chapman Brothers, 1883
Midland County, Chapman Brothers, 1884
Newaygo County, Chapman Brothers, 1884
Oakland County, Chapman Brothers, 1891
Osceola County, Chapman Brothers, 1884
Sanilac County, Chapman Brothers, 1884

Gage County, Chapman Brothers, 1888
Johnson and Pawnee Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1888
Lancaster County, Chapman Brothers, 1888
Otoe and Cass Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1885

Greene and Clark Counties, Chapman Brothers, 1890

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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