The Robert Dechert Collection includes over 1600 printed books focusing on American travel, exploration, and Native American relations with settlers. Materials date from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. French Americana and the writings of Las Casas are particular strengths of the collection. A Dechert fund supports ongoing acquisitions.
The Dechert Collection contains primarily of printed materials, along with a few maps and manuscripts, relating to explorations of North and South America, across four centuries. The collection is particularly strong in the following areas:
- The writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas: included are the 1553 Seville printing of the debates with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda; an autograph manuscript version of a portion of Las Casas's responses; and printed editions of the Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
- French America: the collection holds numerous editions of Samuel de Champlain's voyage accounts printed between 1603 to 1632; a nearly complete set of the Jesuit "Relations" printed in Paris in the seventeenth century; other missionary writings; and copies of nearly all of the known printed French exploration texts on North America.
- English America: the collection includes a 1590 Latin edition of Thomas Hariot's Briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia; a 1599 edition of Hakluyt's Principall Navigations; and a 1632 edition of John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia, along with numerous eighteenth-century titles.
- Nineteenth-century Western American travel literature: Among highlights are editions of the narratives of the Lewis and Clark expedition; the illustrated accounts of Maximilian, Prinz von Wied and Karl Bodmer; works by Zenas Leonard, John Hale, George Catlin, and Mary H. Eastman; McKenney and Hall's History of the Indian Tribes of North America; and Mormon travel accounts. North American travel literature from the later nineteenth century and California writings are also strongly represented.
Information for researchers
Holdings in the Dechert Collection are listed in the online catalog, Franklin.
About the collector and collection history
The origin of the Dechert Collection is actually the collection of Helen Godey Wilson (1879-1937), a devoted book collector (and the granddaughter of Lewis A. Godey, publisher of Godey's Lady's Book). Wilson collected intensively in American travel literature and in French Americana. She bequeathed the collection to the care of her son-in-law, Robert Dechert (1895-1975).
A life-long Philadelphian, Robert Dechert achieved prominence both locally and nationally as a lawyer and public servant. He expanded the collection significantly, continuing its focus on North America and French American, while also broadening it to include some Spanish holdings and, in particular, the works of Las Casas, along with popular nineteenth-century accounts. Dechert gave his collection to the University of Pennsylvania in 1962.
Robert Dechert Family Papers, at the University Archives and Records Center