Durham Museum's Byron Reed Collection: A rare peek at Omaha's treasure

A vault in the far corner of the museum's lower level is home to some 9,000 historical items collected by one of city’s founding fathers.

By Courtney Brummer-Clark / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, November 5, 2016


Byron Reed

Before there was Warren Buffett, there was Byron Reed.
There are no local schools named after him. No streets in Omaha bear his name. No statues celebrate his contributions.
One of the founding fathers of Omaha, Reed performed the original survey for the City of Omaha and established the first real estate agency in the Nebraska Territory, a local firm that still specializes in property management and investments. He was one of the richest men of his time, and he donated land for the first city library and what is now Prospect Hill Cemetery.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to Omaha resides in the far corner of the lower level of the Durham Museum: 9,000 historical documents, rare books and coins housed in a secure vault that make up the Byron Reed Collection.
While several pieces — mostly coins — are on display at the downtown museum, the majority of the collection’s pieces are hidden away from the general public because of space constraints and the need to provide security and preservation. Only scholars and researchers are given access to the items with special permission from the museum, so The World-Herald today is providing a rare peek into the vault.
Owned by the City of Omaha, the collection was reduced from 17,000 pieces by a controversial auction in 1996. The three-day auction garnered the city roughly $5.8 million. Of that, $3 million was pledged to the museum. The rest was put into the city coffers.
There is no way to estimate the current worth of the collection. Just 10 pieces of it have been appraised at almost $5 million.
The items include rare books such as a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s only long-form novel and the “Memoirs of Thomas Jefferson,” documents written by Catherine de’ Medici and explorer William Clark, and coins dating back to the time of Emperors Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.
After years of inventorying and cataloging the collection, curator Carrie Meyer said museum staff members have begun digitizing images of each item for the public to eventually see on a website or in special museum displays.

Grover Cleveland letter about taxes. July 20, 1894.

Who was Byron Reed?

Reed, a descendant of a Puritan family that immigrated to the Colonies in 1634, was born in Genesee County, New York, on March 12, 1829. His family later moved to Wisconsin and, at age 20, he went to work as a telegraph operator in Ohio.
Reed never advanced past an eighth-grade education, but he taught himself Morse code and how to play the violin.
He eventually became a correspondent for the New York Tribune, writing anonymously on the “Border Ruffian” wars that had to do with slavery in the state of Kansas that preceded the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
“He is staunchly anti-slavery and is writing anonymously as such in Kansas,” Meyer said. “Somehow his and another correspondent’s identities are discovered and a lynch mob sets out after them. That is how he was chased into Nebraska Territory. The other guy didn’t make it.”
In 1855, at age 25, Reed settled in Omaha. He taught himself land surveying and joined the Omaha Claim Club in order to buy and sell land. In 1856 he established the first real estate agency in Omaha (the Byron Reed Co. is still in existence today), and went on to became the largest landowner west of the Missouri, one of the richest men in the region.
In 1861, at 32, he married 15-year-old Melissa Perkins. They had two children: Anna Maria Reed and Abraham Lincoln Reed.
Reed served as auditor of the first First National Bank of Omaha, president of the local assay commission, Omaha city clerk, 1860-67; deputy Douglas County clerk, 1861-63; and county clerk, 1863-65. He served as an Omaha city councilman in 1871 and 1872 before getting out of politics.
“He was a very private person,” Meyer said. “In some ways he straddled the line as an upper-crust founding father and the early Joe Schmoe of Omaha. He was very wealthy and connected, but he wasn’t well-known and seemed to prefer it that way. Maybe that’s why you don’t hear about him like you do with the Dodges and other leaders of the time.”
In 1870 he started collecting items of historical significance, possibly enlisting others to travel and make the purchases.
Reed died on June 6, 1891, at 62. He was worth $2.5 million — which translates to about $62 million today. In death he bequeathed his 17,000-piece collection to the City of Omaha. The land where his mansion sat, at what is now 25th and Dodge Streets, was later donated to Father Edward Flanagan and became the first Home for Boys.
“He obviously enjoyed collecting and he was collecting for himself,” Meyer said. “But he had the foresight to see more people could benefit from this collection. I don’t know that anyone else would have thought to preserve such a collection for the city’s identity and not just their own interest.”

Highlights of the rarest of the rare

The Byron Reed Collection at Omaha’s Durham Museum boasts more than 9,000 pieces, including rare books, documents and coins. Because of museum space restrictions and for the security and preservation of the pieces, many items are not put on display for the public. Durham curator Carrie Meyer compiled a list of the 20 rarest items in the collection that the general public doesn’t see. Here are a handful:

Photographs by Kent Sievers, The World-Herald

“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” published in 1839

This is the only complete novel written by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. The tale recounts the adventures of young Arthur Gordon Pym, a stowaway on a whaling ship. Poe called it “a very silly book.” In the years after its publication, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” became an influential work, notably for Herman Melville and Jules Verne, and has been called one of the greatest novels written in English.

4th edition King James Bible, published in 1634

In 1604, King James I of England commissioned his own version of the Bible in order to counteract previous translations he deemed inaccurate. He convened 47 scholars to translate and write a new version. By the 18th century the King James Bible had become the unchallenged English translation of the Bible used in Anglican and English Protestant churches.

Thomas Jefferson letter to John Thompson Callendar, Sept. 6, 1799

In the run up to the 1800 election, the war of words between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican political parties got increasingly contentious. This particular letter from Thomas Jefferson was to one of his political pamphleteers who routinely criticized the Adams administration. Jefferson says looks forward to the newest installment to be published in the press.

Édouard René de Laboulaye, Oct. 15, 1875

This is an early example of a press release from Édouard Laboulaye to the editor of the Richmond Daily Whig newspaper, where he announces plans for the Union Franco-Americaine to erect a “colossal statue of Independence.” This was actually the first public announcement of France’s 100th anniversary gift to the United States: the Statue of Liberty. The second page of the letter shows a rendering of the intended statue; a dedication ceremony was held in October 1886.

The Genuine Book, published in 1813

When George, Prince of Wales, realized the only way that he could pay off his debts was to marry and sire an heir, he agreed to marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick. George did not find his new bride attractive, so once she had produced a child he informed her that she could do as she liked, as he would not be having “relations” with her again. Rejected by George, she went to live at Blackheath, London, where her behavior prompted what a Royal Commission called the “Delicate Investigation.” This volume is the entire investigation. Only four authentic copies of this book, including this one, are thought to have survived.

75 cent bank note, Republic of Texas, 1843

The Republic of Texas was an independent country from March 2, 1836–Feb. 19, 1846. The country issued Treasury notes to help fund the government. Their redemption was closely controlled to prevent fraud, and redeemed notes were cancelled, then burned. While there are many examples of these notes, this 75 cent Exchequer Bill change note is the only one of its specific denomination known to still exist.

“Memoirs of Thomas Jefferson,” published in 1830

These books were never formally published but a small number were bound for review. The volumes were basically a libelous attack against the president, made to appear as if written in Jefferson’s own hand, and intended to undermine Democratic-Republican Party in the upcoming election. This plot failed, and James Madison, Jefferson’s Secretary of State, was elected the fourth president. Six other copies are thought to exist. A note inside the cover of the Reed collection copy says a lawyer’s review of 20-30 pages “found, on the average, a libel to every page."

Massachusetts Bay Silver, 1652 6-pence, 3-pence and Shilling

These coins were minted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630, to standardize the currency being used for trade. The colony’s General Court mandated in 1652 that all foreign currency was to be melted down and remade into the official currency of the colony. The Mint, facing economic problems because of high demand for silver, closed on June 3, 1682, and was formally abolished by King James II of England in 1686. Coins would not be minted on American soil again until after the United States won its independence and opened the Federal Mint in 1792.

William Clark Letters, 1822-1826

The letters from William Clark are addressed to Thomas Forsyth, an Indian agent to the Sac and Fox tribe whose lands were originally along Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. One letter instructs Forsyth to honor part of a standing treaty to provide the tribe goods and services at more reasonable rates. The tone of the letter is respectful but makes it clear that Clark is upset with Forsyth for not acting sooner.

John C. Calhoun Letter, Feb. 21, 1822

This letter was written at the very end of Calhoun’s tenure as Secretary of War under James Monroe and lists funds earmarked to ‘civilize’ the Indians.” This report was sent to the President and intended for Congress in compliance with an act passed by Jefferson’s administration in 1802. The letter lists specific items purchased — spinning wheels, looms, husbandry items, domestic animals — and names several tribes which were to be helped.

Gold Aureus — Emperor Augustus, 15-13 B.C.; Gold Aureus — Julius Caesar, 46 B.C.

Roman currency consisted of coins including the aureus (gold), the denarius (silver), the sestertius (bronze), the dupondius (bronze) and the as (copper). These were used from the middle of the third century B.C. until the middle of the third century A.D. Under Julius Caesar it became legal to feature portraiture of living individuals on coins, an important means of disseminating the image through the empire and of signaling succession.

Catherine de’ Medici Letter, unknown date

Catherine de’ Medici, great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, niece of Pope Clement VII, was born in Florence, Italy, into the Grand Ducal family and was married to King Henry II of France. Three of her 10 children became kings of France. Written in Old French, this document has not yet been translated; it is possibly a diary page containing an account of discussions with Queen Elizabeth I regarding relations with England.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna letter, 1841

This letter was captured during General Winfield Scott’s assault on the province of Vera Cruz during Scott’s march toward Mexico City. Xalapa is a town within that province, Santa Anna’s birthplace, and today is one of Omaha’s sister cities. This untranslated document may have been a letter to a family member or friend still living in Xalapa. It was kept by a soldier during the campaign as a souvenir.

“Proofs of the Corruption of General James Wilkinson and of his connection with Aaron Burr” published in 1809

This book is the report of one trial of James Wilkinson, an American soldier and statesman accused in several failed conspiracies to commit high treason. In 1804-05, he exchanged communications with Aaron Burr in an attempt to set up an independent nation in the west. Sensing little support for the endeavor, Wilkinson revealed Burr’s plans to President Jefferson. Burr was indicted and later acquitted, but his political life was finished.

Simon Cameron Letter, March 15, 1862

Simon Cameron was selected by Abraham Lincoln as Secretary of War, but was relieved of his office in the midst of the Civil War. Lincoln sent Cameron to Russia with a position in the State Department. This document chronicles Cameron's return to the U.S. and his travels in the "Old World."

Edwin Booth Playbill, 1870

Edwin Booth (1833-1893), brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth, was known as “America’s Greatest Hamlet.” Booth’s Theatre, financed by Edwin and opened in 1869 in New York City, was lavishly decorated and equipped with the most modern technology available.

Bond from the Second Bank of the United States, undated

The First Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791 by George Washington to unify the currency of the new nation and to absorb the debts each of the states had incurred during the Revolutionary War. It was abandoned by Congress in 1811. The Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816, but plagued by corruption and mismanagement. Only when Nicholas Biddle (see his signature on the bond) became president of the bank in 1823, did it begin to function as hoped. By 1828, Andrew Jackson was president and vetoed a renewal of the Bank’s Charter. He believed the U.S. money supply would function best if it only consisted of gold or sliver minted by the Treasury. The Second Bank of the United States dissolved in 1836.

“Published Journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark” published in 1814

Thomas Jefferson orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, more than doubling the size of the United States. Lewis and Clark led the first American exploration of the territory. On their four-year journey, they learned about the resources and native peoples and created the first comprehensive maps of the Missouri River and its tributaries.

Letter from General Lewis Wallace to E.F. Test. May 2, 1884

Lew Wallace was an American lawyer, Union general in the Civil War, territorial governor and statesman. Wallace's cousin, E.F. Test, lived in Omaha and took an interest in Byron Reed’s library and collection prior to Reed’s death. Test would write on Reed’s behalf to solicit documents and autographs for the collection. In this letter, Wallace responds to a letter from Test inquiring about a visit to Omaha.

10 most valuable coins in the Byron Reed collection


1. 1804 Dollar (on exhibit): A private collection specimen was last sold at auction in 2009 for $3.8 million; at another sale in 2015, bidding was stopped just short of $10 million by the sellers and it was taken off the market.
2. 1878 Gold Eagle, pattern: $257,000
3. 1878 Gold Half-Eagle, pattern: $225,000
(not pictured)
4. $50 1877 Copper Half-Union, pattern (on exhibit): $100,000
5. $1 1836 Copper Flying Eagle, pattern: $96,000
6. $10 1797 Eagle (on exhibit): $80,000
7. 1652 New England Shilling (on exhibit): $75,000
8. 1792 Washingtonia: $70,000
9. $1 1882 Copper, pattern: $70,000
10. $1 1838 Seated Liberty, pattern: $67,000

* Pattern coins are originals created by the U.S. Mint to see how the coin would look when struck.

Source: Carrie Meyer, curator, Durham Museum

The city’s collection

The collection was kept on the top floor of the city library until the 1970s. The pieces were open to the public to touch and examine. There was little cataloging of the artifacts, possible swapping of items and at least 11 documented robberies.
“The security hadn’t caught up to what the collection’s value was — and that is nothing on the library. That was part of the times,” Meyer said.
The city first considered auctioning off the collection in 1972. The items had been removed from display because of security concerns. There was no Durham yet. A group of Kansas City, Missouri, coin dealers worked with the city to sell the whole collection for $1 million.
The Omaha Coin Club, however, fought the sale and the City Council eventually voted not to sell.
In 1985 the city turned over the collection to the Durham Museum — then the Western Heritage Museum — for preservation and conservation. It was off limits to the public, sealed in a vault.
In 1996 the City Council again considered auctioning off some duplicate and triplicate items to help finance renovations at the museum and create a fund for care of the remaining items. Once again, members of the Omaha Coin Club prepared for a fight. This time, they lost.
“That was a dark day,” said Mitch Ernst, a member of the club and researcher of the Reed collection coins. “I know the publicly held opinion is that a lot of what was sold in ’96 was duplicates and triplicates, but there were some important single pieces that got sold, too.”
Among those, he said, were a 1797 half dollar, an 1832 12-star half eagle coin, a 1797 small eagle half dollar with 16 stars coin, documents signed by Thomas Jefferson, a letter signed by Secretary of State James Monroe announcing the end of the War of 1812, and more.
The sale caused a deep divide among local coin collectors, the city and the museum. Though the auction was held long before Meyer joined the museum in 2007, she said she is still dealing with fallout from the sale.
“I’ve had to repair relationships,” she said. “I’ve had to reassure people that, no, we don’t sell our collections.”
One of those repaired relationships is with the Omaha Coin Club.
“Since Carrie’s been here, her willingness to let researchers in to see the collection has been great,” Ernst said. “I’ve had to do some salesmanship to tell others that it’s not like it used to be.”

Carrie Meyer, Durham Museum

Preservation and research

Omaha City Councilman Chris Jerram said he doesn’t see any other parts of the collection being sold.
Without the Durham, he said, “the collection literally faced being lost to history and public access by going into one of our storage facilities.”
An inventory of the collection has taken six years because the museum, a nonprofit organization, relies heavily on volunteers and academic interns, Meyer said.
With six curatorial staff members — three full time (including Meyer) and three part time — the interns play an important role, and in exchange they get real-world museum experience. The program has attracted college students from San Francisco, Utah, Notre Dame, George Washington and more.
Started with a grant in 2010, the intern program originally focused on work in the museum’s photo archives. The program was expanded in 2012. Today there are 18 slots for college interns — 12 spots are paid $5,000 a semester by museum donors and sponsors — and six slots are credit based.
Meyer said the Byron Reed Collection is the “carrot” she dangles in front of prospective interns.
When working with the pieces of the Reed collection, interns and staff wear special gloves to keep skin oils from affecting the aged materials. Documents have been carefully placed in plastic sleeves, books in lined boxes and coins in marked trays. The vault that houses the collection has boxes carefully cataloged and stacked floor to ceiling.
Before she was hired as a collection associate, Paula Valls was part of the museum’s intern program. Valls, an Omaha native, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a double major in history and English literature with a minor in medieval studies. She heard about the intern program while working at the museum’s soda fountain.
Within her first few weeks as an intern she was handling documents signed by Benjamin Franklin.
Valls — whose training was in medieval history — focused a large part of her work on researching a Medieval Chant Book dating to 1317 Italy, and was asked to design an exhibit for it.
“By the time you get to the third semester, you have worked across a couple of different fields in the museum, whether it be textiles, documents, photo archives, that kind of thing,” Valls said. “So by then they are usually, like, ‘Hey, we’ll have you make your own exhibit.’
“That’s the biggest challenge as an intern, but it’s the greatest privilege and opportunity. It is also somewhat terrifying.”
Digitization of the collection could take as long as a decade, Meyer said. In the meantime, the collection — which is still owned by the city — will remain at the museum, most of it in the vault but with select pieces on display.
Jerram called the collection a “gem” and praised museum staff for their work in researching and preserving it.
“My hunch is that 100 years from now people will look back at the Durham Museum, how they cared for the collection, how they have made it more accessible and preserved it for all time in terms of the digitization,” Jerram said. “They will look kindly and appreciate all that these people have done. It says a lot about a community and the efforts they take to preserve the treasures of history.”

cbclark@owh.com, 402-444-1382, twitter.com/OWHgoodnews

Invitaiton to inspect the new First National Bank Building, 1888.

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