In writing my forthcoming biography, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I faced a problem that appears to have steered historians away from the Commodore (as Vanderbilt was called) for nearly seven decades—a problem that may have steered one biographer completely off the rails.
Vanderbilt left no papers.
John D. Rockefeller and his descendants have an entire archive in New York (an old Rockefeller home—a lovely place to work). J.P. Morgan left a library. Andrew Carnegie left a treasure trove of letters and manuscripts. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, wrote in one of his few surviving letters that he hated writing letters. His lifelong clerk, Lambert Wardell, described how he "abominated" papers, and would throw letters in the fire.
And yet, Vanderbilt was at the center of the national economy, even national political events, for nearly seven decades. He was clearly significant enough to warrant a major biography. But where to start?
The digitization of newspapers has made this a bit easier. Using such databases as Readex's Historical Newspapers and Proquest's newspaper database, I spent month after month reading through PDF files of newspaper reports that came up positive on such searches as "Vanderbilt." Unfortunately, such searches also pulled up classified ads for property on Brooklyn's Vanderbilt Avenue, or court reports for Judge John Vanderbilt. The wheat-chaff sifting occupied a great deal of time. (Readex's digitized Congressional Serial Set was a marvelous source as well.)
The digitization of manuscript catalogs helped, too. I searched WORLDCAT and others, and went through the online catalogs of various archives, such as the Library of Congress and New-York Historical Society. I searched not only for Vanderbilt, but people and businesses associated with him.
But digitization can only supplement traditional research. I made lists of citations in the endnotes of other books on Vanderbilt and related topics and people, and searched the sources they cited. This led to major discoveries—for example, in the papers of Erastus Corning, and in the National Archives.
Research discoveries are made through a combination of persistence and brainstorming—looking into collections for items that appear, at first, only tangentially related. I followed up sidetracks, examining papers that archivists had noted could provide information on various corporations that Vanderbilt was connected to, where I often discovered rich accounts of the Commodore and his doings, including letters by him and about him.
But the most fun, and sometimes the most revealing, discoveries are made by accident. The most unexpected resource I discovered this way were court records, both in courthouses and in the papers of lawyers who dealt with cases connected to Vanderbilt and his allies.
I had despaired of finding information about the early decades of Vanderbilt's life, before he became a truly public figure, until I started work in the New York Municipal Archives. These are housed on the ground floor of the Surrogate Court building in Manhattan—the interior of which is familiar to viewers of Law & Order, which films many hallways scenes in its grand central space. I asked the head archivists where I might find Marine Court records, and was directed to the seventh floor. What's the seventh floor? I asked. "I don't know," he shrugged. "It's the seventh floor." I took rickety elevator up, the light fixture held in place with duct tape, and walked into what is literally New York's legal attic: the Old Records Division of the New York County Clerk's Office.
The Old Records Division holds the surviving papers of three centuries of New York's civil legal history. I probably added a year to my work on this book, as I spent month after month going through original legal papers that unlocked many of Vanderbilt's secrets, and the shrouded activities of his allies and enemies, such as the ever-mysterious Daniel Drew. I became a fixture in the office (as citizens came to get certified copies of old divorce decrees or lawyers came for copies of filings in long-running lawsuits), as I discovered in entire episodes of Vanderbilt's life that were unknown before.
But I should close with one piece of advice for other biographers. If you wish to make a living at this business, work with someone who left papers behind. This book will be published seven years after I started on it. It was necessary, if I was to write an authoritative account of such a long and significant life, but I don't relish the idea of trying it again.