Happy Birthday to The Filson!

Inaugural Blog Post Celebrates The Filson’s 125th Birthday and New Website

This month The Filson launches its new website. It has a new look that we believe viewers will enjoy; and more content that we know researchers will find useful. Additions will continue being made so viewers should check back regularly. One of the new features of The Filson site is a blog. Popular and informative, The Filson wanted to include this style of forum in order to tell more about our collections and the significant stories of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley. What more appropriate way to celebrate our new website than to look back and remember our founding 125 years ago, in May of 1884, when The Filson itself was brand new. Those familiar with the history of The Filson Historical Society know that it was founded on May 15, 1884, as The Filson Club. Ten Louisvillians, all prominent men, gathered together that month at the home of Reuben T. Durrett, at the southeast corner of Brook and Chestnut Streets, to form a group dedicated to “collecting, preserving, and publishing historical material, especially that pertaining to Kentucky.”

Durrett's house at Brook and Chestnut Streets, ca. 1890

Durrett's house at Brook and Chestnut Streets, ca. 1890

As a group they had a number of things in common, from most of them being lawyers to having deep Kentucky roots. They also had differences; politically they identified with both the Democratic and Republican parties, and during the Civil War they split pretty much down the middle in their support for the Union or the Confederacy. Topics such as these were generally avoided; and it was their love of history and Kentucky that brought them together for their collegial and educational gatherings.

John Filson by Aurelius O. Revenaugh after a purported self-portrait by Filson

The year 1884 marked a significant year in Kentucky history (no, not because the first Democrat since James Buchanan in 1856 was elected President – Kentucky after the Civil War becoming a Democratic Party dominated state). That year marked the centennial of the publication by theill-fated John Filson of his history and map of Kentucky. The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, with its appendix “The Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon[e],” quickly became an international best-seller. Filson, one of the founders of Cincinnati, didn’t live to enjoy either the fame or rewards of his efforts. He was killed by Indians near Losantiville (the future Cincinnati) in 1788.

Library of Durrett's house where The Filson Club met during its early years. Portraits in view are in the Filson’s collection today.

Library of Durrett's house where The Filson Club met during its early years. Portraits in view are in the Filson’s collection today.

The founders’ lawyerly dedication to the law and legal form logically led to the incorporation of this group of amateur historians. Several names were no doubt considered, but The Filson Club – in honor of Filson and his book and map – was chosen. Meeting once a month – with a summer hiatus – in the library of Durrett’s home, a member delivered a paper on some aspect of Kentucky history. Filson cigars and Durrett’s secret recipe sparkling cider were enjoyed after meetings. The presenters’ papers were collected into a club archive that soon began to accumulate other materials – books, newspapers, letters, portraits, diaries, pamphlets, photographs, etc. Durrett, as primary founder and host of Filson meetings maintained the club’s collection. However, therein lay a problem. Durrett himself was a collector and had amassed one of the finest collections on Kentucky and the early West in the country.

Col. Rueben T. Durrett - Lawyer, collector, historian, and primary founder of The Filson

Col. Reuben T. Durrett - Lawyer, collector, historian, and primary founder of The Filson

In Durrett’s mind, The Filson’s collection was basically his collection – but not vice a-versa. This Durrettian philosophy and practice would have grave future consequences, but for more than The Filson’s first quarter-century it apparently wasn’t an issue. Colonel Durrett (no one is quite sure how he came by the title – perhaps because he seemed the archetypal Kentucky Colonel?) was the undisputed guiding light and leader of The Filson Club and in many ways The Filson Club was an extension of Durrett.

As the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th began, The Filson was active and growing. Membership quickly grew beyond the ten founders, as like-minded historically inclined men – and women – joined; but it is to those ten original founders that we owe our existence.


Filson Club cigar box

A future blog post – "The Filson’s Founders"

James J. Holmberg

17 comments on “Happy Birthday to The Filson!

  1. DaveRucinski

    Love the new website, lookin’ good!

  2. David Ashforth

    Enjoyed the informative blog and look forward to reading more about the Club’s history.

  3. Nettie Oliver

    Very impressive new website. Miss you and love to all. Nettie

  4. Colgan Tyler

    Very good idea on the blog, keep it going! Exactly what the Filson needed to make it accessible. Interesting bit on the Chinese rites.

  5. Janice Broxterman

    Who were the ten original members of the Filson Club?

  6. admin

    The ten founders were Reuben T. Durrett, Richard H. Collins, John Mason Brown, William Chenault, Basil W. Duke, George M. Davie, James S. Pirtle, Thomas W. Bullitt, Alex P. Humphrey and Thomas S. Speed.
    Check back in the near future for posts about each of the founders.

  7. Cathy Slider Hahn

    I graduated from Sallie Phillips Durrett High School (1967). What relationship was there (if any) between Reuben T. Durrett and Sallie Phillips Durrett?

    1. admin

      Sallie Durrett was not a direct descendant of Reuben Durrett but was, most likely, related in some way as a member of the larger Durrett family.

      1. Adrienne Durrett

        Did Reuben Durrett happen to keep a family tree of some sort with everything he had? Or just history of Kentucky?

        1. Jennie Cole

          Hi Adrienne,
          I don’t see a family tree listed in our various collections of Reuben Durrett material, but we do have a Durrett family file. The family files collection contain information on Kentucky families, listed by surname. Family files may include items such as correspondence, research notes, newspaper clippings, and other miscellaneous information. Are you looking for anything specific?

          Best, Jennie

          1. Adrienne Durrett

            I was specifically looking for anything on Bartholomew Durrett, which I believe is his great grandfather. Many families that connect to the Durretts are having a hard time getting his actual birthdate and who he was married to. Bartholomew was one of the three Durretts known to possibly be Huguenots that escaped France and went to England. From England, Bartholomew and his two brothers John and Richard came to America and I believe settled in Virginia….I’ve read that all Durretts in this country would be descendants from one of those three Durretts. So really anything going back that has to do with the Durretts coming to America I guess. Reuben is my 3rd great grandfather’s 2nd cousin (and my 2nd cousin 5 times removed) if I did my calculations right lol. I’d be grateful for any type of help. Thank you!

          2. Jennie Cole

            Hi again, Adrienne,
            I reviewed the Durrett family file and found various mentions of the three Durrett brothers who came to America from England after leaving France. Much of what I found in the letters requesting genealogical assistance was “lore” rather than documents. The Virginia Genealogist journal, volumes 15, 16, and 17 were mentioned as being resources for a Durrett family history. We also have a typed “Genealogy of the Durrett Family of France, England, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas” which discusses the move. I will attach it to this note. I am sorry that I cannot be of further assistance – best wishes in your research!
            Genealogy of the Durrett Family

          3. Adrienne Durrett

            Thank you so much Jennie!!! I appreciate all you did. I tried to reply to the last comment you sent but it didn’t give me an option to reply. But thank you!!!

          4. Adrienne Durrett

            Oh! never mind! I see what it did. Duh. Sent me to the bottom of our conversation anyhow 😉

          5. Jennie Cole

            Great working with you, Adrienne! 🙂

  8. Marjorie Courtney

    I was conducting some genealogy research for a friend and was under the impression that Samuel Culbertson was a charter board member of the Filson. On the document “Necrology for 1948” Samuel A Culbertson is listed as a life member who died on December 11. Can you advise if he was ever a board member? Thank you for your assistance.

    1. Jennie Cole

      Hi Marjorie,
      Thanks for your question! I’ve checked “The Filson Club and Its Activities” compiled by Otto Rothert in 1922; it does not list board members, however. I will look into this further and get back to you ASAP!
      Jennie Cole


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