Lester Jesse Cappon (18 September 1900–24 August 1981), archivist and historian, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was the son of Jesse Cappon, a carpenter, and Mary Elizabeth Geisinger Cappon. A gifted pianist and passionate lover of music, he earned a diploma at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in 1920. After receiving a B.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, in 1922 and an M.A. the following year, he taught English at an all-male high school in Milwaukee for the 1923–1924 academic term. Cappon received a second master's degree from Harvard University in 1925 and a Ph.D. in 1928. Arthur Meier Schlesinger (1888–1965) directed his dissertation on the southern iron industry through 1865. On 25 June 1932 Cappon married Dorothy Elizabeth Bernet, a teacher in La Crosse, Wisconsin. They had one son and one daughter.

While completing his doctoral studies Cappon was a research associate at the University of Virginia's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences during the 1926–1927 academic year. He returned to that position for two years beginning in 1928. In 1930 Cappon accepted appointments as both assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia and the first archivist of the university library. In the latter post, which he held until 1940, he won praise for initiating and sustaining the movement to identify, locate, collect, preserve, and publish guides to the records of Virginia's past. Cappon compiled and published such detailed reference works as Bibliography of Virginia History since 1865 (1930), Virginia Newspapers, 1821–1935: A Bibliography with Historical Introduction and Notes (1936), and "Bibliography of Original Baptist Church Records in the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, University of Richmond," in the University of Virginia Library's Annual Report of the Archivist (1937).

Virginia Historical Records Survey
Cappon's familiarity with Virginia manuscript resources led to his service as director of the Virginia Historical Records Survey from 1936 to 1937. Asked to prepare guidelines for recording the history of the Second World War, he published A Plan for the Collection and Preservation of World War II Records (1942) and War Records Projects in the States, 1941–43 (1944), and from 1944 to 1945 he was director of the Virginia World War II History Commission. Cappon edited two periodicals, Papers of the Albemarle County Historical Society from 1940 to 1945 and the monthly War Records Collector in 1944 and 1945. His vision and experience allowed him to move easily and often across the artificial barriers erected by specialists in academic history, archival science, and genealogy.

Institute of Early American History and Culture
Shortly after being promoted to associate professor in 1945, Cappon left Charlottesville to become the first editor of publications for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, a new institution founded by the College of William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg, Incorporated (later the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation). Once settled in a restored eighteenth-century house on Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg, he became a vital part of the life of the college and town. For ten years as editor of publications, Cappon labored in the institute's offices over the stores on Duke of Gloucester Street along with the brilliant editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, Douglass Greybill Adair, and the distinguished directors of the institute, Carl Bridenbaugh and Lyman Henry Butterfield, to make the fledgling institute a center of early American studies. During these years he completed, with Stella Francis Duff (later Neiman), the massive and indispensable Virginia Gazette Index, 1736–1780 (1950) and in 1949 served as president of the Southern Historical Association. From 1945 to 1952 he also was archivist of Colonial Williamsburg and then became an archival consultant for its research collection.

After the departure of Butterfield early in 1955, Cappon became acting director of the institute, and later that year the governing council made the appointment permanent. Heartened by this decision and buoyed by learning that his steadily encroaching deafness could be arrested, the new director moved quickly and decisively. He brought to Williamsburg two extraordinarily able and dynamic young historians who proved to be perfect fits for the institute. Lawrence William Towner cemented the Quarterly's status as the most admired American scholarly journal of history, and James Morton Smith soon had the institute sending forth an uninterrupted flow of well-received books on early America. As early American history moved to the center of American historiography, the institute during the 1950s and 1960s created a flowering of colonial American studies. Cappon organized conferences for historians of early America to come together and explore the frontiers of their various areas of study, and he brought to Williamsburg for two years of postdoctoral work a succession of the most promising young historians. The resulting books by these research fellows, all published by the institute, were uniformly distinguished and in several instances seminal.

Cappon initiated and raised funds for a project to collect and publish a documentary edition of the papers of John Marshall, an undertaking organized in 1966. While making the institute the world center for its field of study, Cappon twice served as interim editor of the William and Mary Quarterly, from 1955 to 1956 and again in 1963. He maintained a prolific output of articles in such journals as the American Archivist, the Journal of Southern History, and the William and Mary Quarterly on bibliography; historical editing; changing standards of professional training of archivists, documentary editors, and historians; and the expanded horizons possible when archivists, genealogists, and historians cooperated. Cappon served as president of the Society of American Archivists for the 1956–1957 term and in 1959 published his classic Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. He was a founding director of the University Press of Virginia.

Later Years
Cappon retired as director of the institute on 1 July 1969. His wife had died on 11 August 1965, and although he maintained a residence in Williamsburg, he spent most of his time in retirement in Chicago at the Newberry Library. By the arrangement of Towner, who had headed the Newberry since leaving the William and Mary Quarterly in 1961, Cappon became a senior fellow at the library and assembled a staff there to aid him in preparing the magnificent Atlas of Early American History: The Revolutionary Era, 1760–1790 (1976), which in 1977 received from the Reference and User Services Association the Dartmouth Medal for an Outstanding Reference Work. His incomparable career as an archivist and editor won him election in 1980 as the second president of the Association for Documentary Editing. To mark his eightieth birthday in 1980 the Newberry Library mounted a retrospective exhibition of his writings, "Lester J. Cappon: The First Eighty Years."

Lester Jesse Cappon suffered a heart attack while striding down the sidewalk near the Newberry Library and died on 24 August 1981. He was buried in the cemetery of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Albemarle County. The Newberry Library established a documentary editing fellowship in his honor.

Sources Consulted:
Richard Lee Morton, comp., Virginia Lives: The Old Dominion Who's Who (1964), 158; Harry Clemons, "Lester J. Cappon: An Appreciation," in General Index to First Fifteen Annual Reports on Historical Collections, University of Virginia Library, 1931–1945 (1947), 3–8, including partial bibliography of Cappon's writings; retirement tribute by Wilcomb E. Washburn in William and Mary Quarterly (WMQ), 3d ser., 26 (1969): 323–326 (portrait by David Silvette on 322); oral history interview, conducted by Stephen M. Rowe on 12 May 1976, in "The Reminiscences of Lester Jesse Cappon" (typescript, 1976), Swem Library, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Va. (W&M); Richard J. Cox, ed., Lester J. Cappon and the Relationship of History, Archives, and Scholarship in the Golden Age of Archival Theory (2004); Lester J. Cappon Papers, including diaries, research notes, and MS drafts, W&M; other Cappon materials in Lester Jesse Cappon Papers, UVA, and Lawrence W. Towner Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill.; Wisconsin Bureau of Vital Statistics Marriage Certificate, Milwaukee; presidential addresses published as "The Provincial South," Journal of Southern History (JSH) 16 (1950): 5–24, and "Tardy Scholars Among the Archivists," American Archivist 21 (Jan. 1958): 3–16; obituaries in Charlottesville Daily Progress, Richmond News Leader, and Richmond Times-Dispatch, all 26 Aug. 1981, New York Times, 27 Aug. 1981, Chicago Tribune, 29 Aug., 16 Sept. 1981, and Williamsburg Virginia Gazette, 2 Sept. 1981; memorials in Newsletter of the Association for Documentary Editing 3 (Dec. 1981): 11, by James Morton Smith in American Archivist 45 (winter 1982): 105–108 (portrait on 106), in JSH 48 (1982): 153–154, and by Lawrence W. Towner in WMQ, 3d ser., 39 (1982): 397–398.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by W. W. Abbot.

How to cite this page:
W. W. Abbot,"Lester Jesse Cappon (1900–1981)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2018 ({url}, accessed [today's date]).

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