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The Dowell Family Papers: The Splintering of an Archival Treasure

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 3, January 2014
pp. 284-297 | 10.1353/swh.2014.0027

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Maurice Dowell.

Photo by the author of Composite Photographs of Members, House of Representatives, 46th Texas Legislature, 1939–1941.

Maurice Hood Dowell loved Texas history—maybe too much, maybe not enough. He built a Texana book collection of considerable repute. He assumed the role of family archivist documenting his ancestors’ roles in Texas history by lovingly saving documentation of his rancher, banker, and University of Texas regent great uncle George Washington Littlefield and of his physician grandfather Greensville Dowell, renowned for his work on yellow fever and hernia treatment, whose teaching laid a foundation for what became the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Saving all of this voluminous documentation indeed has added to our understanding of the history of the Lone Star State. But Dowell’s failure to provide for preservation of the archival treasure after his death and the haphazard manner in which it became scattered from the Gulf Coast to the Permian Basin illustrate what is lost when family archives are wantonly broken up.

The second of the three surviving children of Shelton Clark and Elizabeth “Lizzie” H. (Gillespie) Dowell, Maurice Hood Dowell was born on May 26, 1884, on George Littlefield’s Plum Creek Ranch in Caldwell County, Texas. His father having died when Maurice was a year old, he, his brother, Shelton Gillespie Dowell, and his sister, Dora Alice Dowell, were reared by their mother at the family home in Luling, Texas. When his brother and sister left home, Maurice continued to live with his mother until her death. A year afterward, on June 20, 1935, he married and brought his twenty-two-year-old (less than half his age) wife, Gussie Belle Insall, to live in the family home. Maurice died on July 16, 1944; Gussie died fifty three years later in 1997. Suggesting that she did not become particularly invested in her husband’s family, Gussie is buried in her hometown of De Leon, Comanche County, Texas, rather than with her husband in the Dowell family plot in Luling.

Along with his collecting and archival work, Maurice Hood Dowell contributed to the story of his state by serving two terms (1931–33, 1939–41) in the Texas House of Representatives, representing his native Caldwell County, and by speaking to historical groups, including the Texas State Historical Association, about the Dowells in history. During the last near decade of his life, he parceled his papers on Dowell family history out on loan and deposit among multiple archival repositories, display venues, and a researcher. Rather than promoting use of the documents so precious to him, except in the single instance of J. Evetts Haley’s writing of George W. Littlefield: Texan, the splintering of the Dowell Family Papers, which with Maurice Dowell’s death became permanent, has obscured the story Maurice so loved to tell of the Dowell family’s contribution to history. Though all of the five segments of the papers are well protected in archival hands, the separation has diluted the contribution each group of the documents could make to understanding of Texas’s past when studied alongside all the others.

The centerpiece of Maurice Dowell’s family archives was the letters, photographs, reminiscences, ranch accounts, local ephemera, and other documentation spanning four generations of the Dowell family. Based on the documentation that survives of the handling of it, Maurice Dowell esteemed the archives as an important resource for Texas history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He enjoyed loaning portions of the documentation for research and portions for display, depositing fractions of it in archival repositories and withdrawing all or some of the fragments to deposit elsewhere. For all the pleasure he himself reaped from sharing the precious archives, he left no clear instructions directing the material after his death. Maybe he thought his wife or another family member would treasure it as much as he did. To his nephew, Shelton Gillespie Dowell Jr., he left his historical things—“old Bibles, books, relics, rifles, and all other personal effects” not otherwise listed in his will.

If by “all other personal effects” Maurice meant the family archives, he did not state it in writing. The will...



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