Pioneer Profiles – May 2016

With the 1861 B.F. Dowell house being a featured home on the Jacksonville Boosters Club’s Historic Home and Garden Tour this month, it seems appropriate to focus our Pioneer Profile series on Benjamin Franklin Dowell.

Dowell, a great, great nephew of Benjamin Franklin through his paternal lineage, was named for this noted ancestor. He was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, on October 31, 1826. That same year, his family moved to Shelby County, Tennessee. After acquiring a “liberal education” at Shelby’s Male Academy, he enrolled at the University of Virginia, graduating with a law degree and “distinguished honors” in 1847.

He established his initial law practice in Raleigh, North Carolina, but soon moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he opened a second office. He appears to have had a successful and lucrative practice, and in short order the Governor of Tennessee appointed Dowell to a district judgeship.

But like many other young men of his age and time, the discovery of gold brought Dowell west. In May of 1850, he joined a wagon train headed for California. En route, members of the party were beset by cholera and many died. Dowell contracted the disease as well and was bedridden until the wagons reached the Rocky Mountains. After the wagon train reached Sacramento, Dowell suffered a second attack. His physicians advised him to go north. A move to San Francisco did little to improve his health, so on October 5th he set sail for Portland.

When his ship reached the mouth of the Columbia River, no pilot was available to take the schooner across the bar. A violent storm drove the ship 95 miles northward. Dowell’s first case as an Oregon attorney was defending the ship’s steward whom indignant passengers accused of serving them only hardtack during the 25 days that it took the schooner to fight the winds and sail back to Astoria. The steward maintained he was only following the captain’s orders. Dowell lost the case, and the convicted steward was sentenced to a bath of cold river water.

Dowell soon learned that there was insufficient legal business in the Oregon Territory to support even prominent lawyers. In 1852, with borrowed capital, he purchased a pack train and began carrying goods from the Willamette Valley and Crescent City to the mining centers of Northern California and Southern Oregon.

When the Indian wars broke out in 1853, Dowell voluntarily placed himself and all his animals at the disposal of the various volunteer militia units for as long as they were needed. In Hubert Bancroft’s 1889 History of Oregon, he describes Dowell as “the first in the war and the last to come out.”

Dowell gained a reputation for both bravery and patriotism. He carried dispatches alone through Indian territory and accepted federal supply contracts at the government’s price while knowing he would be paid in scrip, not hard currency. He also periodically joined in the fighting.

During an 1855 battle with the Walla Wallas, Dowell commanded the artillery. He mounted a howitzer on the saddle of one of his mules, and after loading the canon, would charge up close to the Indians and fire the cannon off the mule’s back. The first few times the reverberation knocked the mule to its knees, but the mule soon learned to brace itself so as not to fall.

During an 1856 militia skirmish, Dowell lost his entire pack train to the Indians. The loss of the mules was a serious financial blow so Dowell reentered the legal profession, opening a practice in Jacksonville. Dowell’s frustrating attempts to obtain reparations from the government led him to a lifelong career as a claims agent, and he soon had numerous clients with “claims for either Indian depredations or service in the Oregon Volunteers.”

As a frontier lawyer with little experience from an uninfluential territory, Dowell could make little unassisted headway in Washington, D.C., but Joseph Lane, Oregon Territory Governor, territorial delegate from Oregon, and Brigadier General of the Oregon militia during the Indian wars, helped Dowell with the procedures for procuring payment.

Payment of Indian Depredation claims in Oregon came under an act passed by Congress in 1832:

“If the nation or tribe to which such Indians may belong receive an annuity from the United states, such claim, shall, at the next payment of the annuity, be deducted there from and paid to the party injured; and if no annuity is paid to such nation or tribe, then the amount of the claim shall be paid from the Treasury of the United States.”

However, legislation and payment were two entirely different things. Delayed by commission reports, bureaucratic evaluations, administration fears of being viewed as spendthrifts, Congressional consideration, and finally limited fund appropriations, it was 1861 before claimants began to see any payments.

The years 1857 through 1866 were good ones for Dowell at Jacksonville. He became a well-respected attorney and claims agent. He practiced in the courts of the Third Judicial District and before the Oregon Supreme Court, attended courts at Roseburg, and Salem, traveled to Portland, and at least once collected bad debts in Umatilla County. Jackson County used his services in several ways. He handled the advertisement of school lands and printed appointments and notices for the County Commissioners and also defended the county in several small lawsuits. He also appears to have retained his earlier interest in mining, investing in some potential claims and at least one marble quarry in Josephine County.

His most successful year appears to have been 1862 in which he collected about $60,000.00 in claims and received a commission of ten per cent. That same year he was elected for one term as prosecuting attorney for the Third Judicial District of Oregon.

His substantial home on North 5th Street was also completed in 1862. It is believed to have been the first local residence constructed in the Italian villa style and also the first Jacksonville residence to be built of brick. The white marble used in the home’s front porch steps, window sills, and portions of three fireplace mantels may have come from Dowell’s own quarry.

And in 1862, he married the attractive, 22-year-old Anna Campbell, whom he had been courting. According to anecdotes, he hosted a housewarming party on October 24, left in the middle of the party to marry Anna, and returned with her to announce that the housewarming party was now a wedding reception!

Next month: B.F. Dowell – Claims Collector, Lobbyist, and Newspaper Publisher.

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