Pioneer Profiles – June 2016
Last month we looked at the early years of Benjamin Franklin Dowell, great, great nephew of Benjamin Franklin and a pioneer Jacksonville resident, in his role as attorney, packer, and claims collector. This month we’ll visit a more established Dowell as he becomes a Washington lobbyist and a newspaper publisher.
Dowell had opened a legal practice in Jacksonville in 1856 after four years running pack trains carrying goods to the mining centers of Northern California and Southern Oregon. When the Indian Wars broke out, he had voluntarily placed himself and his animals at the service of the volunteer militia for as long as they were needed, gaining a reputation for both bravery and patriotism. However, when he lost his entire pack train in a skirmish, he returned to his legal training, putting it to good use as a legal claims agent specializing in lawsuits against the federal government for “Indian depredation and Oregon militia service.”
Despite federal legislation authorizing such claims, obtaining actual payment for clients was an entirely different ballgame given the layers of bureaucracy between claim and monies—commission reports, bureaucratic evaluations, administration politics, Congressional consideration, and limited fund appropriations.
Thanks to Dowell’s Indian War service, Joseph Lane (General, Territorial Representative, and later Governor) provided some political leverage and assistance, and Dowell successfully collected many of the smaller claims prior to and during the Civil War.
By the summer of 1864, he was financially able to purchase the Oregon Sentinel, a Republican weekly published in Jacksonville, “to keep it from falling into Democratic hands.”
The Civil War forced Dowell and many prominent Oregonians who had never opposed slavery to reappraise their views about the federal union. When the South seceded from the Union and conflict began, he looked upon the South as a “spoiled child” that needed a “good whipping.”
Dowell’s business card appeared regularly in the Sentinel both before and after he became its owner. He advertised that he had a special agent in Washington to present and prosecute his claims. It’s possible that federal officials wanted to keep the pro-Southern element in Southern Oregon pacified by means of prompt payment of small debts, and 1862 was Dowell’s most successful financial year. However, when the war ended the federal government’s attitude changed and claimants had to sign a loyalty oath stating that they had never advocated disunion.
Washington’s post-Civil War bureaucracy proved an increasingly difficult maze to navigate, so in 1866 Dowell decided that a trip to the nation’s capital would more successfully expedite the West Coast claims still outstanding from the Indian Wars of the 1850s. He placed a close friend, D.M.C. Gault, in charge of his law office and the Sentinel and boarded a stage to San Francisco where he took passage on a steamer to the East Coast.
Dowell expected to return home in a few months, but he soon found that securing payment from the federal government, even when solicited in person, was a tedious, time-consuming process. His own claim for the loss of his pack train was rejected by Secretary of War Stanton and required a special act of Congress for Dowell to receive compensation.
He also encountered opposition from General John Wool, former commander of the Pacific Division of the U.S. Army. Wool blamed local settlers for instigating the Indian hostilities so they could enrich themselves at government expense. Dowell charged that Wool had only been in Oregon once and that the volunteers deserved payment for services the federal troops had failed to perform.
Dowell’s anticipated short trip to the nation’s capital turned into a year and a half stay. But during that period, the Sentinel had a first-hand Washington correspondent in Dowell. His column, “Letter from B.F. Dowell,” was probably widely read by Oregon Republicans, and he continued his “Letters” every time he returned to Washington, which he did at least once each year.
Dowell’s columns reflected his political philosophy but they also revealed a progressive mind. He envisioned the adoption of equal rights under the law “without regard for race, color or sex.”
He believed that all native born and naturalized Americans should have the right to vote, making the Sentinel the first newspaper on the West Coast to support Negro suffrage. He strongly advocated female suffrage, and while he opposed further immigration of Orientals to the U.S., he advocated full rights and privileges of citizenship for those already in the country.
The Sentinel was also the first paper west of the Rockies to endorse Ulysses S. Grant for President in 1868. Although there was probably hero worship on Dowell’s part, the fact that Grant had approved Dowell’s Indian War claims during his brief tenure as Secretary of War may have also been a factor.
However, the problems created by Dowell’s absence from Jacksonville outweighed his service as political correspondent. Gault failed to collect monies owed the paper, failed to pay creditors, failed to keep financial accounts, and failed to follow Dowell’s editorial directions. When Dowell returned home in late 1868, he dismissed Gault. Over the course of his 14 year ownership of the paper, Dowell would go through eight editors.
In a letter to a close friend, Dowell gave three reasons for having purchased the Sentinel: to create public support for paying the Oregon Indian war volunteers, to be a strong advocate of the Constitution and the Union, and to build a political reputation so that one day he might become Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.
He achieved his first two objectives, but beyond his early judgeship in Tennessee and his appointment to a single term as a U.S. District Attorney, a political career eluded him. Perhaps it was the fact that Southern Oregon was a Democratic stronghold during the 1850s and 1860s. Perhaps it was ongoing opposition from the Applegate family arising from old debts owed Dowell and his clients. Perhaps it was his strong opinions that left little room for divergent views or compromise. Dowell may have failed to achieve a lifelong desire, but he did serve his community well.
However, trips to Washington, protracted litigation, and a decline in claims cases provided only modest financial success. In 1878 Dowell sold the Sentinel and much of his property to settle outstanding debts. Seven years later, Dowell moved his family to Portland where he practiced law with his daughter Annie as Dowell & Daughter until his death in 1897.
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