A Virtual Walk Through Jacksonville History

Stop 8: B.F. and Anna Dowell House House

 

From Blackstone Alley and the Bilger House, let’s make a right on East F Street and walk one block to the intersection of East F and North Fifth. The majestic Italianate structure at 470 North Fifth Street was the home of Benjamin Franklin Dowell and his family.

Photo credit: Peter Britt, ca. 1875, SOHS #847

Photo credit: Carolyn Kingsnorth

Benjamin Franklin Dowell, named for his famous ancestor, built this house in 1861, and as you can see from the first photo, it originally had a flat roof. While most homes in Jacksonville at that time were heated by stoves, the Dowell house has four fireplaces, three of imported Italian and local marble, and one of black onyx. It’s possible that the local marble came from Dowell’s own quarry on Williams Creek.

 

Photo credits: byowner.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sills at the base of the windows and the front porch steps are also of marble, carved with his name, no less.

The house is brick, with two stories in the front, and one story in the rear, likely added later; the foundation is cut sandstone. The round-headed windows and other features suggest the Italian Villa style.

What can I say about Benjamin Franklin Dowell that hasn’t already been said and in great detail? Unlike many Southern Oregon pioneers, Dowell left diaries, letters, legal briefs and much more behind to document his life and adventures. He was the subject of at least two biographies and one eighty-nine page thesis on the story of his life (for which I am very grateful to Franklyn Daniel Mahar, with hopes he was able to complete his Master of Arts). Dowell owned the Oregon Sentinel from 1864 to 1878 and published his editorial letters almost weekly. There is a lot to say about B.F. Dowell, but here is what, in this amateur historian’s opinion, stands out.

Photo credit: OHS item ba000384

Photo credit: OHS item ba00383

Benjamin was born in Virginia on October 31, 1826. He attended law school in Virginia at the State University and graduated with distinguished honors in 1847 before he was twenty-one years old. He practiced law for a time in Tennessee, but newly discovered gold fields in California caused him, like others, to desert his profession for a time to try his luck in the mines. After falling ill on the journey and again in Sacramento, Benjamin headed to Oregon. There he struggled to practice law first in Dallas, then Salem, where even the established lawyers had difficulty making a living. He became a teacher for a time, and then began a packing and trading business to supply the miners in Jacksonville and Yreka.

When the Rogue Valley Indian Wars broke out in the 1850s, Benjamin voluntarily placed himself and all his animals at the disposal of the various volunteer militia units for as long as they were needed. He carried dispatches alone through Indian territory, accepted federal supply contracts at the government’s price, and even commanded the artillery in an 1855 skirmish with the Walla Walls. When he lost his entire pack train in an 1856 skirmish, he left the volunteers and opened a law practice in Jacksonville.

There he began his years-long attempts to collect on the claims of persons, including himself, deprived of property and loved ones by the wars with Oregon’s Native Americans (“Oregon Indian Depredation Claims”). Dowell was still prosecuting and collecting claims as late as 1887, spending months at a time in Washington, D.C., to personally press the claims to Treasury officials and others, including claims of the heirs of Mary Harris Chambers, another well-known pioneer. Dowell’s argument in part was that the United States had encouraged settlement in Oregon in order to save the area from Great Britain (or more specifically, the Hudson’s Bay Company) but did not adequately protect the pioneers from the people who were already living here. He also argued that the government had failed to make treaties or pay the Native Americans for the land the government gave to the whites under the Donation Land Act.  The bulk of Benjamin’s practice must have been as a claims agent because he would have had little time to pursue any other type of practice. His daughter Fanchion said of him, “If he does not secure their [war claims] payment, nobody else need try. When Dowell lets go of anything he undertakes, the cause is hopeless.”

On one of his many trips to Washington, D.C., Dowell was on hand to observe the celebration of the very first Decoration Day, or Memorial Day, on May 30, 1868. In a letter published in the Oregon Sentinel on June 27, 1868, Dowell describes the ceremonies, speeches, and decoration of graves at what is now Arlington National Cemetery.

Dowell bought the Sentinel in 1864 and owned the paper until 1878. He spent much of those years in Washington, D.C., and during that time the paper was overseen by a series of editors and even by Dowell’s wife, Anna.   Originally published by W.G. T’Vault as the Table Rock Sentinel, it was a pro-slavery, pro-Southern paper until T’Vault sold it in 1861 and it became pro-Union. Dowell continued this editorial policy, firmly in the Union tradition. Dowell stated that his reasons for purchasing the paper were first, to create public support for paying the claims of the Oregon volunteer militia; second, to advocate for the Constitution and the Union; and third, to build a political reputation for himself.

Throughout these years, Dowell also successfully defended himself against allegations of fraud and profiteering, successfully litigating against local notables such as Jesse Applegate to protect his reputation and investments. Had causes of action for libel been more readily available, no doubt he could have defended himself against the vitriol he faced from rival newspapers as well. As we discovered at Stop #1 (Jackson County Courthouse) of this tour, editors of local papers “exhausted their vocabularies of invective and encomium….”, sometimes even upon each other. Et tu, Messrs. Krause and Leeds?

While not opposed to slavery prior to the Civil War, when succession began Dowell decided that the South was acting like a “spoiled child” in need of a “good whipping.” He believed that the union must stand. Under his ownership, the Sentinel was the first paper west of the Rockies to endorse Ulysses S. Grant for President. Dowell supported suffrage, to be adopted “…without regard for race, color or sex.” The Sentinel was the first paper on the Pacific Coast to support suffrage for African Americans; it strongly advocated female suffrage and for full rights and privileges of citizenship for Asians already in the country (although Dowell opposed further immigration of Asians to the United States).

A story which perhaps tells us more about Dowell pertains to a slaughter occurring in August of 1854. After killing many Native Americans in the area, the citizenry brought two grown men to Jacksonville and hanged them. Later that day, two farmers from Butte Creek brought to town a Native American boy of 8 or 9 years old and the citizens were crying out that he, too, should be hanged. Dowell stepped in to save the child, going so far as to remove the rope from the boy’s neck and lead him toward the local tavern to be fed. The crowd had quieted until Martin Angel, a local citizen in favor of genocide against Native Americans, rose up and once again incited the crowd to hang the child. After Dowell was restrained by the crowd, the child was indeed hanged.

Dowell and his family moved to Portland in 1885. He died in his sleep there on March 12, 1897. He was survived by his wife and three children. His daughter Anna, with whom he had practiced law as Dowell and Daughter, ceased the practice of law upon her father’s death and married a Portland attorney.   Dowell’s first daughter, Fanchion, had married and was living in Portland as well when her father died. His son, Benjamin F. Dowell, Jr., eventually became the Portland Fire Chief.

 

Please join us next week as we continue our Virtual Walk Through History.


Sources and References:

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft. History Co., 1883.

Engeman, Richard H. The Jacksonville Story. Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1990.

Evans, Elwood. History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington: Embracing an Account of the Original Discoveries on the Pacific Coast of North America, and a Description of the Conquest, Settlement and Subjugation of the Original Territory of Oregon: Also Interesting Biographies of the Earliest Settlers and More Prominent Men and Women of the Pacific Northwest, Including a Description of the Climate, Soil, Productions, Industries, Improvements and Occupations, as Well as the Natural Advantages and Resources and Artificial Acquirements of the Great States of Oregon and Washington. North Pacific History Company, 1889.

Evans, Gail E.H. A Walk Through Time.

Kingsnorth, Carolyn. “Benjamin Franklin Dowell: Attorney, Packer and Claims Collector.” The Jacksonville Review, May 2016 and June 2016.

Mahar, Franklyn Daniel. “Benjamin Franklin Dowell, 1826-1897: Claims Attorney and Newspaper Publisher in Southern Oregon.” University of Oregon, 1964.

Meunier, Anna, and Sarah Flora. Growing Oregon.

Miller, William. Silent City on the Hill. William M. Miller, 2014.

Ross, Marion D. “Jacksonville, An Oregon Gold-Rush Town.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, XII, no. 4, 1953, p. 21.

F. Dowell, truwe.sohs.org/files/dowell.html.

 


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