A native Indianan, Downs was born in Lawrenceburg on March 31, 1845. At only 16, he left home to enlist as a private in Co. K, 54th Indiana Infantry, later serving in the Vicksburg Campaign and in the Department of the Mississippi with the 16th Indiana Infantry and 13th Indiana Cavalry. Upon mustering out of the army, he returned to his parents' home in Connersville, Ind., and in November, 1866, married his seventeen year-old sweetheart, Mary Jane Eisman, the daughter of a German immigrant.
The young couple flourished in Connersville, raising five children while Thomas built his reputation as a carpenter, and later as a top notch general contractor. Downs, Ready & Co., of which he became senior partner in 1884, was employed throughout the state in the design and construction of public buildings, including the 8th Street School, the National Bank building and both the Catholic and Methodist churches in Connersville, and a similar variety of buildings in Rushville, Greenville, Muncie, and Marion. A public-minded man, Downs built a solid civic reputation through his work in Republican political circles, as city councilman (1887-1889), and as a member of the school board (1890-1899), and after the turn of the century, he even entertained thoughts of running for a seat in congress. At the same time, he held positions of responsibility in several fraternal and patriotic organizations, including the Grand Army of the Republic, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, the Royal Arch Masonic lodge, the Union Club, and the Improved Order of Red Men.
Downs' military experience and civic authority were called upon during the Spanish-American War, and for the remainder of his life he remained in service to the government. His administrative skills earned him a captain's commission and an appointment as Assistant Quartermaster at the Jefferson Barracks in Saint Louis and, after the war, with the youngest of his children already in college, he elected to remain in the military. From 1901-1903, he helped to construct the barracks at Fort Stevens, Ore., earning additional income on the side through investments in a variety of extractive enterprises, including the White Pine Lumber Co., the Muir Glacier Packing Co., and the Wisconsin Central Gold Mining Co. His love for the military, however, seems to have waned in Oregon, and in February, 1903, he resigned from the military to accept a commission as Special Indian Agent.
During the early years of the 20th century, the efforts of the federal government to "civilize" Native Americans was pursued with particular vigor. If the soul of the "civilizing" program was the instruction of Native Americans in the English language and European notions of work and sedentary agriculture, the heart of the program was the development of a comprehensive system of government-run Indian schools, designed to eradicate all traces of "savage" culture and behavior. Thomas Downs was among the dozens of men employed as an agent by the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the first decade of the 20th century, helping to establish and maintain these Indian schools -- a man, in his own mind trying to benefit his "charges," while representing a harsh, occasionally brutal federal policy.
From 1903 to 1910, Downs traveled throughout the west, assisting in the establishment and inspection of Indian schools and negotiating the complaints of reservation Indians. His duties were mostly fairly mundane until November, 1907, when he faced a "rebellion" by Ute Indians at Thunder Butte on the Cheyenne Agency, S.D. Early in October, 1907, a band of Utes who had been "brought in" to Thunder Butte by Capt. Carter P. Johnson, were reported to be acting "impudent and sullen" to Downs and other agents, refusing to "help themselves or work." In line with older treaties, the Utes argued that "they were Government people and did not have to work" for the stores promised them, and they further rejected demands to place their younger children in day schools and remand their older children to government boarding schools. At a council on October 14th, and with winter nearing, Downs came down firmly, threatening to withhold stores from the Utes -- effectively starving them -- if they did not accede to the government's demands. Another agent, Mr. Dagnett, held before the Utes the example of the "Sioux" who abided peacefully by similar terms, offering an olive branch of $2 per day for labor under an Indian foreman at Rapid City, and suggesting that their children would be placed in a non-reservation boarding school nearby. On principle, however, the Utes continued to resist, repeating that they were "government people and did not have to work neither would they obey regulations" (all quotes from Downs' journal, interfiled in correspondence, 1911).
During the first week of November, this tense situation seemed to be veering toward armed violence, and amid rumors that the Utes were "intend[ing] to begin depredations... to shoot up the whites and burn the school plant," the white women and children were ordered off the reservation. Johnson hastily arranged a meeting with Ute leaders, and reported them willing to negotiate, but at the same time, Downs continued to report that they remained defiant. In a memo to his superiors in Washington, Johnson criticized Downs for this difference in perception, suggesting that Downs had been excessively harsh in his dealings with the Utes. The Indian service officials, however, sided with Downs, arguing that he was simply carrying out the policies laid down by the Indian service. Chastened, Johnson then used his influence to assist Downs in resolving the crisis to the satisfaction of the government, and after four troops of cavalry were called in, 57 Ute men, along with their wives and children, relented, accepting Dagnett's offer to work in Rapid City. The remaining 244 men, women and children at Thunder Butte were then disarmed and agreed to return to Utah in the Spring, led by Capt. Johnson.
In February 1909, Downs was sent to Covelo, Calif., to inspect the Round Valley Indian School, and then to Neah Bay, Tacoma, and Yakima, Wash. In October, he was appointed Indian Commissioner to enroll the Winnebago Indians in Wisconsin, meeting each one face to face. Downs discovered that the task, which he was given a year to complete, was a daunting one. The Winnebagoes were scattered in small groups throughout the state, in Minnesota and Nebraska, with some members as far away as Ontario and Washington -- many lived in isolated groups as small as a single family. Worse, many of the Winnebagoes lived under particularly poor conditions, according to Downs -- "back number compared with the Sioux" -- and he added without a hint of irony, "the[y] do not seem to have benefitted by their association with the whites" (1909 October 15). With tremendous industry and a good interpreter, however, Downs accomplished the remarkable feat of registering the Winnebagoes in only three months.
In January, 1910, Downs was preparing to assume charge of the Indian schools in Anadarko, Okla., when he suffered a severe fall at a railroad platform. The accident resulted in an "obstruction of the bile" that required emergency surgery, and for several months thereafter, he was restricted to bed with a terrible series of ailments. After developing "dropsy" in December, Downs never recovered, dying of liver failure at home on January 20, 1911.