Thomas Downs papers  1862-1938
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Downs papers includes a portion of the personal and professional correspondence of Thomas Downs of Connersville, Ind., focusing on the period between 1903 and 1911, when he was employed as an Indian agent to the Ute, Winnebago, Yakima, and other Indian nations in the western states. While there is comparatively little information on Native Americans or Native American cultures, per se, Downs' letters do provide a glimpse into the mind of one Indian agent during the first decade of the 20th century, and documentation of the strained relations between Native Americans and the federal government and the cold reality of reservation life.

There are three topics within the Downs Papers which stand out as being of particular interest. First, there is approximately a dozen letters sent to Downs and other Indian service officials relating to the "rebellion" of Ute Indians at Thunder Butte in November, 1907. These letters, along with several newspaper clippings and a memoir written in about 1911 by Florence Downs Reifel (apparently from Downs' notes) provide a sense of how the situation unfolded and the pressure Downs must have felt to resolve the crisis quickly, if harshly.

The second topic relates to Downs' 1909 inspection tour of the Round Valley Indian School in Covelo, Calif., and the reservations at Neah Bay and Yakima, Wash. Throughout the year, Downs was accompanied by his wife, Mary Jane (Jennie), and although all of the letters are signed "Pa and Ma," they were actually written alternately and independently by Thomas and his wife. Jennie Downs' letters are not particularly informative, though they contain a few useful observations on the conditions of life on the reservation and at Indian schools. Thomas' letters are somewhat more detailed, providing a good impression of the Yakima reservation, in particular, which was then being placed under a comprehensive system of irrigation. On a side note, three of Downs' letters include amusing comments on the difficulty of train travel amidst the crush of visitors to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.

Finally, there is a small, but interesting group of letters pertaining to Thomas Downs' efforts to enroll the Winnebago Indians in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska during October and November, 1909. These include a sad letter describing the scattered and depressed condition of the Winnebagoes in Wisconsin, and a far more optimistic assessment of their kin at the Winnebago Agency in Nebraska, who had taken up farming and other "industrious" habits.

Also noteworthy are three bound "journals" kept in Indian Service notebooks and a photocopy of a fourth. Notebook 2 (Box 5) includes notes taken by Downs in the field at the Yakima Reservation in 1909, describing the status of individual Yakima (and mixed blood) men and women. Notebook 3 (Box 5) includes what appear to be essays or speeches by Downs, including one dealing with racism and citizenship, comparing the social conditions of African-Americans and Native Americans. The fourth journal, present only in photocopy (filed under correspondence for the year 1911), includes an exceptional account of the protracted illness and death of Thomas Downs, as well as an excellent Downs-eye view of the Thunder Butte incident.

The remaining correspondence in the collection includes several touching letters dictated by Thomas Downs to Florence Downs Reifel in December, 1910, when Thomas was too ill to write for himself. These copies include a dramatic letter addressed to Downs' sister, Eliza, with whom he had broken off relations 45 years previously. Through this letter, Downs hoped to mend some family fences before his death, and although Eliza's acceptance of the olive branch -- and her forgiveness (1911 January 7) -- eventually came, it seems probable that it would have arrived after Downs was too ill to read it.

Downs' children and grandchildren are less well represented in the collection, except as recipients of letters. There are some juvenile writings of his daughters, Florence and Susan Jane, and sparse materials relating to the children's education, including grade school report cards and a few miscellaneous letters from George Downs, written while in college at Purdue and medical school in Ann Arbor. Of a more personal nature are two lovely mother's day letters from Jane Reifel to her mother, Florence (1921 May 8, 1938 May 7), extolling Florence's virtues as a mother. Jane admits to having been a rebellious youth, but confesses that she now realizes how Florence's mothering had made her a solid person, unlike her social-seeking cousins. Box 3 also includes a hand-drawn mother's day card from Jane. On an entirely different note, Box 3 contains two "mash cards" -- one a calling-card-sized card printed with the words "May I C U Home?" -- with the answers "yes" and "no," printed on the ends of the card, presumably to be used by the young woman to signal her reply. The other card, "Cigar Flirtation," describes the sexual code of cigar smoking. Finally, two undated letters from Thomas Downs to his son-in-law, Jesse Rhoads, outline his specifications for a house being built for the family, including a photograph of the house and a rough floor plan.

The Downs Papers includes a large number of deeds, accounts, receipts, banking records, canceled checks, and other financial miscellany (Box 4), some leather wallets and a silver match case engraved "Capt. T.D." (Box 7), along with a few obituaries and biographical essays on Thomas Downs, his sons William (who died at 16) and George, and other family members.

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