Manuscripts Division William L. Clements Library University of Michigan
Finding aid for Thomas Downs Papers, 1862-1938
Finding aid created by Rob S. Cox, March 1997
Title: Thomas Downs papers Creator: Downs, Thomas, 1845-1911 Inclusive dates: 1862-1938 Extent: 1.75 linear feet Abstract:
The Downs papers consist of assorted material relating to Thomas Downs of Connersville, Indiana, focusing on the period between 1903 and 1911, when he was employed as an Indian agent to the Ute, Winnebago, Yakima, and other Native American nations in the western United States.
Language: The material is in English Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave. The University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190 Phone: 734-764-2347 Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu
Access and Use
Donated by Tom Downs, 1995. M-3122.
The collection is open for research.
Copyright status is unknown.
The Thomas Downs papers were donated to the Clements Library in 1995 by Tom Downs of Lansing, Mich., the grandson of Thomas Downs.
Thomas Downs Papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan
The collection is organized into 6 series
Series 1: Correspondece
Series 2: Miscellaneous
Series 3: Financial Records
Series 4: Notebooks
Series 5: Printed Items
Series 6: Realia
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.
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.
7 cartes de visite, 1860s. Transferred to Graphics Division. (C.3.14)
Tintypes, all unidentified except two of Cain family. Transferred to Graphics Division. (C.3.14)
3 real photo postcards (Marie E. Seiling, 1912; John, 1916; Cliff House auto tour group, ca.1915) Transferred to Graphics Division. (C.5.6)
Connersville (Ind.) Daily News vol. 2 (123), 1888 November 1 (brief notice of the Downs' visit to Chicago) vol. 2 (126), 1888 November 5 vol. 9 (83), 1895 September 17. Transferred to off-site storage.
Barrows, Frederic Irving, ed. History of Fayette County, Indiana (Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen, 1917) cat. 10/96 rsc