Paper Trail

Why isn’t the Texas state archives trying harder to recover rare historical papers?

For more than twenty years an ancient yellowed document hung on the wall of a San Antonio savings and loan. It was a receipt authorizing the Republic of Texas to pay a Mexican farmer for his cattle, signed by William Barret Travis just four days before the siege of the Alamo. Not until the savings and loan went bust last year was the document examined—and found to have been stolen from the state archives in the Texas State Library. Sheepishly, the savings and loan’s new owners restored it to its former home.

State archivists were happy to get the historic piece of paper back but also surprised; they hadn’t known it was missing in the first place. The fact is that no one knows exactly what is in the state archives and what isn’t. For decades, administrators maintained such poor security that thieves brazenly walked off with untold numbers of documents. By the time the thefts came to light in the seventies, no one could be certain what had vanished because no inventory existed to show what had been there to begin with.

Now the thefts are receiving renewed public scrutiny because of a recent book by Austin publisher Tom Taylor. In Texfake: An Account of the Theft and Forgery of Early Texas Printed Documents, Taylor describes how administrators of the state library allowed an invaluable part of the state’s patrimony to slip through their fingers. Embarrassed, they were reluctant to admit what had happened and overly cautious about recovering the pilfered papers.

Sad to say, the story of the state archives re•Ââects Texans’ uneasy attitudes toward their past. We tend to preserve our history as myth, while allowing our physical heritage to disappear. We tear down old buildings and pave over cemeteries, and we would even have lost a big chunk of the Alamo compound had it not been for Clara Driscoll. The documents in the state archives were vulnerable because they weren’t valued. And to a disturbing degree, they still aren’t.

A case in point: Last February, Houston collector Jim Grizzard voluntarily returned 22 historic documents to the state archives, documents that he had purchased legally at public auctions, not knowing that they had been stolen. Among them were some dazzling items: a letter from Jim Bowie vowing to “die in the ditches” before surrendering the Alamo, another from an incarcerated Santa Anna plead-ing for his release, and the 1835 provisional government ordinance that established the Texas Rangers. Grizzard had done nothing wrong, except perhaps hang on to the docu-ments long after he had discovered that they rightfully be-longed to the state. “I’m not proud of the role that I’ve played in this,” he told the members of the State Library and Archives Commission. “I could have returned these properties much sooner. But also I’m not proud of the position the archives has taken.”

Grizzard felt awkward at having to prompt the state archives to accept state property. Five years ago, he had returned another cache of stolen historic documents, seven letters written by William Barret Travis at the Alamo. When he gave those back, Grizzard mentioned that he had more suspicious documents in his collection. But no one showed any interest. “I wondered why the archives wasn’t knocking on my door,” Grizzard says. “They knew, but I’m not sure they wanted to know.” Only after Grizzard called the archives last year to demand that research be done to determine the origins of his documents did the state make the effort.

What was holding the state archives back, Grizzard asked? For that matter, where had archivists been ten years ago, when Grizzard had bought most of the documents at a public auction? It was such a high-profile event that it had even been touted in the Houston society columns. But no one from the state library had bothered to show up.

Grizzard was right—administrators of the state archives have missed many opportunities to lay claim to public property. The truth is that the problem of recovering stolen documents is only one of many that plague the state archives and absorb the attention of its staff. In its 115 years of existence, the archives has imperfectly lived up to its mandate, which calls for striking a balance between two other important goals: preserving state documents and providing public access to them. Had the collection been more secure and less accessible, the thieves might not have been so successful.

In fairness, the Texas State Library was not the only institution ravaged by thieves. Countless historic documents also vanished from public and private libraries, from courthouses and from local archives, including some in northern Mexico. But the state archives contained a particularly rich collection, with millions of papers dating to Spanish colonial days. For example, in the 1830’s the firm of Baker and Bordens was hired to print official papers and broadsides—posterlike public information sheets— for the new Texas government. One copy of everything the firm printed went to the Republic’s archives. Over time, other records from the Spanish colonial and Mexican governments, as well as handwritten letters and maps, were added. These collections became the basis of the state archives. In 1876 the Texas State Library became the legal depository for the archives. For years the papers were stored in disarray in the basement of the Capitol. In the early 1960’s they were shifted to a Quonset hut at Camp Mabry and a few years later were moved again to the new state library building on the Capitol grounds. With all that shuf•Ââing around, another of the archives’ chief duties—making an inventory—was never accomplished. By the time an inventory was recognized as important, the task was determined to be hopelessly impractical and expensive.

The lack of an inventory makes recovery tricky. In some cases, archivists can prove beyond a doubt that particular documents came from the state’s collection because of telltale markings that were placed on the papers when they were added to the collection. Some of the documents can

Tags: THE CULTURE

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