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•âects 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•âing 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 also be traced to the archives through the monumental bibliography completed by Texana collector Thomas W. Streeter in 1960. Certainly the state has a legal right to claim documents when it can prove that they belong to the archives; even an innocent purchaser at a public auction cannot acquire title to stolen goods. But what is the best way to assert that right? Sometimes it might be to make a public fuss; other times it might suit the archives’ interests to be circumspect about matters like security.
In his book, Taylor details the circuitous methods the state has sometimes used to reclaim stolen documents. He describes, for example, a highly publicized auction of 102 historic Texas documents in 1967 at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York. Library administrators had substantial proof that at least 42 of the documents originally came from the state archives, the Barker Texas History Center, and other collections throughout the state, yet they did not press their claim. At the time, they had no funds to pursue stolen documents. Instead, they arranged for agents contacted by the University of Texas to bid on the papers and quietly return them to the archives.
The Parke-Bernet sale was not the only time state officials took a surreptitious route to reacquire state property. In 1982 the private, nonprofit Texas State Historical Association announced a fundraising auction of donated documents that included a Travis letter that archivists could clearly trace back to the state. Archivist David Gracy wrote to the historical association, asking that the letter be returned, but the association wanted the proceeds from the sale. A compromise was negotiated by former governor Price Daniel, a member of the state library commission. Rather than create a public •âap, Daniel arranged for the letter to be purchased by a wealthy Houston oilman, who then donated it to the university. Later the letter was transferred back to the state archives.
Why did state officials feel they had to go through such contortions? Embarrassment was the main reason. “The archival community in general was reluctant to acknowledge the thefts because if you acknowledged them, you acknowledged your operations were faulty,” says David Gracy, the state archivist from 1977 to 1986. After all, the losses had been astounding. According to Taylor, in 1955 Streeter documented the existence in the archives of 54 broadsides printed in the state before 1837. Of those, Taylor says, 30 are now missing, half of which were the only known copies. Probably the most galling loss was Texas’ only broadside of Travis’ legendary “Victory or Death” letter. At one time the state archives had two copies, but in 1953 Streeter acquired one of them in a trade. No one even realized the other one was missing from the archives until a researcher happened to go looking for it in 1986. Another reason state officials took such a low-key approach was because, unfortunately, they didn’t take the archives as seriously as they should have. Not until 1967 was a professional archivist put in charge. All previous archivists were scholars who concentrated on publishing transcripts of the state’s collection, not the sorely needed inventory.
Taylor argues that the state should have announced its claims publicly and seized what it knew to be its own. But the truth is that such a strident stance may not always be in the archives’ best interest. The claims on a document that has changed hands many times over a period of many years can be complicated. Collectors who acquired their documents in good faith and paid dearly for them may resist handing them over. In the Parke-Bernet auction, it seems that the state unnecessarily spent money to retrieve its own documents when a public appeal might have won the papers back. But in the case of the Historical Association, a little behind-the-scenes maneuvering avoided a showdown between two well-meaning groups and retrieved the document at no expense to the taxpayer.
Attitudes at the state archives have changed for the better in recent years. In 1990, archivists identified 21 Texas Revolution—era documents that had once belonged to the state in the collection of late Waco attorney Tony Duty. But Duty’s widow challenged the state’s claim, and the case is now headed for trial in state court. In that instance, a lawsuit was probably the only way to get the documents. In other cases, gentle pressure and quiet negotiations might serve just as well. But as Grizzard’s experience shows, the archives does not always make the effort—even when the collector is willing to part with his treasures.
The bottom line is, as always, money. Over the years, state legislators have not given the archives the kind of cash it needs to fund a comprehensive inventory and track down lost documents. On the contrary, in the past five years the archives has lost two full-time positions to budget cuts. Last year when archives director Chris LaPlante failed to get a private grant for an inventory, Grizzard came forward with a $30,000 donation for a computer and a half-time employee—but that was just enough to get the job off the ground. A complete inventory is still many thousands of dollars and many years away.
I asked LaPlante to show me around the archives, which are located just across the lawn from the east wing of the Capitol. LaPlante led me through a small public reading room, behind the main desk, and up to a padlocked, chain link fence. It was dark and chilly. Beyond the fence were row after row of gray metal shelves crammed with thousands of boxes, each of which, LaPlante said, was stuffed with papers. Above and below us, LaPlante explained, were three more •âoors filled with metal shelves, boxes, and papers—25 thousand cubic feet of records in all—or some 30 to 40 million pieces of paper. The materials were grouped by broad subject matter, so that LaPlante and his staff had a vague sense of where things were. A particular document may not be where it should, but that does not mean it has been stolen—it might simply have been refiled years ago with another group.
A rudimentary card catalog system does exist. LaPlante walked over to a wooden file cabinet and slid open a narrow drawer marked “Army Affairs, Navy Affairs.” Inside were musty file cards, written in slanted, spidery handwriting. LaPlante pulled one out at random. The card referred to a letter written by J.W. Fannin, Jr., in San Antonio to Sam Houston in San Felipe, dated November 18, 1835—three months before the siege of the Alamo. A brief description of the letter was on the card: “F’s opinion as to falling back to Goliad and Gonzales—thinks this the safest plan.”
“This must be a valuable document,” LaPlante said reverently. “Hope we still have it.” He slipped the card back in the drawer. We had turned to walk out of the stacks when I had a thought. Would he mind checking to see if that document was, indeed, still in the state’s collection? “Not at all,” LaPlante replied. Back we went to the file cabinet. LaPlante opened the drawer and looked. And looked. And looked. For several awkward moments he •âipped through the file cards. But it was no use. The cards were in no apparent order, and LaPlante was unable to put his finger on the very card that we had been gazing at only moments before. If the Fannin letter is in the archives, it will have to wait for the long-delayed inventory in order to be discovered.