Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989 Page: 4
The following text was automatically extracted from the image on this page using optical character recognition software:
FROM THE EDITOR
While the regular business of the Texas
Historical Foundation is preservation of historic
sites and structures, we trespass here into
an area sacred to other state organizations because
we hold preservation of the written word
important to all Texans, and because we are
aware of a problem that has found no other
Although it is not widely known outside a
small group of state officials and collectors of
Texana, there is substantial evidence that historical
documents have been stolen from the
Texas State Archives, libraries and other state
institutions. It may still be occuring.
The tendency to rob, steal and pilfer institutional
Texana holdings across the state may
have had its beginnings in Mexico in the early
1930s, with the effort of Thomas J. Streeter to
acquire a significant collection of Texana and
Western Americana. He purchased many items
from Mexico, where these important historical
pieces frequently found their way out of the
archives of various state institutions. While
some may be appalled by this activity, it was the
Mexican officials themselves who were often
the sellers of these items for which they had
little or no regard, even burning the papers or
using them in the manufacture of gun powder.
In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, there is evidence
that state and university archivists sold items to
such collectors as Streeter and Philpott of Dallas,
or traded for other "more desirable" items. It
also appears that the more acceptable practice
of selling duplicate items is still occuring. The
problem is that because much of the early deaccession
was not well documented, it is difficult
to determine the proper provenance of
some historical items which certainly at one
time resided in the state archives.
In the late 1960s activities became more
reprehensible. A significant quantity of items
were stolen, not bought, from the archives of
Saltillo, Mexico. Saltillo had become the principal
repository for all historical documents
which had been gathered from nineteen
municipios across Mexico. From what we have
learned it appears the archives were pilfered by
a professor at Pan American University in
Brownsville. Although not justifying the conduct
of the thieves, Mexican officials and overseers
of this important archive were apparently
unconcerned about the distressing loss. Furthermore,
the gringo there to do research gets
little assistance from officials in gaining access
to important documents.
It appears that most of these items moved
from the professor to a Houston book dealer.
Inspired by their success south of the border, the
archival bandits moved north. Like a swarm of
locusts, they descended on the Texas State
Archives, and archives of other state libraries
The success of this invading force is shocking.
Many significant historical items were stolen.
Where did they go? Apparently they were
sold to unsuspecting collectors. The question is
how and why ? That answer is not simple, but the
primary reason is the failure of archivists to publicize
this blatant historical thievery. No state
institution, library or repository for historical
material has publicized the items that are missing
and suspected stolen from their archives. No
state institution has actively pursued the recovery
of what must be literally hundreds of thousands
of dollars worth of historical documents.
Many of the rarest of these items have been
sold publicly. The most notable example of this
was an auction conducted in Houston in 1971,
when letters by W. B. Travis, Stephen F.
Austin, Sam Houston and Jim Bowie were sold
openly, though they clearly were the property of
The State Library Commission has failed to
pursue the recovery of the stolen material, except
in the most obvious instances. The reason
given publicly is that they don't have a formal
plan approved for such procedures. Others say
the reason may be that some Library Commission
members themselves would be embarrassed
by the results of such a program at the time that
these items came to light.
Many of the stolen documents may have
been altered in subtle ways, making them difficult
to identify as property of the state. This is
compounded by the history of some legitimate
sales and deaccession by various state institutions.
However, these are frail excuses for not
proposing a policy letting the state rightfully
pursue the recovery of documents belonging to
it and the citizens of Texas.
I believe I speak for all honest collectors
when I say none covet the property of the
state-they want these documents to find their
way back to their proper home. At the same
time, honest collectors need to be afforded
protection from the state's unjustified invasion
of their collection. A good beginning for a
recovery procedure would be the requirement of
every state institution to publish a list of all
known documents and books which have been
stolen from its archives. This would greatly discourage
the efforts of disreputable dealers or
thieves to traffic in these items. It would give
every honest collector a list from which he
could purge his collection of items that rightfully
belonged to the state.
I also believe there are many collectors who
presently have items of suspicious provenance
in their collections, but are unwilling to approach
the state for fear of arbitrary attempts to
claim the items. Therefore, an independent
body should be set up to evaluate any document
which a collector thinks of questionable title.
This body would have no power to recover items
but would simply give an opinion as to whether
the item was formerly part of the state repository.
Confirmation by this body that the item
was not property of the state would be tantamount
to approval that the item could be marketed
freely among collectors and book dealers.
An honest collector who found an item to be
stolen would, I believe, return it voluntarily.
The State Library Commission should come
forth soon with a plan as to how the state can
recover items which were clearly once a part of
the archives and were not traded or sold therefrom
These stolen documents are an invaluable
resource, and should be available to all interested
parties to illuminate the understanding of
the unique history and character of Texas. Isn't
that, after all, the point of historic preservation?
J. P. Bryan
4 HERITAGE * WINTER 1989
Here’s what’s next.
This issue can be searched. Note: Results may vary based on the legibility of text within the document.
Tools / Downloads
Get a copy of this page or view the extracted text.
Citing and Sharing
Basic information for referencing this web page. We also provide extended guidance on usage rights, references, copying or embedding.
Reference the current page of this Periodical.
Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1989, periodical, Winter 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45430/m1/4/: accessed September 26, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.