Howell Tatum Davis Family Papers

Identifier: MSS.0856

  • Staff Only

Scope and Content

The Howell Tatum Davis collection, 1835-1859, is comprised of 123 letters both to and from Davis, 4 account receipts, 4 sheets of classroom notes and poetry, 8 miscellaneous envelopes, and 1 address card. The majority of the collection consists of incoming correspondence from Davis’ friends, family, and business partners in Matagorda County in Caney, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee. Many letters also have notes scribbled on the envelope or reverse sides that appear to have been written by school children. Letters range from 1835-1859, but the large majority of letters were sent in the 1850s.


  • 1835 - 1859

Biography-Howell Tatum Davis

Howell Tatum Davis was born to a prominent, plantation-owning family in Nashville, Tennessee in 1815. It is likely that Davis accompanied his uncle Elisha Davis to Matagorda County, TX in 1835 just after the beginning of the Texas War for Independence along with his Hardeman cousins and several other relatives (1). At this time, many Tennesseans were drawn to Texas for its promise of cheap land and new opportunity and its commitment to the principles of liberty (5). A combination of these motivations most likely enticed Davis to accompany his family. Before they settled however, Elisha Davis passed away, and thus during the first decade and a half of his time in Matagorda, Davis stayed for varying lengths of time with the Hardeman, Duncan, and Rugeley families.

Upon arriving, many of Davis’ relatives took up arms in the Texas War for Independence (1835-1836); however, Davis stayed behind to manage his family’s plantations and estates. After the fall of the Alamo, the Hardeman family fled to Galveston for the remainder of the war (1). Davis most likely accompanied them as the town was virtually abandoned by residents (2).

Once Texas gained its independence from Mexico, Matagorda County grew and prospered as a center for the shipping industry in Texas (2). During this time, Davis primarily worked as a private teacher for the Duncan family. Davis also participated in several business ventures. In Matagorda, many local planters reached out for loans to Davis who often invested in local plantations. Davis also owned two slaves, Kit and Albert, and rented them out to planters and occasionally sent them to New Orleans and Houston to manage his own business affairs. Much of the incoming correspondence detail Davis’ business transactions and loans that occasionally required legal action, particularly after the death of Albert sometime in 1851.

Not long after Texas joined the Union in 1845, the nation erupted in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). During the conflict, Davis stayed in Matagorda County to continue teaching and managing his business ventures. The war had very little effect on the day-to-day activities of the people of Matagorda, so most residents chose not to flee. Davis did however spend the first summer of the war at his family home in Nashville with his student John (“Jack”) Duncan Jr.

The year 1854 proved very difficult for the people of Matagorda County. In September 1854, a hurricane nearly leveled the entire county including the small schoolhouse where Davis taught (2). Not long after the storm however, the people rebuilt much of the town and it returned to its previous level of prosperity.

Davis never married or fathered any children and most likely died sometime in 1859 as he contracted a serious illness around this time. He spent the last decades of his life teaching, investing, and doing business in Matagorda County, Texas.

Biography-The Hardeman Family

The Hardemans, cousins of Howell Tatum Davis, were influential in early American history. Many, along with their families, moved from Hardeman County, Tennessee to Matagorda County, Texas in 1835 just after the beginning of the Texas War for Independence (1,5). By this time, a movement supporting Texas in its struggle for independence from Mexico had already emerged in Nashville (5). This fight for liberty undoubtedly motivated Bailey Hardeman (the father of Samuel Wilson Hardeman, a close friend and cousin of Davis), whose father had been influential in ratifying the State Constitutions of both North Carolina and Tennessee, to make the move to Texas (1). Just after the beginning of the conflict, several family members joined the fight for Texas Independence from Mexico. Most notably, Bailey Hardeman helped draft the Texas Declaration of Independence, signed it, served as the Secretary of State for Texas during the war, and later became the first Secretary of the Treasury (1,3). After Texas gained its independence, the family continued to maintain their plantations in Matagorda County where they primarily grew corn and cotton.

Biography-The Duncan Family

John Duncan moved from Mobile, Alabama to Matagorda County, Texas in 1835 where he immediately joined the fight for Texas independence, quickly rising to the rank of Captain (4). After the war, he received a land grant, moved his family to Matagorda, and began growing cotton, sugar cane, and corn. By 1850, he was one of the most successful sugar cane planters in the area and owned over 60 slaves (4). After moving to Matagorda, Captain John Duncan employed Davis as a teacher for his children who grew very close to Davis. Throughout his time studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, John (“Jack”) Duncan Jr. kept in touch with his beloved childhood teacher.

  1. 1. Handbook of Texas Online, Nicholas P. Hardeman, “Hardeman, Bailey,” accessed February 24, 2017, Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  2. 2. Handbook of Texas Online, Diana J. Kleiner, “Matagorda, TX,” accessed February 27, 2017, Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  3. 3. Brown, Shirley Ledwig., Carol Sue. Gibbs, and Mary B. Ingram. Historic Matagorda County. Vol. 1. Salem Mass.: Higginson Book Co., 2003. Accessed February 15, 2017.
  4. 4. Jones, Marie Beth. “Newly Freed Slaves Clash with Foreman at Plantation.” The Facts. June 24, 2013. Accessed February 28, 2017.
  5. 5. Karsch, Robert F. “TENNESSEE'S INTEREST IN THE TEXAN REVOLUTION, 1835-1836.” Tennessee Historical Magazine 3, no. 4 (1937): 206-39.

Family List of Howell Tatum Davis:

  1. Father- Fredrick Davis
  2. Uncle- Elisha Davis
  3. Nieces- Ann W. Frinelle, Laura B. Robertson
  4. Nephews- Frank Newson, Edward Hicks, John W. Horton, John Blount Robertson
  5. Brother- John E. Davis
  6. Hardeman Cousins- Samuel Wilson Hardeman, D. Hardeman, R. A. Hardeman


.54 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


Physical Location

Offsite Storage, Special Collections & Archives

Finding Aid for the Howell Tatum Davis Family Papers
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository

Special Collections Library
1101 19th Ave. S.
Nashville TN 37212 United States


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