Dr. Lewis S. Owings
A Brief Biography
By W. T. Block
The writer is indebted to Brad Veek, David Owings, and B. C. Thomas for sharing info
In a remote corner of Oakwood Cemetery near Denison, Texas, there lies all that is earthly, that is, the remains of Dr. Lewis S. Owings. And until recently those remains lay in absolute anonymity and obscurity for that pioneer Texan, who added a remarkable dimension to the history of the Southwestern States. Of course, he was not a figure of the magnitude of Sam Houston or William B. Travis; nevertheless his contributions to the history of Texas and Arizona are significant and deserve to be recorded for posterity.
There are still disputes among collateral descendents of Owings, which the writer does not wish to become embroiled in. Some believe that his middle name was Solomon, while others believe it was Sumpter. Some believe that he was born in North Carolina instead of Tennessee. Lewis S. Owings was born on Sept. 20, 1820, most probably in Post Oak Springs, Roane County, Tennessee.1
The first thirty years of L. S. Owings’ life are draped in mystery and obscurity. Hence, nothing is known of his common school education. Several primary sources list him as being a physician, but again nothing is known of his medical training. During that age around 1840, frontier physicians sometimes obtained that status either by graduating from a medical college, or else by apprenticing themselves to a practicing physician. Some have stated that Owings never practiced medicine, apparently because he was involved in storekeeping, realty ventures or other vocations. It should be noted that practicing medicine on a sparse frontier was seldom self-sustaining, and most all physicians engaged in another pursuit in order to support families.2
Somehow a myth has evolved that L. S. Owings participated in the Battle of San Jacinto, but there is no known primary source to substantiate that claim. In Arkansas, Owings watched as a neighbor, Henry Wax Karnes marched away, ultimately to command a company at that battle. However a list of the participants of that battle, of Capt. Karnes’ company muster roll, and an index containing the names of 6,000 Texas veterans, who served as Texas soldiers between 1835 and 1845 do not bear any record that Owings ever shouldered arms in defense of Texas. And he is also not listed in Dixon and Kemp’s The Heroes of San Jacinto. Also a letter to this writer from the Texas State Library and Archives confirms that Owings was awarded no military bounty or donation land grants for military service. However, the Texas General Land Office does have records of land grants in Milam and Montague counties, whereby Owings bought and patented land purchased from other parties.3
The 1850 Yell County, Arkansas census is one of the earliest primary source documents about L. S. Owings. On Oct. 28, 1850 he was enumerated at the residence 19-19, page 478, at the house of his father-in-law, Timothy Haney, born in Virginia. Owings was recorded as age 32 (no explanation for discrepancy), born in Tennessee. His wife, Elizabeth Haney Owings, was enumerated as being age 24 and born in Mississippi.4
Soon afterward, about 1851, L. S. Owings left for Texas, for the region now known as Karnes County, and to an old Spanish village formerly known as Alamita. Apparently Owings’ wife had died in the meantime; a most likely guess would be in childbirth. One biographer noted that Owings was sometimes nicknamed “pegleg,” since one of his legs was visibly shorter than the other.5
In 1852 Owings entered into a partnership with Thomas Ruckman to found the town of Helena in present-day Karnes County. Since Owings married his second wife, Helen Marr Swisher, on Jan. 5, 1852 in Ellis County, he named his new town after her given name of Helen. Helen Swisher was born near Nashville, Tennessee, on Sept. 4, 1831, and she came with her parents to Texas in 1850. In the 1860 census in New Mexico, her younger sister, Amanda Swisher, was living in the same household. No children resulted from the Owings-Swisher marriage.6
Dr. Owings was appointed the first postmaster of Helena, then in Goliad County, on Nov. 7, 1853, and he relinquished that post to his partner Ruckman a year later. From 1852 until 1858 the two men were partners in the Ruckman-Owings Mercantile Company. Dr. Owings also operated a separate stage line of 4-horse coaches, which connected San Antonio with Goliad. During the mid-1850s, the so-called “Cart War” broke out along that same route, where Mexican freighters operated ox carts hauling merchandise between Indianola and San Antonio. However, Texans wanted only Anglo citizens as teamsters on that route, and the resulting violence killed several Mexican teamsters.
Helena reached fruition after the Civil War, long after Owings had moved. At one time it had a courthouse, jail, 3 churches, 2 newspapers, and several other businesses, but the town declined rapidly to ghost town status after 1884, when the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad bypassed it.7
In 1854 Ruckman and Owings petitioned the state legislature to organize a new county out of parts of Bexar, Goliad, Gonzales, and Dewitt counties. On Feb. 4, 1854, the legislature granted their petition, with Helena as the county seat. Owings named the new county after his Arkansas friend, the San Jacinto veteran Henry W. Karnes, after which a courthouse was built at Helena. An election for county officers was held at the Ruckman-Owings store on Feb. 27, 1854.8
In 1855 Dr. Owings ran for representative in the state legislature and was elected. According to his biographer, he ran for reelection in 1857 on a platform to amend the state constitution to permit the establishment of banks. Owings was vilified in the newspapers as being “pro-bank” and as a “jockey for the bank horses.” A very “anti-banking” mentality prevailed among pioneer Texans, and as a result, he was defeated.9
It will probably never be known for certain why Dr. Owings choose to move to Mesilla, New Mexico. He was perhaps despondent about his failure to win reelection. However, gold was discovered by Jacob Snively in Gila City, Yuma County, Arizona in 1857. And gold was also discovered at Birchfield or Pinos Altos, north of Silver City in Grant County, New Mexico in 1859.10 Nevertheless, Cochise and his Apaches were attacking sporadically as far east as Mesilla.
Also in 1857, Dr. Owings met Bredett C. Murray, his future brother-in-law, who was born in Michigan in 1837. A college graduate, Murray was also well-trained as a printer, and when Dr. Owings left for New Mexico, Murray followed in a wagon train, bringing with him a complete printing press; and he founded the Mesilla Times in 1859. Previously for a time, Murray was in the mercantile business with Dr. Owings in San Antonio. In 1866 Murray married Amanda Swisher, Mrs. Owings’ sister, who formerly had lived in the Owings’ household.11
In 1860 Dr. L. S. and Helen Owings were enumerated in the Dona Ana County, New Mexico census, he again as a physician, while the couple was living in Mesilla. His sister-in-law, Amanda Swisher, age 13, was recorded as living within their household.12
At that time, the Apaches were attacking all around Mesilla. Murray was editor of the Mesilla Times, and he used the Times for his outspoken editorials about that area’s lack of protection from the Indians. Owings petitioned the territorial governor in Santa Fe, but received no satisfaction that aid was forthcoming.13
In the meantime, Dr. Owings was again in the mercantile business, and also in the process of acquiring a $70,000 gold nest egg as a result of his realty dealings and the sale of his Pinos Altos mining claims.14 Meanwhile, the settlers of Dona Ana, Grant and neighboring counties, as well as settlers in Tuscon and the Gadsden Purchase strip, decided to request territorial status for Arizona, to consist of the southern portions of both states, that is, all the territory south of 33 degrees, 45 minutes. Thirteen towns and 31 delegates met at Tuscon on April 2-5, 1860 to draw up a territorial constitution, at which time Dr. Owings was elected unanimously as provisional governor. He was authorized to appoint a roster of officials to create judicial districts and to convene a bicameral legislature.15
Commensurate with his appointment as governor, Dr. Owings organized the first Arizona Territorial Rangers, which consisted at first of one company under Capt. James Henry Tevis (also spelled Tavis, Travis). Their headquarters for the next year was at the gold mining town of Pinos Altos, north of present-day Silver City. That first company remained intact for one year, after which they embraced the Confederate cause, and restructured themselves to become the nucleus of the Confederate Arizona Brigade. That brigade soon became an active and vital component for the defense of Texas.16
In Oct., 1860, Gov. and Mrs. Owings visited the Pinos Altos gold mines at Birchville, where they were given a grand reception. At that time, “Mr. Catlett, on behalf of the miners, presented Mrs. Owings with 44 fine specimens of Pino Alto gold nuggets...”17
The Civil War erupted in April, 1861, but with the slow movement of the times, the news may not have reached Mesilla until June. Both Dr. Owings and B. C. Murray quickly cast their lots with the Confederacy, and probably longed for enough troops to keep New Mexico in the Confederacy. Already a contingent of Federal troops occupied the territorial capitol of Santa Fe. About Sept. 1, 1861, Dr. Owings and B. C. Murray returned to Texas, the latter with the Arizona Brigade. Apparently Dr. Owings already had plans to entreat the Confederate Congress to approve the new Arizona territorial status, and to solicit Confederate troops for the defense of New Mexico. Actually about Jan. 1, 1862 Confederate Gen. H. H. Sibley and Col. W. R. Scurry had already invaded New Mexico with about 2,500 Texas troops. However, they were defeated at the Battles of Valverde (Feb. 1, 1862) and Glorietta (Mar. 27, 1862) by Union Gen. E. R. S. Canby and Maj. John Chivington, after which Sibley’s army retreated to Texas.18
Apparently Dr. Owings departed from Texas about Oct. 1, 1861, and it seems certain that his mission involved the New Mexico and Arizona territories. On Dec. 20, 1861, he wrote a letter to his wife that he was preparing to depart from Richmond, and that his journey to New Orleans would consume only 4 days. (The latter statement seems quite far-fetched, considering the slow modes of travel during Civil War days.)19
Other letters were written by Dr. Owings to Amanda Swisher, his sister-in-law, from New Orleans on April 27 and 28, 1862. Owings wrote that 15 “Yankee” gunboats were anchored in the Mississippi River opposite New Orleans, but that the city had not yet surrendered. He added that the Confederates had already burned all Rebel boats in the harbor, also 20,000 bales of cotton in storage; they had also poured all sacks of sugar into the river, and emptied all barrels of molasses into the streets. He asked Amanda to mail him two letters, one addressed to Alexandria, LA., and the other to Jackson, MS. Owings hoped to engage a schooner to carry him to the mouth of Red River, from whence he thought the journey to Chapell Hill, TX would consume only 15 days. 20
It appeared that Dr. Owings spent the remainder of the war years in San Antonio, where biographer Overbeck reported that in 1865, “Dr. Owings was financially strapped, in poor health, dividing his time between San Antonio and his ranch outside the city...”21
Some sources have credited Dr. Owings with founding several newspapers (i.e.: Mesilla Times, San Antonio Express, Austin Democratic Statesman, Denison Daily News), but obviously credit for the purchase and operation of those papers belong to B. C. Murray, who was the printer. Whatever extent that Owings was involved in their operation amounted only to the business end because of his partnership and relationship with Murray.22
About 1871, Owings went north briefly to Kansas, where he became general passenger agent for the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston Railroad. However, when the Missouri, Kansas, Texas rails reached Denison in 1872, Dr. Owings implanted his feet in the soil of that city for the remainder of his life.
According to Overbeck, Dr. Owings entered the livery stable business soon afterward, and had “a 125 horse remuda plus one of the first wells in the city... He also supplied buggies and all their trappings, and acted as commissioner (cotton chandler or factor) for merchandise, cotton, wool and hides...”23
On March 7, 1873 Denison became an incorporated city by act of the state legislature. It was named for the railroad vice president, George Denison, and on March 14, 1873, Owing read his first proclamation to the new city council, as the new town’s first mayor.24
On Dec. 27, 1873, the Denison Daily News published the following ad:
As Overbeck again stated, the “one quality that Owings lacked was good health,” and his resignation as mayor was accepted by the city council in May, 1873. Owings sold out his livery stable and cotton commission business, and began to travel, probably in the west for his health. His last business transaction was a realty and legal partnership with E. S. Bell in March, 1875. Thereafter he was virtually bedfast as his health continued to decline, and he died on Aug. 20, 1875.25 His widow Helen resided with the B. C. Murray family for all/most of the remainder of her life until her death on June 4, 1910.26
Unfortunately, Dr. Owings’ grave was to remain in hopeless oblivion and obscurity in Oakwood Cemetery for most of a century. Fortunately, B. C. Thomas of Foster City, California has now erected at his own expense an elaborate monument that relates many of Dr. Owings’ accomplishments.
Dr. Lewis S. Owings lived during a period of frontier America when life was harsh and travel was “ox cart slow.” And sadly many episodes of his early life, his medical training for instance, are still unknown. Nevertheless, he faced and overcame that frontier harshness, and served as a state representative, provisional governor and town mayor because people believed in him, and until bad health forced his retirement. Although some writers have voiced their disbelief that he ever practiced medicine, the writer believes that indeed he had a frontier medical practice interspersed with his mercantile and realty activities, even if the circumstances of that practice are lost to posterity. Owings may not have confronted his enemies on the battlefield, but until his death he did fight for the principles that he thought would advance the cause of humanity. And for those reasons alone, a decent biography of his life should survive for the information and edification of generations of Americans still unborn.
1 Owings obituary, Denison Cresset, Aug. 23, 1875.
2 Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Yell Co., Ark., page 478.
3 Letter, Texas State Library and Archives to W. T. Block, Jan. 10, 2005; also S. H. Dixon and L. W. Kemp, The Heroes of San Jacinto (Houston: 1932).
4 Email, David Owings to W. T. Block, Jan. 11, 2005; see also footnote 2; also A. D. ad E. S. Owings, “Owings and Allied Families,” (New Orleans: 1976), pp. 220-223.
5 Ruth Ann Overbeck, “Biography of Dr. L. S. Owings,” Denison (TX) Herald, Jan. 25, 1972, p. 12.
6 “Obituary of Helen Swisher Owings,” Denison (TX) Gazetteer, June 12, 1910.
7 “Helena, Texas” and the “Cart War,” in Handbook of Texas online.
8 “Karnes County,” in Handbook of Texas online
9 Overbeck, “Biography of L. S. Owings,” Denison Herald, June 25, 1972.
10 James McBride, “General Mining in Arizona;” Mesilla (NM) Times, Oct. 25, 1860; Robert Woznicki, History of Yuma, Ch. V; R. C. Jones, Ghost Towns of New Mexico.
11 Biography of B. C. Murray, A Paper read at the Red River Historical Society, Sherman, TX, Dec. 11, 1926.
12 A. D. and E. S. Owings, “Owings and Allied Families,” p. 222.
13 Jay J. Wagoner, Early Arizona (Univ. of Arizona Press: 1976), pp. 370-371.
14 Overbeck, “Owings Biography,” Denison Herald, June 25, 1972.
15 Wagoner, Early Arizona, pp. 370-371; History of Arizona, Vol. I: Chapter XIX: Early Settlements and First Attempts at Organization, Univ. of Arizona, p. 325.
16 “The Original Arizona Territorial Rangers,” in Wikipedia: Thomas D. Gilbert, Arizona Confederate History.
17 “Grand Reception Given Governor Owings at the Pinos Altos Gold Mines,” Mesilla Times, October 25, 1860.
18 Biography of “Gen . E. R. S. Canby” and “Battle of Glorietta, NM.” in Handbook of Texas online.
19 Letter, Dr. L. S. Owings to Helen Owings, Richmond, VA., Dec. 20, 1861 in the Owings/Murray Collection.
20 Letter, Owings to Amanda Swisher, New Orleans, April 27, 28, 1862, in the Owings/Murray Collection.
21 Overbeck, “Biography of Dr. Owings,” Denison Herald, June 25, 1972.
22 Biography of B. C. Murray, A Paper Read before the Red River Historical Society, Sherman, Ts., Dec. 4, 1926.
23 See Overbeck, FN. 21.
24 “Early History of Denison, Texas,” online; “First Proclamation Issued in Denison by Mayor L. S. Owings,” March 14, 1873, also online.
25 Overbeck, FN21.
26 “Obituary of Helen Swisher Owings,” Denison Sunday Gazetteer, June 12, 1910.