AE Monthly

Articles - August - 2006 Issue

Texas Sues Private Owner for Old State Documents

Travis

Among the documents at issue are some pertaining to William Travis, leader of Texas' troops at the Alamo.


By Michael Stillman

There is an interesting case going on in Texas right now that ties in with the recent prosecutions for thefts in the book world. Of course everyone is familiar with the Smiley case, where a map dealer sliced maps from old books during numerous library visits and walked out with them stuffed in a briefcase. There wasn't much question of guilt or innocence, right and wrong there. The dealer wisely pleaded guilty and appears to hope that cooperation will reduce his sentence.

The Texas case is not so clear, not so black and white. There is no guilt or innocence, no right or wrong. The issue here has to do with thefts (maybe), but if so, they happened a long time ago. The present owners are apparently not suspected of involvement in their disappearance long ago.

Here are the facts as best known, at least publicly. About a year ago, some parties in Waco, Texas, put 48 historical documents pertaining to Texas up for auction. Many deal with Texas' Republic period, or even earlier. For example, there is a receipt for supplies at the Alamo signed by William Travis, a resignation letter from Jose Antonio Navarro, and certification that Travis was in the Texas Army when he died at the Alamo. These are certainly significant documents in Texas history.

However, this raises some thorny issues. The defendants in the suit initiated by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, including the Robert E. Davis Family Trust (Davis is no longer alive), have not said how they obtained the material, but no one has implied that his surviving family members, nor Davis himself, did anything improper. The State Library Commission believes the documents disappeared from their care in the early 1970s. However, "care" is used loosely here. Apparently, little was done in terms of security at the time. Someone easily could have lifted them and sold the material to an unsuspecting buyer. For that matter, someone at the Library Commission might conceivably have dumped the material, or sold it for a song. It's possible the documents made their way to the Davises without anyone engaging in wrongdoing, and Mr. Davis bought them fair and square. Then again, maybe they were stolen. Who knows? In such a case, should the Davises be required to return the material? They could be legitimate owners of properly purchased goods, innocent purchasers of stolen goods (who are therefore still obligated to return them to the rightful owner), or thieves. What should be done?

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