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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Uncovering Starr’s Real Stories

By Megan Maxwell and Jeff Campbell, Starr Family Home staff

In the past few months, the staff of the Starr Family Home has conducted research at the East Texas Baptist University Library, the Marshall Texas Public Library, the East Texas Research Center at Stephen F. Austin State University, and the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Research reveals information a historian does not always expect. Available publications indicate one thing, yet the story often turns out to be somewhat different or more complicated. History books published in a specific time period not only tell about their subject matter, but are also a reflection of the times in which they are published.

Starr Family Home site staff researching Dr. Starr

For example, a booklet compiled in 1881 of Dr. James Harper Starr’s biographical notes contains little mention of slavery. The only mention is on page 4 of his notes on how he started to Texas with his wife and her servant (not slave) Tempie, in February 1834. Research in Austin revealed bills of sale that Dr. Starr had not only purchased Tempie but also six other slaves. Dr. Starr was writing about his memories during the time of Reconstruction in the South, when citizens and historians were framing how the stories surrounding the Civil War would be told.

In 1950, John Nathan Cravens wrote and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas published a biography of Dr. Starr. He states on page 120 that Starr once declared, “I never purchased a slave with the view of selling him again and shall never so purchase one.” The author continues by saying there is only one record of Dr. Starr selling a slave, named Watt, because the slave was habitually drunk. Recent research indicated that Dr. Starr bought a slave named Peter in 1862 and sold him in 1863.

Biographical notes and Cravens' biography of Dr. Starr

On pages 119 and 120 of James Harper Starr: Financier of the Republic of Texas, Cravens reveals Dr. Starr’s views on slavery: “As a boy in the North he had acquired anti-slavery sentiments, particularly from his mother.” [Page 119] As he experienced slavery in Georgia, Alabama, and Texas, his views changed. “He conceded that the slavery system did have its evils but held that time would correct them if the South were left alone.” [Pages 119 and 120] Research reveals a deeper conflict. Letters from Dr. Starr’s brothers in Ohio and Massachusetts show their strong abolitionist views and their fervent disagreement with Dr. Starr’s view of slavery.

These letters of strong disagreement also allow us to see how a family continued to love and care for each other while at the same time standing on opposite sides of a major conflict. Although these brothers’ views on slavery were in conflict, their love for one another kept them writing regularly to each other.

While books, periodicals, and other publications can reveal some truths, in-depth research of documents and letters can often tell us the rest of the story.

Starr Family Home is located in Marshall on the corner of Travis and S. Grove streets, in the Texas Forest Trail Region.

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