Created in 1902, MDAH is the second oldest state department of archives and history in the U.S. (The Alabama Department of Archives and History, founded in 1901, is the oldest.*) This letter, from the records of Governor Andrew Longino’s administration (1900-1904), informs the Secretary of State that Dunbar Rowland was elected as the first department director. Rowland, a lawyer from Yalobusha County, acquired the daunting task of organizing Mississippi’s government records, which had accumulated for years. The dire state of these records was one of the main reasons the legislature created the department.
In Mississippi’s Old Capitol: Biography of a Building, John Ray Skates summarizes the exciting history of Mississippi’s records to 1902 and the monumental task facing Rowland as he began sorting through them:
After working for six months, Rowland submitted his first report on the records that had traveled with Mississippi’s itinerant government during the Civil War, that had lain mouldering in piles on the third floor of the Old Capitol for three decades after the war, that in 1896 had been unceremoniously dumped from the third floor windows into open wagons below for transport to the penitentiary where they had remained untended for four years before being returned to the corridors of the Old Capitol. Not surpisingly, Rowland found them in deplorable condition.
Rowland made surprisingly fast progress, because he presented a substantial list of the holdings that he had already organized in his annual report. He also located the “lost” Confederate war records, which were hidden in the Jackson Masonic Lodge before the city was occupied by Union troops in 1863 and remained there for 39 years.
In addition to his work on the archives, Rowland presided over the beginning of the department’s museum collection and Hall of Fame portrait gallery, and successfully advocated for the preservation of the Old Capitol, which was converted to a state office building in 1916-17. Rowland was director of MDAH until his death in 1937.
*Interesting tangent on this point: You may ask–what about Virginia or Massachusetts? Surely one of the original 13 colonies has the oldest department of archives and history? It’s true that these states founded archival/historical agencies before 1901, but none were comprehensive historical agencies as a department of archives and history is intended to be. Take MDAH for example, our department administers the state archives and library, historic preservation office, records management offices for state agencies and local governments, and museums and historic sites throughout the state. Other states spread these functions through several different agencies or divisions within state government. For example, Virginia has the Library of Virginia (founded 1823 and now state archives & records management office) and the Department of Historic Resources (historic preservation office). Thus the concept of a unified historical agency is a relatively modern one.
Sources: John Ray Skates, Mississippi’s Old Capitol: Biography of a Building (Jackson, Mississippi: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1990), 120-22.
Dunbar Rowland, First Annual Report of the Director of the Department of Archives and History of the State of Mississippi (Jackson, Mississippi, 1902; 2nd ed. published 1911). Copies of both editions are in the MDAH Collection at the Winter Building.