Dunbar Rowland directed the Mississippi Department of Archives and History from its founding in 1902 until his death. Born in Oakland, in Yalobusha County, Mississippi, on 25 August 1864, Rowland was the youngest of four sons of William Brewer Rowland and Mary Judith Bryan Rowland. Educated at private schools in Memphis and Oakland, Rowland earned an undergraduate degree from Mississippi A&M College (now Mississippi State University) in 1886 and a law degree from the University of Mississippi (1888). Rowland then practiced law, first in Memphis and later in Coffeeville, Mississippi, until 1902.
Though Rowland had no professional historical training, the Board of Trustees of the newly established Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) selected him in March 1902 to serve as the agency’s first director. Rowland spent the bulk of his first decade at the MDAH collecting, organizing, and publishing archival materials. He traveled to England, France, Spain, and Cuba to transcribe documents and acquired material held in private hands closer to home. Mississippi became one of the first states to maintain a government-administered archives: in Massachusetts and other states, private historical societies or individuals held archival materials. The MDAH’s design and administration, which Rowland labeled the Mississippi Plan, provided a model for state archives elsewhere in the South. Under Rowland’s direction, the MDAH acquired and preserved manuscripts and other materials; maintained a library, museum, and other historic sites; and promoted research and publication, including an annual volume of edited primary and scholarly material. Rowland was also active in the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, serving as its president in 1915–16, as well as in other professional historical organizations.
Rowland’s interests covered the state’s history from the colonial period through the early twentieth century, although he viewed his work with Confederate records and the Confederate years as his most important. His output as an editor, encyclopedist, and historian was formidable, totaling more than forty volumes. Among his works are a ten-volume edition of the papers of Jefferson Davis (Jefferson Davis: Constitutionalist, 1923) as well as multivolume editions of materials from Mississippi’s French, British, and territorial periods; the correspondence of W. C. C. Claiborne, governor of the Mississippi Territory from 1801 to 1803; an encyclopedia of the state (1907); and a two-volume history, Mississippi: The Heart of the South (1925). He also edited and published an array of statistical and biographical directories containing sketches of the state’s judges and legislators and information about the state during the Civil War.
By the standards of his day, Rowland’s publications were sound and well-received, although his sympathies, especially with Mississippi’s Confederate experience, are apparent. Some of his works, such as the encyclopedia and biographical and statistical registers, remain useful sources of information on early twentieth-century Mississippi. But Rowland shared the racial perspective of most of his white contemporaries, giving little attention to the history of black or female Mississippians. As a whole, Rowland’s work on Mississippi promotes a favorable, honorable, and progressive view of the state and its leading men.
Rowland, like other historians, campaigned for the creation of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. When it was established in 1934, however, his hopes of becoming its director were not fulfilled.
In 1906 Rowland married his widowed first cousin, Eron Opha Moore Gregory. She wrote a number of books, among them a two-volume biography of Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina Howell Davis (1927–31), and a history of Andrew Jackson’s 1812 campaign in the Mississippi Territory (1926). She administered the MDAH when her husband was away and collaborated with him on a variety of projects, especially after his health began to decline. After her husband’s death, she served briefly as acting director of the MDAH.
Rowland died on 1 November 1937 and was buried in Jackson’s Cedarlawn Cemetery. On 1 January 1938 William D. McCain succeeded Rowland at the helm of the MDAH. Rowland’s work exemplifies the period when southerners embraced and sought to shape broader professional trends in historiography and archival methods, seeing that work as useful in promoting a favorable image of the region’s past and present.
- Ray Allen Billington, American Historical Review (April 1973)
- Patricia Galloway, American Archivist (January 2006)
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Dunbar Rowland—Death Subject File; Lisa Speer and Heather Mitchell, Provenance 22 (2004)
- Ted Ownby, in A Literary History of Mississippi, ed. Lorie Watkins (2017)