Volney Erskine Howard, a prominent newspaper editor and jurist, practiced law in four states and held governmental positions in three. He played a role in the admission of Texas to the Union, the negotiation of the Compromise of 1850, and the settlement of California.
Born in Norridgewock, Maine, on 22 October 1809, Howard spent his early years on a farm before attending nearby Bloomfield Academy and Waterfield College. In 1832 Howard left Maine to practice law with an uncle living in Brandon, Mississippi. Howard quickly rose to local prominence, gaining a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1836 and carrying the state’s electoral vote for Martin Van Buren to Washington, D.C. While in the capital, he met and married Catherine Elizabeth Gooch of Massachusetts.
Upon his return to Mississippi, Howard became the reporter for the state’s high court. Howard’s most notable and controversial activities in Mississippi revolved around his ownership and publishing of the Mississippian newspaper. His aggressive editorials and dogged partisanship made the Mississippian one of the Southwest’s leading Democratic papers, and his fierce opposition to a bill in the state legislature to guarantee the issues of the Union Bank led him to fight duels with Sergeant S. Prentiss, Alexander G. McNutt, and Hiram G. Runnels. The duel with Runnels left Howard with severe wounds in his chest and ribs. His position was vindicated when the bank later became insolvent.
Howard made an unsuccessful run for the US Congress before leaving Mississippi in 1840 for New Orleans, where he established a law practice. Four years later, he moved on to San Antonio, Texas, and won election to the state constitutional convention of 1845. Howard subsequently represented Bexar County in the House of the First Texas Legislature. He represented Texas in the US Congress from 1849 to 1853, served briefly as US attorney to the Land Commission of California in the 1850s, and spent the remainder of his life as a lawyer and judge in California. He sat on the superior court of Los Angeles and helped frame the 1879 California Constitution. Howard declined a seat on the US Supreme Court owing to poor health and retired from public life in 1884. He died in Santa Monica on 14 May 1889.
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950)
- Zachary T. Fulmore, Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association (October 1910)