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Howell, James Bruen
(July 4, 1816–June 17, 1880)

–lawyer, judge, postmaster, U.S. senator, and commissioner of the Southern Claims Commission—was born near Morristown, New Jersey. In 1819 his father, Elias Howell, moved the family to a farm in Licking County, Ohio, about 10 miles from Newark. The schooling available to the younger Howell in that rural setting was extremely limited, but Elias Howell was a successful politician who moved the family to Newark in 1826, which then gave James the opportunity for formal education. He graduated from high school in 1833 and from Miami University in 1837, and then spent two years studying law under Judge Hocking H. Hunter in Lancaster. Howell was admitted to the bar in 1839 and returned to Newark. In 1840 he ran for prosecuting attorney in Licking County as a Whig, but was defeated.

    Suffering from a sickly constitution, he moved west in 1841, hoping to find better health. After brief stops in Chicago and Muscatine, he finally settled in Keosauqua, Iowa, and eventually shared a legal practice with James H. Cowles there. He bought the Des Moines Valley Whig in 1845 and moved it to Keokuk in 1849, buying the Keokuk Register in the process and merging the two newspapers into the weekly Valley Whig & Keokuk Register. In 1854 the newspaper was published daily under the name Keokuk Daily Whig, becoming the Keokuk Daily Gate City in 1855. The Daily Gate City continues to be published.

    Besides publishing and editing his newspaper, Howell was very active in politics, using the newspaper as a platform to promote his ideals. He was one of the first to help organize the Iowa Republican Party, and in 1856 he was a delegate to the first Republican National Convention, nominating John C. Frémont for president. Howell served as the Keokuk postmaster from 1861 to 1866, and was elected to finish James W. Grimes's U.S. Senate term (1870-1871).

    President Ulysses S. Grant then selected him in 1871 to serve as one of three commissioners on the Court of Southern Claims–an appointment Howell kept until the Southern Claims Commission was dissolved in 1880. Howell's appointment may have been influenced by his being the first Iowa newspaper editor to endorse Grant for president in 1868. After the Civil War, Southerners who had been forced to supply Union troops with food, livestock, and other goods were able to submit claims for reimbursement to the U.S. government. During the life of the Southern Claims Commission, 22,298 claims were made totaling more than $60 million. The commission approved only 7,092 claims for $4.6 million. Claimants were required to prove not only that they had given up the supplies, but also that they were loyal to the Union. The commission interviewed about 220,000 witnesses and pored over local poll books that registered votes for secession.

    As a senator, Howell had voted against allowing the Southern claims at all, believing that the government was not responsible for paying the claims. Southerners were not happy that three Northern men were appointed as commissioners, and the Daily Morning Chronicle in Washington, D.C., published an editorial about the appointments that said of Howell, "The Southern men... think that while Mr. Howell is an honest man, he is not a just or unprejudiced man."When the commissioners were up for reappointment, there was much discussion of allowing a Southerner to serve. Howell urged President Rutherford B. Hayes to keep the three original commissioners: "all they want is more claims and larger amounts allowed than they can get at our hands."Hayes opted to keep the original commissioners in place. Howell's work for the Southern Claims Commission ended on March 10, 1880. He died in Keokuk on June 17 the same year.

    On November 1, 1842, Howell married Isabella Richards in Granville, Ohio. They had three children, but only their daughter Mary survived to adulthood. Isabella died in Keosauqua on February 27, 1847. Howell remarried on October 23, 1850, to Mary Ann Bowen in Iowa City. They had seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. Mary Ann died on June 15, 1903, and was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Keokuk, alongside her husband and his daughter Mary.
Sources Microfilm copies of Howell's newspapers are kept at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines and Iowa City, including obituaries for James B. Howell in the Daily Gate City, 6/18/1880. Information on the Southern Claims Commission can be found in Frank Wysor Klingberg, The Southern Claims Commission (1955).
Contributor: Jennifer N. Larson