Benjamin Franklin Dowell

Benjamin Franklin Dowell was probably born on October 31, 1821, in Albemarle County, Virginia, to James Isham Dowell and Frances Dalton. His father, a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, worked as a farmer and owned at least seven slaves. The family moved to Shelby County, Tennessee, in the 1830s, and his father died there in early 1840. His mother passed away three years later in August 1843. Dowell attended a male academy in Shelby County before enrolling at the University of Virginia to study law in 1841. He graduated with distinction a year later and spent the rest of the decade building a “lucrative and extensive” practice in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dowell travelled to California in pursuit of gold in 1850, but poor health ultimately prompted him to settle in Oregon. In 1852, he purchased several mules and became a trader, carrying goods from the Willamette Valley to the mining centers of southern Oregon. In 1855, when conflict erupted between American settlers and the Rogue River Indians, Dowell “hired himself and all his animals to the quartermaster.” He delivered messages and supplies to the soldiers and occasionally joined them on campaign. He returned to civilian life in 1856, becoming a lawyer and claims agent in Jacksonville, Oregon. Dowell married Nancy Anna Campbell there on October 24, 1862, and they had three children together: Fanchon, born around 1863; Anna, born around 1865; and Benjamin, born on March 22, 1870.

Dowell embraced the Whig Party’s platform of economic development and political moderation. As late as 1855, he voted and delivered speeches for the Whigs’ congressional candidate. After the party collapsed, however, Dowell struggled to find a political home. In 1857, he vowed to vote without regard to “old party issues and old party names,” and in 1860, he cast his ballot for Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge.

Although three of Dowell’s brothers served in the Confederate army, Dowell himself remained loyal to the Union. He vowed to “live in the Union and under…the stars and stripes, as long as life shall last.” As a political moderate, however, he initially insisted that the “fanatical abolition party at the North and the secession nullification party at the South are both to blame for the present war.” He hoped that a “spirit of conciliation and compromise may prevail,” suggesting that Confederates would lay down their arms if northern states repealed their personal liberty laws.

In July 1864, Dowell purchased the Oregon Sentinel newspaper, hoping to champion the Union cause and launch a political career. By then, the course of the war had radicalized him. He accused anti-war Democrats of treason, championed emancipation, and called for the “complete suppression of the rebellion.” Dowell spoke at several Unionist rallies that fall, including a “Grand Union Jubilee” in November 1864. There, he celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s reelection as the “ultimate triumph of Liberty, Freedom and Union.” He denounced the “sins of treason and slavery” and declared the Emancipation Proclamation a “military necessity.” With slavery gone, he contended, all Americans would have “equal rights, regardless of color, to acquire and hold property and to pursue their own happiness in their own way.”

Dowell remained active in Unionist politics after the war, serving as a delegate to Oregon’s Union State Convention in 1866. He called for President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1867 and endorsed Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant in the election of 1868. He became a Radical Republican and an ardent supporter of Reconstruction. He believed the “rebel States [had] forfeited their rights under the Constitution,” and that Confederate leaders should face trials for treason. He celebrated the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and called for “equal justice South and North,” urging every state to root out discriminatory laws.

Dowell also championed women’s rights. In November 1864, he celebrated American women for their “patriotism and devotion to the Union” and expressed his willingness to “see one of them elected Chief Magistrate of the United States.” Four years later, he called for a women’s suffrage amendment, and he defended the “eternal principles of equal rights before the law, without regard to race, color or sex.” America, he insisted, had “many women as learned as Queen Victoria,” and they would “make as good a President as Victoria does a Queen.” In 1876, he served as vice president for the Oregon State Woman Suffrage Association, which demanded “equal political rights,” “equal pay for equal work,” and “all the privileges of law enjoyed by [men].”

Dowell sold the Sentinel in 1878, but he remained active in local Republican politics. He served in the Republican State Conventions of 1872, 1878, and 1880 and represented Oregon in the party’s 1872 national convention. He supported Benjamin Harrison’s presidential campaign in 1888 and spent the late 1880s writing articles for Republican newspapers across the state. He moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1885, and practiced law with his daughter Anna for the next several years.

Dowell’s health, however, deteriorated in the early 1890s, leaving him partially paralyzed and barely able to walk. Nearly destitute, he applied for a federal pension for his service in the Rogue River War. Before Congress could act, however, he died of pneumonia on March 12, 1897. Congress granted his wife Nancy an $8 monthly pension soon afterward.

Image: Benjamin Franklin Dowell (Courtesy Oregon Historical Society Digital Collections).


Benjamin F. Dowell Calls for Compromise

Benjamin F. Dowell Celebrates Abraham Lincoln's Reelection

Benjamin F. Dowell Endorses Ulysses S. Grant

Name:Dowell, Benjamin Franklin
Alternative names:
  • UVA (Union)
  • Civilian
Branch of service:
Residence at UVA:Tennessee
UVA Begin Year:1841
UVA End Year:1842
Residence at enlistment:
Rank In:
Rank Out:
Highest rank achieved:
Birth date:1821-10-31
Birth date certainty:Around
Birth place:Albemarle County, VA
Death date:1897-03-12
Death place:Portland, OR
Causes of death:disease: pneumonia
Occupations:Attorney, Editor
Person 1Relation TypePerson 2
Dowell, Benjamin Franklinparent ofDowell, Fanchon
Dowell, Benjamin Franklinparent ofDowell, Anna
Dowell, Benjamin Franklinparent ofDowell, Jr., Benjamin Franklin
Dowell, Nancy Annawife ofDowell, Benjamin Franklin

Brian Neumann, "'Equal Justice North and South': Benjamin F. Dowell and the Radicalization of War," 16 April 2021, Nau Center Blog, available from; 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 United States Federal Censuses, available from; Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Virginia, Session of 1841-42 (Charlottesville: James Alexander, 1842); Session 18 of the University of Virginia Faculty Minutes, September 1, 1841-July 4, 1842, Jefferson's University: The Early LifeThe Oregon Argus, 15 March 1856; The Oregon Sentinel, 26 November 1864, 22 April 1865, 24 March 1866, 24 August 1867, 9 November 1867, 8 August 1868, 21 May, 1879, 7 June 1884, and 19 December 1885; The Oregonian, 14 March 1897; History of the Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington, Vol. 2 (Portland, OR: North Pacific History Company, 1889); Franklyn Daniel Mahar, "Benjamin Franklin Dowell, 1826-1897: Claims Attorney and Newspaper Publisher in Southern Oregon" (MA Thesis: University of Oregon, 1964).