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The University of Texas at Austin


The Briscoe Center Acquires a Rare Daguerreotype Portrait of James C. Gaither and Florida Townsend Gaither

April 26, 2016

James C. Gaither and Florida Townsend GaitherJames C. Gaither and Florida Townsend Gaither

AUSTIN, Texas — The Briscoe Center has acquired a rare daguerreotype portrait of James C. Gaither and Florida Townsend Gaither. James Gaither was a lawmaker, veteran and state official who spent many years in Round Top, Texas. Florida Townsend was the daughter of Steven Townsend, one of Round Top's most prominent founders.

"The half-plate picture, held in a decorative encasing, is in good condition, and because of the connection with Round Top we hope that it can be displayed at the Winedale Historical Complex at some point in the future," said Don Carleton, executive director of UT Austin's Briscoe Center for American History, which operates Winedale.

Preliminary research suggests that Gaither was born in North Carolina in 1826 and that his family moved to Fayette County when he was a child. According to the 1893 publication A Memorial and Biographical History of McLennan, Falls, Bell and Coryell Counties, Texas, Gaither fought in the Mexican-American War before returning to Fayette County and setting up a "mercantile business." In 1848 he married Florida Townsend, a member of one of Round Top's founding families. It appears that Gaither then bought a significant amount of land in the Round Top area from his father-in-law, Stephen Townsend (who was a veteran of the battle of San Jacinto.)

During the Civil War, Gaither captained a cavalry regiment from Round Top. Afterward, he moved north to Falls County, near Waco. In 1875 he served as a county delegate to the Texas Constitutional Convention. In 1878 and 1882 he represented his community in the Texas Legislature, authoring a bill that (according to A Memorial and Biographical History) "became a law legalizing the present [glut of] barb wire fence [that is] contributing much to the cutting up of the [Falls] county into small farms."

According to a 1909 report by the Texas Education Agency, the 1875 Texas Constitution (which Gaither helped frame) allotted 100,000 acres for the establishment of a "state orphan asylum." In 1887 the governor of Texas, Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross, used federal funds to establish one in Corsicana. In 1889 Ross appointed Gaither superintendent of the asylum.

In his correspondence with the governor, Gaither preferred to refer to the institution as a "home." Judging from the biennial reports he sent to Austin, Gaither's time was taken up with a miscellany of tasks including ordering food and clothing for those in his care, managing accounts and paying salaries, overseeing the education of students, and maintaining numerous buildings. Sixty children were initially housed there. Gaither is praised in the 1909 report for "a very successful administration of the affairs of the home."