William Marsh Rice: A Centennial Portrait
From his life influences to his business interests, there was much more to Rice University’s founder than just a murder mystery.
by Christopher Dow
Who was William Marsh Rice?
It’s a sure bet that if you’ve spent much time at Rice University, you know he’s the founder. And most of you know that unscrupulous lawyer Albert Patrick and faithless valet Charles Jones conspired to murder Rice and steal his fortune and that Captain James A. Baker uncovered the plot and saw justice done. Rice’s death, 100 years ago on September 23, and the subsequent trial have become iconographic for the Rice University community. Oh, and of course you know that Rice’s ashes are interred in the base of the bronze statue affectionately named “Willy,” located in the Academic Quadrangle.
But who was this man whose life spanned most of a century that saw the rise of American industrialism, the Civil War, and the taming of the West and who, as a product, founded one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world?
William Marsh Rice was born to Patty (Hall) and David Rice in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 14, 1816. Named for pioneering Methodist circuit preacher William Marsh, he was their third child, and seven more followed, although three did not survive infancy. While history has left little record of Patty Rice, David played a relatively prominent role in his community. At the time of William’s birth, his father worked in the forging shop of the Springfield Armory. He later performed other tasks there, such as boring gun barrels and making bayonets, and in 1833, he was appointed to the position of inspector.
But David was not content with being a simple breadwinner. Through the years, he also served in local and state political positions and helped found the Methodist Episcopal Society’s first house of worship in the area. In the mid-1820s, David and six other Springfield citizens formed a committee to oversee the construction of Springfield’s first high school—an effort that surely influenced William later to found the Rice Institute. The Classical High School opened in September 1828, when William was 12, and he enrolled soon after.
Not much is known about William’s early years. In spring 1899, in a letter to his sister, Charlotte, he wrote, “Our childhood had many pleasant hours . . . and the troubles were soon forgotten. Fathers and Mothers thoughts were mostly devoted to their children. I do not think they worried very much. Father had so firm a reliance upon providence that nothing seemed to lay heavy on his mind—though he was sensitive which could be seen at times.” Spelling and punctuation were never William’s strong suits, and that may be because his high school career was short-lived. Whether due to restlessness or for financial reasons, he dropped out at age 15 and went to work as a clerk in the Family Grocery Store, owned by a retired whaling captain named Henry L. Bunker.
William worked for Bunker for four or five years and then decided he knew enough about the business to open his own store. Because William had not yet attained his majority, his father had to co-sign his note, but William made good on his father’s trust and within two years had accumulated $2,700 in profit.
By then it was 1837, and the nation was experiencing a financial crisis. Business fell off, and things looked bleak for William. But the newspapers carried a note of hope for adventurous souls—there was fresh and unmistakable opportunity in the new nation of Texas.
Recognizing the potential for unlimited growth in Texas, William sold his store and invested the profits in merchandise and trade goods, which he sent off to Galveston by sea. Meanwhile, he made the journey there by rail and by packet down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. When he arrived in Galveston in October 1838, William was a wiry man of 22, rather small in stature, with thick, dark hair and piercing blue eyes brimming with energy. Those eyes saw an ugly frontier seaport whose muddy, shanty-lined streets were full of stumps. But that sight couldn’t have been more disheartening than the news that the ship carrying his merchandise had been lost at sea. He was penniless.
He didn’t stay that way for long. In February 1839, he was issued a conditional grant to 320 acres of land by the Harrisburg County Board of Commissioners, at the time a fairly common procedure to disburse land to settlers in the area. It is safe to assume that William did what he had to do to survive and prosper in frontier Houston. For example, the Texas Ranger Service Records show that, on March 16, 1839, a Wm. M. Rice enlisted as a private in the Texas Rangers and served until the following September. If William was, indeed, a Texas Ranger, he didn’t let his duties interfere with his business plans. On April 22, less than a month after his enlistment, he signed an agreement to furnish liquor for the bar of the Milam House—an ironic occupation since, throughout his life, William never smoked or drank anything even as stimulating as coffee or tea.
With the proceeds from his business, he began acquiring more property, and he entered into his first business partnership in 1840, leasing property with Barnabas Haskill, a Houston merchant. The partnership dissolved two years later, just in time for William to join the Texas militia under General Sidney Sherman, formed to repel Santa Anna’s attempt to recapture San Antonio. The Mexican army retreated before Sherman’s force arrived, and the militia was dissolved. And William returned to business in Houston.
In 1844, William entered into a long-lasting partnership with Ebenezer B. Nichols, a successful local businessman whose ambitions matched William’s own. Their business—Rice and Nichols, Importers and Wholesale Grocers—brought in goods and merchandise from New Orleans and the eastern seaboard for resale to local settlers and plantation owners. As he prospered from his import business, William began considering export as well, and at the time in Texas, that meant cotton.
A Fortune Grows
Although only eight bales of cotton had been shipped to the coast from Houston in 1839, the year William first engaged in business, by 1844, he and other Houston merchants were determined to up the ante. They offered a prize of a gold cup to the first cotton planter to bring in 20 bales. That spring, Houston’s first cotton compress began operation, and by the following year, the export rate reached approximately 15,000 bales.
The cotton business proved very lucrative for William, though he didn’t involve himself in the growing of cotton—bad weather and bugs made that too chancy a proposition. But he did recognize that the cotton economy was dependent on good transportation. Until then, every bale that came into the city had to be dragged there by ox team, and fall rains frequently conspired with the region’s thick gumbo clay to impossibly mire the country roads at the height of market time. William knew there had to be a better way, and in 1850, he became involved in the Houston and Brazos Plank Road Company, which began “paving” the muddy byways with wooden planks. That idea lasted only until William invested in the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos & Colorado Railroad, which was among the first railroads incorporated in Texas and the first to actually lay track—in 1852, from Harrisburg to Stafford. The railroad spelled the end of plank roads.
William began to send for other members of his family. His older brother, David, was the first to join him, followed by Caleb and Frederick, although Caleb soon returned to New England. Also during this period, on June 29, 1850, William wed Margaret Bremond, daughter of a business associate. On their honeymoon, the newlyweds accidentally missed passage aboard the Mississippi steamer Oregon, which exploded and sank in the river a few days later.
Soon after the Rices returned to Houston, William’s business partner, Ebenezer Nichols, moved to Galveston to oversee their interests there. William purchased his recently built Greek Revival-style house and moved it to the corner of San Jacinto and Congress Streets, overlooking Courthouse Square. He and Margaret attended Houston’s nascent cultural events and joined the Episcopalian Christ Church, to which William became a frequent benefactor. It was here that he met the Reverend Charles Gillette, a proponent of public education. Influenced by Gillette, William began actively supporting various educational endeavors in Houston. In 1856, he was an incorporator of the Houston Academy; in 1857, he was a member of the board of the Houston Educational Society; and two years later, he was a trustee of both the Second Ward Free School and the Texas Medical College.
The 10 years before the Civil War were prosperous ones for planters and cotton merchants—William included. And during this time, William continued to invest in transportation by founding the Houston and Galveston Navigation Company and playing an instrumental role in early development of the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel. He also was involved in the Huntsville Railroad Company, the Houston Tap & Brazoria Railway Company, the Houston & Texas Central Railroad Company, and the Houston Direct Navigation Company. His nontransportation investments included the Union Marine and Fire Insurance Company, the Houston Insurance Company, and the City Bank of Houston. In 1860, he reported a net worth of $750,000, which may have made him the second richest man in Texas—the first being sugar planter John Hunter Herndon of Brazoria County.
Tragedy and Change
The Civil War, however, brought an almost immediate halt to the building of railroads and the flow of merchandise through coastal cities. Houston’s booming business life came to a standstill. The war hit the Texas economy particularly hard because Texas had to import nearly everything from clothing to food to equipment and luxuries. But Houston still had cotton. William began dispatching delivery wagons to the Richmond area southwest of Houston and, despite the war, did a booming trade with plantations.
During the early war years, Margaret worked in the war relief effort, and the Rices regularly contributed to patriotic causes, relief efforts, and the families of soldiers who had died on the battlefield. But then, tragedy struck on August 13, 1863, when Margaret, then only 31 years old, fell ill and died. The cause is unrecorded, but yellow fever and cholera are likely suspects, being regular summertime visitors to Houston at the time and sometimes claiming hundreds of victims.
By the end of the year, William left Houston and moved to Monterrey, Mexico. His movements during the next 20 months are hard to trace accurately, but he later wrote, “I went to Mexico—Monteray and down to Matamoros and after a little delay on to Havana, remained there a month or two, then returned to Matamoros where I was in business until August 1865, at which time I returned to Houston.”
The last two years of the Civil War were unstable, both politically and financially, and the lower Rio Grande Valley area demonstrated its own particular chaos. The Union, Confederate, and Mexican governments were vying for control; cotton ruled the markets, bringing a dollar in gold per pound; and the populations of Brownsville, Matamoros, and Bagdad on the Rio exploded with merchants, gamblers, swindlers, deserters, and undercover agents. With millions in gold passing through the area, it was just the kind of environment for an energetic and enterprising businessman, and William was in the thick of it all, emerging from the war even wealthier than before.
When he finally returned to Houston in August 1865, he was out of the cotton business, but that didn’t slow him down much. In early 1866, he again assumed a leadership role in Houston as director of the Houston Insurance Company. Later that same year, the Houston Direct Navigation Company, with William on the board of directors, had extended its charter to improve navigation on Buffalo Bayou. And in 1868, William, together with two other directors of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, set up a partnership for laying out town sites along the route of the expanding railroad. The next year, the Houston Direct Navigation Company, with William still on the board, became the Buffalo Bayou Ship Channel Company, which guaranteed to dredge the bayou to a depth of nine feet all the way from the Bolivar channel to Houston.
In 1867, William married for the second time in Christ Church in Houston. His bride, Julia Elizabeth Baldwin Brown, affectionately known as Libbie, was the 40-year-old widow of wealthy landowner John Brown and sister of Frederick Rice’s wife, Charlotte Baldwin Rice. The ceremony took place in the midst of one of the worst yellow fever epidemics in Houston’s history, and immediately after, the couple moved to New York City, journeying to Houston only during the winter months or for business.
Leaving a Legacy
The move was not unexpected. The end of the Civil War had shifted national finances to New York, and while William’s businesses were primarily in Texas, he needed to be close to the financial markets. The move also gave him the chance to renew his family ties in Massachusetts. He showed great generosity toward members of his family and bestowed many gifts on his relatives. He had already bought a new home for his aging parents, though his father died in 1867 after living in the house for only six months, and William also extended financial help to his sisters and their children. Finally, after several years of alternating between hotels in New York City and the homes of relatives and friends in Houston, the Rices settled into a home in Green Brook, New Jersey, just 30 miles from Manhattan.
Life in Green Brook was good. William could take a commuter train into the city for business, and he had the means to build exactly the kind of house he wanted—a gentleman’s country residence. His neighbors recalled him as generally friendly and fair, though a man who wanted his money’s worth. He paid a great deal of attention to the working details of the farm, and, according to one of the farm hands, “He wanted everything first class.” Until 1883, when he and Libbie moved to an apartment in New York City, William constantly made improvements to the property. When a friend asked if he would ever finish the place, he replied, “I hope never, while I live, because I shall always want something to amuse me.”
In 1879, William made what turned out to be the most valuable investment of his life when he bought more than 50,000 acres of government land in Beauregard Parish, Louisiana. Though he did not live to see its potential come to fruition, this prime forest land was to prove immensely important to the fledgling Rice Institute, providing the funds to construct the earliest buildings on campus and to hire the first faculty. And in the 1930s, a hidden wealth in oil and gas was discovered there, bolstering Rice Institute’s financial circumstances during the Great Depression.
Now at age 63 and childless, William began to consider a major ongoing project or institution that he could endow with his still-growing fortune. During his frequent visits to Houston, he had spoken with Cesar Maurice Lombardi, president of Houston Electric Light and Power Company and president of the Houston School Board, about the matter. Lombardi encouraged William to build a municipal high school, but William responded that the city should be responsible for its own public schools. But he did have another idea, inspired by Stephen Girard, a French multimillionaire whose legacy funded a school for orphans in Philadelphia, and by Peter Cooper, whose fortune laid the foundation for a working man’s institution in New York City, and, undoubtedly, by his own father’s efforts in founding the Classical High School in Springfield. He would found Houston’s first institution of higher education. The charter for the William M. Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art was signed on May 13, 1891, and registered in Austin six days later.
William initially established an endowment of $200,000 for the Rice Institute but revised his will in 1896 after the death of his wife, Libbie, and left the bulk of his estate, totaling $4,631,259.08, to the institute, intending to give the new institution a firm financial foundation. “Texas received me when I was penniless, without friends or even acquaintances,” he wrote. “And now in the evening of my life, I recognize my obligation to her and her children. I wish now to leave to the boys and girls struggling for a place in the sun the fortune I have been able to accumulate.”
A painting of William in his later years shows a slight man with a white beard, direct gaze, and a stern expression gained through many years of shrewd entrepreneurship. During his life, William contributed significantly to the development of Houston and Texas through his many roles as merchant, liquor supplier, shipowner, cotton trader, railroad builder, landowner, timber merchant, vegetable oil processor, rancher, hotel owner, and moneylender. Today, though, on the 100th anniversary of his death, much of that seems like ancient history. But if most of us know little about William Marsh Rice beyond the events surrounding his death and his statue in the Academic Quadrangle, we do remember him for his greatest achievement—the exceptional university he gave to Houston and the world.
A History of Rice University: The Institute Years, 1907–1963, by Fredericka Meiners (Rice University Press, 1982)
William Marsh Rice and His Institute: A Biographical Study, edited by Sylvia Stallings Morris from the papers and notes of Andrew Forest Muir (Rice University Press, 1972)
“The Family of William Marsh Rice,” by B. Rice Aston. The Cornerstone (newsletter of the Rice Historical Society, fall 1995)
This article originally appeared in the winter 2000 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.