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John Henry Kirby Papers

Identifier: 2006-008

The majority of this manuscript collection consists of general and business correspondence concerning John Henry Kirby and his various business interests in southeast Texas. The manuscripts include holograph and typewritten letters, telegrams and postcards. Legal and land documents include deeds and abstracts, and business documents include checks and vouchers.

In 1965 the collection was deposited in the archives of the Texas Gulf Coast Historical Association, at that time housed in the Department of Special Collections in the M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston. In the early 1970s work was done on the collection, although it is not readily apparent how much or in what ways the original order was changed. An inventory, presumably made at the 1965 accession, lists only 261 original manuscript boxes. Some of the correspondence in these original boxes was numerically coded and the codes are listed in the inventory, although it is not known if these codes are original to the papers or were added by the original processors. If a folder contains material with a code number, that number is listed on the finding aid in brackets.

In 1977 the collection went on long-term loan to the Houston Public Library's Houston Metropolitan Research Center facility, but it was returned to the University of Houston Libraries Department of Special Collections in 2006.

In 2007 the collection was re-foldered and re-boxed in record cartons in order to facilitate preservation of the material. Until that time, the collection was housed in manuscript boxes, including some of the original TGCHA boxes. Over half of the collection was unprocessed; i.e. it was in its original folders or, in some cases, the material was not foldered at all. Much of the material contained rusty straight pins and large metallic brads used as fasteners, as well as many metal paper clips. The collection has been left in the order in which it was returned to the University of Houston in 2006, with the few exceptions noted below in the Series Description. The original folder titles have been retained.

In general, there is a lot of inconsistency in the arrangement of the collection. There are numerous folders for some individuals, such as Ernest J. Eyres, throughout the collection. Additionally, correspondence to or from Eyres could also be in the alphabetical or chronological areas of the collection. If the researcher is searching for a particular person, it would be prudent to look not only for individual folders bearing that person's name, but also look in the alphabetical and chronological sections of the collection.


  • 1884-1944


Conditions Governing Use

Special Collections owns the physical items in our collections, but copyright normally belongs to the creator of the materials or their heirs. The researcher has full responsibility for determining copyright status, obtaining permission to publish from copyright holders, and abiding by current copyright laws when publishing or displaying copies of Special Collections material in print or electronic form. For more information, consult the appropriate librarian. Reproduction decisions will be made by Special Collections staff on a case-by-case basis.

Conditions Governing Use

Open for research.


209.0 linear feet

Biographical Information

Lumber and oil baron John Henry Kirby was born on November 16, 1860 on his family’s farm in Tyler County in East Texas. Educated chiefly by his mother throughout his youth, Kirby attended only one year of formal education at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. In 1883, he married Lelia Stewart, who gave birth to the couple’s only child, Bessie May, in 1886.

A clerkship in the law office of state senator Samuel Bronson Cooper and Kirby’s own self-directed law studies paved the way for his passing the Texas bar in 1885. Kirby practiced law for four years in Woodville, TX, the seat of Tyler County. During this time, Cooper introduced him to a group of investors from Boston who later helped Kirby establish the Texas and Louisiana Land and Lumber Company and the Texas Pine Land Association in the timberlands of East Texas. By the time he was 30 years old, Kirby had amassed a small fortune as the head of these two large timber companies, and in 1890 he and his family moved to Houston.

As his interests in lumber development continued, he built the Gulf, Beaumont, and Kansas City Railway in 1896, bringing large-scale transportation into the heart of the East Texas pine district for the first time. He co-founded the Houston Oil Company of Texas and the Kirby Lumber Company in 1901; became president of Southwestern Oil Company of Houston in the early 1900s; organized the Kirby Petroleum Company in 1920; and served as president of various industry associations over the course of his career. Kirby was also twice elected to the Texas House of Representatives.

In 1933, personal bankruptcy forced him to cede control of his lumber company and the Kirby Petroleum Company, but he maintained his position as chairman on the boards of both. Kirby died on November 9, 1940. The 626-acre John Kirby State Forest in southeast Texas, the town of Kirbyville in Jasper County, and the seven-mile thoroughfare Kirby Drive in Houston all bear his name.


The collection has been divided into six series: General and Business Correspondence; Political Correspondence; Private and Family Correspondence; Land Records; Photographs, and Bound Volumes.

General and Business Correspondence is the first and largest series, comprising the first 190 record cartons. Very little re-arrangement has occurred in this series and the material is in basically the same order in which it was received. It is arranged rather eccentrically: some of the correspondence is arranged alphabetically and some chronologically, but most of the folders have specific titles or specific subjects. The alphabetical section is generally arranged according to the individual correspondent's last name, although in some cases a company name is used instead. In addition to manuscripts, the series contains business documents such as cancelled checks and vouchers. The voucher files contain a variety of material, including correspondence, invoices, and checks.

Political Correspondence and Private and Family Correspondence, the second and third series, have been physically relocated to follow the first series. This was done because there were several discrete manuscript boxes for each of these series, and so it was easy to move the entire contents of the boxes in their original order. Political Correspondence comprises box 191 and box 192 folders 1-26. Private and Family Correspondence is located in box 192 folders 27-53, box 193, and box 194 folders 1-9. However, the researcher needs to be aware that there are folders labeled political correspondence and private correspondence throughout the collection that have not been incorporated into the series. Those known to the processor are in boxes 27, 28, 41, 50, 60-63, 68, 69, 82, 84, 92, 100, 114, and139. Boxes that may contain private or family correspondence include 54, 56, 63, 82, and 139.

Land Records, the fourth series, is comprised mainly of deeds and abstracts, with a few miscellaneous legal records such as indentures and probate records. None of the material in this series had been processed at the time the collection was received. It has been refoldered, but remains in the original order in which it was received. Land Records are found in box 194 folders 10-34 and boxes 195-201.

The fifth series, Photographs, contains eighty-one photographs, thirty-six of which are housed in three oversized boxes. The photographs are arranged by date; if undated, they are arranged in rough alphabetical order. They are in box 202.

The last series, Bound Volumes, contains 356 bound volumes divided into nine sub-series: Checkbooks; Corporate; Financial; Land; Legal; Letter books; Letter Books, Fragile; Railroad; and Shorthand/Stenographic Notebooks. Each volume has been numbered sequentially; material within each sub-series has been arranged alphabetically except the Letter Books sub-series, which have been arranged chronologically. Loose material found inside several of the bound volumes has been foldered and placed in box 190 folders 19-27. Fragile letter books, numbers 195-204, have been placed in record cartons.

Custodial History

The John Henry Kirby Papers were reacquired for the University of Houston Libraries in partnership with the Houston History Archives initiative of the UH Center for Public History.

Note on Harmful Language

In describing archival materials, Special Collections aims to respect individuals and communities represented in the collections in our care.

In the 2021 Special Collections reparative description project, staff decided to maintain potentially harmful language from original folder descriptions or titles in this finding aid to preserve the historical context of materials.

John Henry Kirby Papers
Bobby Marlin
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • April 2021: Description in this Finding Aid was revised in April 2021 for issues related to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

Repository Details

Part of the University of Houston Libraries Special Collections Repository

University of Houston Libraries Special Collections
MD Anderson Library
4333 University Drive
Houston TX 77204-2000 USA