Powers, Stephen (1814–1882)

By: Harbert Davenport

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: May 4, 2019

Stephen Powers, lawyer, diplomat, and judge, was born on June 1, 1814, in Damariscotta, Maine, the son of Michael Powers. After the death of his mother, while he was still a child, Powers moved to Holley, New York, and lived with an elder sister. He began teaching school at the age of fifteen, apparently on the strength of early home education by his father, who had studied for the priesthood. Later, Powers moved to Buffalo, New York, where he taught school and studied law. He was admitted to the bar and began law practice on his twenty-first birthday, June 1, 1835. He became acquainted with President Martin Van Buren, who appointed him United States consul to Basel, Switzerland, in 1839. As consul he also served as chargé d'affaires for several small German states close to the Swiss border. He attended the coronation of Queen Victoria in company with Lewis Cass, United States Minister to France. Powers resigned as consul and returned to his law practice in 1842. In April 1847 President James K. Polk commissioned him a first lieutenant in the Tenth United States Infantry and assigned him to duty with Gen. Zachary Taylor at Matamoros, Tamaulipas, as a member of the United States Military Commission for the Government of Occupied Territory. Powers served in that position until the summer of 1848, then resigned to return to New York and campaign for Cass, who was running as a Democrat for president. In December 1848 Powers was admitted to practice law before the United States Supreme Court.

He moved to Brownsville in early 1849 and quickly became a major figure in the bar and politics of South Texas. He and James B. Wells founded a law firm and played a key role in merging civil and common law in the establishment of land titles in the disputed area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Powers also became legal advisor to the business firm established by Richard King , Charles Stillman , and Mifflin Kenedy. He served as postmaster at Brownsville (a city that he helped incorporate in 1850) from April 1849 to August 1851, and he was commissioned collector of customs for the District of Brazos Santiago in 1853 by President Franklin Pierce. He was elected chief justice (county judge) of Cameron County in 1858 and reelected in 1860. He also served as mayor of Brownsville during the late 1850s. He received an appointment to the Democratic state central committee in 1856.

Powers married Pauline Victoire Impey, the widowed daughter of John R. Butler of Port Isabel, in February 1855; they had five children. Although Northern-born and a friend of many Unionists, Powers supported secession in 1861. He was elected judge of the Twelfth Judicial District of Texas in August of that year and resigned as chief justice of Cameron County. He served as a district judge throughout the Civil War. At the end of the war he returned to his law practice but was again elected judge of the Twelfth District in June 1866. He resigned in January 1867 and spent the rest of his life engaged in his law practice and Democratic party politics. He was appointed to the Democratic state central committee in 1868 and served as a delegate to the national convention that year. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives of the Thirteenth Legislature in 1872 and to the state Senate of the Seventeenth Legislature in 1880. He was serving in that office at the time of his death, at his home in Brownsville on February 5, 1882. Powers was a capable lawyer, an accomplished linguist, and a genius at establishing and maintaining personal friendships. He played a key role in the shaping of South Texas in the mid-nineteenth century.

Austin Statesman, February 7, 1882. Frank H. Dugan, "The 1850 Affair of the Brownsville Separatists," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 61 (October 1957). Texas Legislative Council, Members of the Texas Legislature, 1846–1980 (Austin, 1980?). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Elisha Basse). E. W. Winkler, Platforms of Political Parties in Texas (Austin: University of Texas, 1916).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • Civil Rights, Civil, and Constitutional Law
Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Harbert Davenport, “Powers, Stephen,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 14, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/powers-stephen.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 4, 2019