Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written seventeen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History, and Murder and Mayhem in Southeast Kansas.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Richard “Silver Dick” Bland

Richard Parks Bland was a U. S. congressman representing south central Missouri for approximately twenty-five years during the late nineteenth century. He was known as “The Great Commoner” because of his efforts to help the common man but mostly as “Silver Dick” because of his advocacy of “free silver” and bimetallism.
Free silver, or the unlimited coinage of silver, and bimetallism, the use of silver in addition to gold as a monetary standard, were heated issues during the late nineteenth century. They were considered inflationary policies and were, therefore, opposed by banks and other creditors but were favored by debtors, Western silver miners, and many Midwest farmers (who sought higher prices for their goods).
Bland is perhaps best remembered as co-sponsor of the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which was enacted into law over President Rutherford B. Hayes’s veto. Also called the Grand Bland Plan, it required the U.S. government to buy between two and four million dollars’ worth of silver each month to be put into circulation as silver dollars. The act was replaced in 1890 by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which in turn was repealed in 1893.
However, free silver and bimetallism remained important political issues for several more years, until the gold standard triumphed as America’s monetary standard. (The gold standard was later abandoned as well.) Indeed, silver was the most important issue of the 1896 election, in which Bland ran against William Jennings Bryan (also a silver advocate) for the Democratic Party nomination. Bland was the favorite going into the convention but lacked enough votes to secure the nomination on the first, second, and third ballots, receiving fewer votes each time. The “silver-tongued” Bryan overtook him on the fourth ballot and finally secured the nomination on the fifth.
Bland died on June 15, 1899, and two days later a large memorial service was held in Lebanon, where he had lived for many years. Three years later, on June 17, 1901, a life-size bronze monument was unveiled and dedicated to Bland at Lebanon. Again, the event was largely attended, with spectators coming from miles away.
The town of Bland, Missouri, located in southwestern Gasconade County, is named for Richard P. Bland.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sarah Jane Smith: Condemned to Death

When Mary Surratt was hanged in July 1865 for conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, she became the first woman ever executed by the U.S. government. Only Sarah Jane Smith’s fragile health and dubious mental capacity kept her from beating that mark by almost a year. Federal authorities were hesitant to impose death sentences on women during the Civil War—and even more hesitant to carry them out.
Sarah Jane left her home in Washington County, Arkansas, in 1862 when she was just sixteen and traveled to Springfield, Missouri, in company with a family seeking refuge from the bitter partisan warfare of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. Sarah Jane’s mother had died three years earlier, and her father was away in the Confederate Army. Left homeless, Sarah Jane drifted back and forth between Springfield and her kinfolk in northwest Arkansas for the next two years.
In the spring of 1864, on a trip from Springfield to Arkansas, she met three of her male cousins at Cassville who were headed for Springfield, and they convinced her to turn around and go back with them. The foursome started toward Springfield but stopped to camp about ten miles outside town near Wilson Creek, where they cut down several miles of telegraph lines along the Wire Road that ran between Springfield and Cassville.
Caught in the act, they were taken to Springfield and turned over to Union authorities. After a few weeks, Sarah Jane was shipped to Rolla, where she was turned loose about September 1 without a trial, even though cutting telegraph lines was a grave offense in the eyes of the Union.
Sarah Jane started back toward Springfield, walking and hitching a ride with a wagon train. She soon fell in with a lawyer from Rolla and a Federal sergeant who claimed they were members of a secret Southern society. They told her they’d pay her five dollars to go back up the trail and cut the telegraph wires, and she agreed, probably little realizing that she was consenting to commit a crime that was punishable by death. In 1861, General Henry Halleck, then commanding the Department of the Missouri, had issued an order to that effect in response to bridge burning and other acts of sabotage in northern Missouri.
Sarah Jane went back to within about six miles of Rolla, where the lawyer had hidden an ax, and she cut down the telegraph poles. After completing the daring mission, she started back toward Lebanon to rejoin her co-conspirators, but the lawyer and the sergeant were nowhere to be found. Instead, she was arrested on September 7 and taken back to Rolla, where she gave a full confession the next day. She said the lawyer’s name was Williams, but she refused to give the sergeant’s name, even though he and Williams had apparently double-crossed her. She also would not reveal her cousins’ names.
Taken to St. Louis, Sarah Jane was committed to the Gratiot Street Female Prison on October 23. At her trial the next month, she admitted the statement she’d given at Rolla accurately reflected the facts of the case. Her only defense was that she didn’t know it was wrong to cut the wires at the time she did it. She was convicted and sentenced to be “hung by the neck until dead” on November 25.
Federal medical staff intervened to save the young woman’s life. One surgeon said she was given to paroxysms of unconsciousness similar to epilepsy and did not seem to possess the mental capacity to understand the gravity of what she had done. Other doctors echoed the same opinion. Six members of the military commission that had convicted her and sentenced her to death also intervened on her behalf, saying they’d reached their verdict only because they felt they had no other choice, given General Halleck’s order.
On November 17, General William Rosecrans commuted Sarah Jane’s sentence to imprisonment for the duration of the war, and the following April she was released altogether when it was determined that she was deathly ill and could pose no possible danger to the Union.
The brief story above is condensed from a chapter from my new book, Bushwhacker Belles, about the women who aided Missouri's guerrillas.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Music Man Hugh Ashley

My wife grew up mainly in Harrison, Arkansas, and over the years, especially early in our marriage, I've heard her occasionally mention Ashley's Music Store in Harrison, where she used to go as a teenager and pre-teen to buy records. I don't think she realized, however, that the owner, Hubert Carl “Hugh” Ashley, had a background in music that went far beyond simply owning and operating a record store. I certainly didn't until I did a little research on the man.
Born in 1915 in Searcy County, Arkansas, Ashley wrote and recorded some of the earliest known recordings of Ozarks folk music. As a teenager, he played on early radio stations in the Ozarks as a member of his father’s band, The Ashley Melody Men, and young Hugh wrote most of the group's songs.
In 1929, he became an original cast member of the Beverly Hillbillies radio program, traveling to Los Angeles for two summer seasons. Later, country music hall of famer Jimmie Rodgers would thank Ashley for helping to popularize the style of music that would become known as country.
During the early 1930s, Ashley again left home to write and record music in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for the next decade.
Ashley was drafted into the Army during World War II and served as a sergeant of entertainment in the Special Services branch. Stationed at Letterman's Army Hospital in San Francisco, he provided entertainment to soldiers who had been wounded in the Pacific Theater.
After the war, Ashley and his wife settled in Harrison, where he ran Ashley’s Music Store for many years. During the fifties, while still running the store, he wrote songs for famous country music stars like Red Foley, Brenda Lee, and Jim Reeves.
During the 1970s, Ashley got into local politics, serving as Harrison's mayor and as a member of the city council. In later years, he was active in conversation efforts but continued to run his music store. He died in 2008, but the store stayed open until 2015, when members of his family announced it was closing after almost seventy years in business.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Killing Hogs at Centerville

Looting by Federal soldiers in Missouri during the Civil War, while certainly not a rarity, was less common than looting by Confederate-allied guerrillas. The simple explanation, and perhaps the main explanation, for this is that the soldiers had more official means of sustaining themselves. The guerrillas were sometimes forced to resort to plunder simply to survive in what was essentially enemy territory. The guerrillas have often been accused of stealing from Southern citizens almost as much as they did from Union sympathizers, but such an assertion needs to be taken with a grain of skepticism.
In fact, while the total amount of plundering by Federals was much less than the amount done by guerrillas, the proportion of Union citizens who suffered from plundering by U.S. soldiers was probably at least as great as the proportion of Southern citizens who suffered from guerrilla raids. In other words, the Federal soldiers were just as indiscriminate as their Confederate counterparts.
A case in point is the killing of Gideon Howell’s hogs. Howell was a lawyer/farmer who lived just outside Centerville, seat of Reynolds County. Howell had a large number of hogs but allowed them to range free, as many farmers did at the time. Sometimes the pigs would even come into Centerville.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1863, Federal soldiers stationed at Centerville killed and ate a large number of Howell’s hogs, but it was not until the fall of that year, presumably when the farmer started trying to round up his animals, that he raised a howl about the unauthorized butchering. He filed a claim with Union authorities, and they issued him a note on December 1, 1863, for $95 for thirty-eight head of hogs at $2.50 apiece. The note specified that a number of “good hogs” killed by Brigadier General John Davidson’s army the previous winter and a number of “small hogs such as shoats” that were killed by soldiers stationed at Centerville during the past summer were not included in the payment.
Apparently dissatisfied with the settlement, Howell pled his case with Union authorities at Pilot Knob, pressing for additional payment. In mid-December, several citizens wrote letters to Pilot Knob on his behalf, affirming that a number of Howell’s hogs for which he had not been paid were killed and eaten by Federal soldiers the previous summer at Centerville.
When he got no satisfaction, Howell wrote directly to Brigadier General Clinton B. Fisk, commanding the District of Southeast Missouri. In his letter dated January 20, 1864, Howell told Fisk that he was “an unflinching Union man from the commencement of this rebellion” who had suffered at the hands of the rebels and Federal soldiers alike and that he had previously given foodstuff to Federal soldiers without the expectation of payment. However, he said he was a poor man who needed payment for his hogs and he hoped General Fisk could do something for him. Enclosed with his letter were the letters that the citizens of Centerville had written to Pilot Knob on his behalf and an accounting of the hogs for which he had not been paid (although the statement of account does not survive).
On January 24, General Fisk referred the case back to Colonel R.G. Woodson, commanding the post at Pilot Knob, with instructions to conduct a thorough investigation into the case and report back to Fisk. Four days later, Woodson, in turn, referred the case to Captain Angus Bartlett, commanding officer at Centerville. Woodson told Bartlett to try to determine the exact number of hogs killed by Federal troops, when the hogs were killed, what the value of the hogs was, whether they were killed on orders from a commanding officer or by soldiers acting on their own, and, if the latter, who the guilty parties were.
On February 14, Bartlett reported back to Woodson that he could learn nothing definite about Howell’s hogs. Certain citizens of Centerville said that the hogs were, indeed, killed by Federal soldiers, but they did not know to whose command the soldiers belonged. Bartlett was also unable to determine the value of the hogs.
Woodson wrote to Fisk on February 17 that information on the subject of Howell’s hogs was “so exceedingly indefinite that I do not see what remedy he can have, unless he might have a case before a commission on war claims.”
Apparently, Howell was never paid for the pigs in question and Woodson’s letter marks the end of Howell’s petition, as no later documents seem to survive.

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