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Clay County’s Colorful History Left Some (Land)marks County Celebrates Bicentennial

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Above image credit: Jesse James Jr., son of outlaw Jesse James, is second from left in the front row in this family picture taken at the family farm in the early 1900s. (Courtesy | Joe Hall)
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15 minute read

In 2019 restoration crews began work on a 200-year-old Clay County cabin.

They daubed the cabin’s interior walls and stabilized its foundation, inspecting and replacing deteriorated hand-hewn logs.

On one of them they noticed a charred spot where flames once had left their signature in the wood.

The scorch mark was not a total surprise. 

Site officials at the Jesse James Birthplace believe it offered silent confirmation of an 1875 tragedy that not only devastated a Missouri family but also – in the decades following – served as a transformative event in shaping the collective American memory of two county residents who had called the cabin home, the outlaw James and his older brother, Frank.

In 1875 men long considered to have been connected to the Pinkerton detective agency had arrived after dark, looking for the two. Through a cabin window they tossed an incendiary device, likely meant to just fill the small rooms with smoke, driving any inhabitants outside. 

But an explosion followed. 

Killed was 8-year-old Archie Samuel, a son of Reuben Samuel and his wife, Zerelda Cole James Simms Samuel – Frank and Jesse’s mother – who also lost her right arm in the incident.

During a recent restoration of the James James Birthplace cabin, workers uncovered a foundation log with a scorch mark.
During a recent restoration of the James James Birthplace cabin, workers uncovered a foundation log with a scorch mark. Site administrators believe the burnt wood likely dates to an 1875 explosion at the cabin, a tragedy to members of the Samuel and James families. (Courtesy | Clay County Historic Sites)

The newly unearthed evidence was of great interest to Joe Hall, who is a great-grandson of Fannie Quantrell Samuel Hall, a daughter of Reuben and Zerelda.

The 1875 bombing, however distant today, remains “personal” to him and his family, Hall said recently. 

His great-grandmother, 11 years old at the time, also was inside the cabin when the device detonated.

“She undoubtedly was traumatized, having witnessed this in her home, where you are meant to feel safe,” Hall said.

“I have four grandchildren, all close to Fannie’s age at the time, and can’t imagine any of them having to experience this.”

Restoration crews chose not to replace the charred log.

“The log was left in place as we found it,” said Elizabeth Gilliam Beckett, Clay County historic sites manager.

In that same spirit, the 1875 incident will remain part of the complex legacy of Clay County, which will be remembered during this year’s bicentennial observance.

Many of the events will highlight Clay County as a vibrant and legacy-rich region to raise families, said Katie Steele Danner, a former state representative who serves as chair of the Clay County Bicentennial Commission. Plans include the unearthing of a time capsule buried in 1972 near the downtown Liberty courthouse and the exhibition of its contents on June 4.

“Simultaneously, we want input on ideas of what should go into another capsule,” Danner said.

Among the several bicentennial events already endorsed by the commission is an April 23 program at the Jesse James Birthplace, the county-owned Kearney site where the turbulent times experienced by the James family is interpreted for visitors. 

Among five speakers scheduled that day is Hall.

“The Clay County bicentennial is the perfect time to study and appreciate the happenings here, no matter if it be good history, poor history, embarrassing or celebrated,” Hall said.

“Most importantly, it is our history. It cannot, nor should it be, erased.”

1822 – A Huge Clay County

Missouri legislators established Clay County on Jan. 2, 1822.

Legislators, perhaps recognizing the number of settlers who had been arriving near the western boundary of the new state from Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, named the county for Henry Clay. He was the Kentucky lawyer and politician who had helped engineer support for the Missouri Compromise, through which the Missouri had been admitted to the union as a slave state the previous August.

Clay County’s acreage – taken from Howard County (established in 1816) and Ray County (organized in 1820) – initially stretched from the Missouri River to its northern boundary at what is now Iowa.

Its current configuration would be established by 1825.

These details from the county’s more distant past were included in the first “Bicentennial Minute” digitally circulated last month by the Clay County Archives and Historical Library. 

“I would bet that maybe one in 1,000 people would have known that Clay County came out of Howard and Ray counties,” said Tony Meyers,
archives president.

That information, however obscure, found an audience. The first two such “Minutes” each exceeded 1,000 views on the archives’ Facebook page.

“This is an area of education that people don’t know a lot about,” Meyers said.

When first organized, Clay County stretched to Missouri’s northern boundary.
When first organized, Clay County stretched to Missouri’s northern boundary. (Courtesy | Clay County Archives and Historical Library)

1838 – An ‘Extermination Order’

In 1833 early Jackson County settlers forced followers of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith out.

They headed north, crossing the Missouri River, to Clay County.

There, residents welcomed them – a few years before the Missouri governor issued a literal “extermination order” aimed at the Mormons.

Visitors can learn of the conflict at the Liberty Jail, a visitor center just north of Liberty Square operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Our general feeling toward Clay County is very positive,” said D. Glen Esplin, director of LDS historic sites in Missouri.

The first Mormons arrived in Missouri in 1831, acting upon revelations received by prophet Joseph Smith that Independence, in Jackson County, would be the church’s “Zion,” or gathering place.

Earlier settlers grew suspicious of the Mormons as their numbers grew, and violence flared in July 1833. An Independence mob sacked a Mormon newspaper and left a church bishop wearing tar and feathers.

That November many Mormons fled to Clay County, where residents offered them shelter, provisions and employment – but also believed their presence to be temporary. After an 1836 Liberty meeting, in which Mormons were pressed regarding their future plans, church members began moving again, this time to the ”Mormon” county of Caldwell, just to the northeast and established with the support of Liberty lawyer and state legislator Alexander Doniphan.

There, many incidents considered part of what is now called the “Missouri Mormon War” occurred. That included the October 1838 killing of 17 Mormon men and boys, plus an additional 14 wounded, at a community known as Hawn’s Mill.

Amid such discord, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued Executive Order #44, often known as the “Mormon Extermination Order.” It read, in part, that the church members “must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace…”

Smith and several associates surrendered in November 1838 and, while awaiting trial, spent several winter months in a Liberty jail dungeon before escaping the following spring and fleeing to Illinois.

Mormon prophet Joseph Smith spent several months beginning in late 1838 incarcerated in the basement of this Liberty jail.
Mormon prophet Joseph Smith spent several months beginning in late 1838 incarcerated in the basement of this Liberty jail. (Courtesy | Clay County Archives and Historical Library)

In 1976 Missouri Gov. Christopher “Kit” Bond issued an executive order rescinding the 1838 extermination directive.

In 2012 LDS church officials dedicated a new temple in Kansas City, North. Ceremonies included gentle references to the unpleasantness of 1838.

“The people of Missouri have not always treated your people as they should have,” said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. “This is not only a tremendous accomplishment for you, but it is a time of healing for us.”

The new temple stands six miles from the former Liberty jail site.

“It’s a great day for us, the church returning to Missouri in such a magnificent way to where the prophet Joseph once walked,” church Elder William R. Walker said during dedication ceremonies.

On Saturday, May 7, as part of the county bicentennial observances, the Liberty Jail will receive visitors as part of a downtown walking tour that includes the Jesse James Bank Museum and the Clay County Museum, Esplin said.

Visitors can examine a replica of the jail’s dungeon and learn of the revelations church members believe Smith received during his incarceration there.

The LDS Church also operates a visitor center in Independence. At both facilities, guests can learn of the conflicts early church members overcame in western Missouri.

“There are two sides to every story,” Esplin said.

But centers like the Liberty Jail also serve LDS church members, Esplin said.

“They can help our members appreciate the challenges our people faced as they tried to establish themselves here in Missouri,” Esplin said.

Prophet Smith had identified Jackson County as the “Zion,” Esplin said.

But, he added, “Zion is a word that can have multiple meanings. It can be a geographical place but also can mean a feeling within the hearts of people united in their efforts to establish something good.

“Our Missouri experience was successful in that it resulted in a united people relocating to Illinois, and then to the Salt Lake Valley and, now, across the world.”

1861 – ‘The First Overt Act’

In 2020 several researchers began turning over grass in an approximately 10-acre vacant site four miles south of Liberty.

They were looking for remnants of a 19th century federal arsenal built in anticipated defense of the western Missouri frontier.

President Andrew Jackson had authorized the construction of the “Missouri Depot,” an ordnance storage facility otherwise known as the Liberty Arsenal, in 1836. Jackson, a champion of western expansion, considered such installations one way to protect settlers from possible attacks by indigenous peoples.

That didn’t happen.

What did happen on April 20, 1861 – eight days after the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina – was the arrival of some 200 armed and mounted secessionists from Clay and surrounding counties who demanded, and received, entry into the arsenal from the federal officer and two employees then present.

The raid, according to a historical marker now standing near the site, marked “the first overt act of citizens of Missouri against the federal government.”

Over the next week the secessionists emptied the facility of cannons, percussion muskets, rifles, sabers and swords, as well as more than 1,000 pounds of cannon powder, 1,800 pounds of rifle powder and 400,000 rifle cartridges.

In 2019 Liberty high school students approached Christopher Harris, a volunteer at the Clay County Archives and Historical Library, about an arsenal research project.

What the students found piqued the interest of Harris and several other volunteers who – after securing the permission of the current landowners – worked for several months on the site of the long-demolished arsenal, documenting still-visible remnants such as a section of stone wall near the former officers’ quarters.

They uncovered the foundations of the officers’ quarters and armory, its blacksmith and carpenter’s shop, and its kitchen.

They also found a herringbone-patterned brick sidewalk leading from the officers’ quarters toward the kitchen that, Harris thought, looked as if it had just been laid.

Harris soon published “The Liberty Arsenal: An Ordnance Depot on the Missouri Frontier,” a timeline of the facility featuring federal documents, court proceedings and archival newspaper accounts related to it.

Eight days after the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, marking the beginning of the Civil War, secessionists raided the Liberty Arsenal, a federal ordnance depot.
Eight days after the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, marking the beginning of the Civil War, secessionists raided the Liberty Arsenal, a federal ordnance depot. (Courtesy | Clay County Archives and Historical Library)

“Before the excavation we knew the names of the buildings and their dimensions, but we couldn’t put it all together,” Harris said. “But now we know what was where and we have documented that for future generations.”

The 1861 raid had been the second such incident at the arsenal.

It also had been seized in 1855, when pro-slavery settlers took munitions in anticipation of a conflict with free-staters at Lawrence, Kansas. After a treaty-signing, many of the stolen arms had been returned.

Not so in 1861.

The near-term effects of the seized rifles, muskets and cartridges may have been negative for Liberty and the surrounding areas, Harris said. Though it has never been proven, the stolen munitions may have circulated among pro-Southern and Confederate forces that soon were deployed in various skirmishes and engagements across northwestern Missouri.

One such action, in September, was the Battle of Liberty/Blue Mills Landing, which proved a victory for pro-Southern soldiers and turned one William Jewell College building into a hospital for wounded soldiers.

The longer-term effect of the raid, Harris said, was the presence of federal troops in Liberty throughout the Civil War, and the reaction to that occupation by many of its Southern-sympathizing residents.

Union detachments ranging in size from 100 to 3,000 soldiers patrolled Liberty in those years, and if some of those men comported themselves responsibly, others did not.

The latter group included some of the 350 federal soldiers from across Missouri, as well as Colorado and Kansas, who arrived in July, 1864.

“The Kansas men were especially bad,” read a 19th century history of Clay and Platte counties, cited in Harris’s book. “They stole whatever they could and openly plundered hen coops, pigpens, and smokehouses, and abused the citizens with the foulest language. In Liberty many of them robbed the merchants of considerable amounts of goods.”

Those memories were long lasting for some Liberty residents.

“Liberty had always been a Southern town to its core, and those troops affected its future for many years,” Harris said.

1862 – ‘A Future Bright and Glorious’

During July 1862 commencement exercises of a Liberty private academy for young women, one graduate chose to confront directly the September 1861 Battle of Liberty/Blue Mills Landing.

“But a few months ago, the dread tocsin of war pealed aloud its thunder,” she said.

However, the graduate soon added: “The future is bright and glorious. The cloud is lined with silver, and in the vision presented for our minds’ contemplation, the silver appears more brilliantly beautiful, by reason of contrast with the darkness, whose edges it fringes with brightness.”

If the student’s language is antique, the sentiments remain steely.

The commencement speaker – Henrietta Clay George – not only chose to address the war that Liberty residents confronted every day, with Union soldiers visible on their streets. She also resolved to step forward in optimism, going “boldly forth clad in the armor of truth, thoroughly prepared for the struggles of life, and to give battle to the opposers of right.”

Liberty residents who filled every seat at this ceremony had come to expect nothing less from students of the Clay Seminary.

James Love, a graduate of the University of Missouri in Columbia, in 1855 had opened the school with his wife Lucy, a former student at Mount Holyoke Female Academy in Massachusetts.

Clay Seminary’s curriculum was demanding. One surviving tuition statement for another 1862 graduate, held today by the Clay County Archives and Historical Library, lists separate fees for music instruction as well as for physiology, algebra and chemistry.

The Clay Seminary, a 19th century private academy for young women, included debate classes in its curriculum.
The Clay Seminary, a 19th century private academy for young women, included debate classes in its curriculum. (Courtesy | Clay County Archives and Historical Library)

Phoebe Ess, who attended Clay Seminary through 1865 and who later organized Kansas City’s Susan B. Anthony Civic Club, a women’s suffrage group, considered the school’s curriculum to be rigorous.

“The course of study was high for that age and called for brain work such as youngsters of today know nothing about,” Ess once said.

And, like Mount Holyoke, the Clay Seminary listed debate within its curriculum.

Public speaking was a familiar tradition of rural America. One Clay County group, the Franklin Debate Society, had been founded in 1842 by men looking to articulate community goals and also find escape from frontier isolation.

Women were invited to the Franklin debate sessions, one scholar has documented. 

But no available records document that the women were allowed to speak.

Clay Seminary students, however, were schooled in debate tactics and spoke often in public settings. One Liberty Tribune reporter wrote that the seminary scholars did not repeat answers learned by rote.

“The Young Ladies are not allowed to operate on borrowed capital, but are required to rely mainly upon the treasures of their own intellects,” the reporter wrote.

George’s specific words from 1862, meanwhile, still command the interest of contemporary scholars.

In a 2006 essay entitled “The Visible Rhetoric and Composition of Invisible Antebellum Female Seminary Students: Clay Seminary, Liberty, Missouri, 1855-1865,” University of Missouri-Kansas City researcher Lauren Petrillo maintained the Clay Seminary graduates, through their public speaking opportunities, achieved a public profile perhaps unique in mid-19th century Missouri.

The graduates gained speaking experience that later proved valuable to women who grew active, Petrillo added, in the suffrage and temperance movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

One such student, Carrie Moore – later known as temperance activist Carrie Nation – apparently experienced public speaking for the first time as a Clay Seminary student. At least one appearance proved an ordeal, leaving her tearful and causing her once to turn her back on her audience.

“These things nerved me,” Nation later wrote.

“I dried my tears, turned around in my seat, looked up, and the moral force it required to do this was almost equal to that which smashed a saloon.”

Clay Seminary commencement exercises filled the Liberty public halls in which they were held. Perhaps the only reason George’s comments are available to scholars today is that several Liberty residents, shut out of the 1862 ceremonies for lack of available seats, asked that the Liberty Tribune reprint them.

The rhetorical performances of young women at Clay Seminary appear to have been part of a national trend, said Henrietta Rix Wood, a teaching professor in the Honors Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and author of “Praising Girls: The Rhetoric of Young Women,” published in 2016.

“Historian Thomas Woody evaluated the curriculum of 162 female schools in the United States from 1742 to 1870 and found that, by 1800, most of these schools offered rhetoric courses,” Wood said.

From 1780 to 1870, some of these schools used rhetorical manuals that included public speaking instruction. Also, Wood added, according to historian Mary Kelley, throughout the antebellum United States female academies and seminaries allowed girls to deliver commencement addresses.

“For example, women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York in the 1830s, and she participated in public exhibitions that allowed girls to read their own compositions in mixed-sex assemblies,” Wood said.

“I think that Lucy Love and James Love, the founders of Clay Seminary, were inspired in part by this rhetorical tradition.”

1863 – ‘Nary Even a Breathing Human’

The lofty rhetoric offered by the Clay Seminary graduates of the 1860s today stands in juxtaposition with the swift and sudden brutality that could visit residents across Clay County during the Civil War.

That included those living at the James farm near Kearney.

In the spring of 1863 Frank James had joined groups of pro-Southern bushwhackers. In late May Union militia members visited the James property to inquire as to his whereabouts. 

During the visit the men whipped and beat 15-year-old Jesse, according to various accounts, and also approached his stepfather, Reuben Samuel.

He had studied at a Cincinnati medical college but had abandoned medicine in 1855 after marrying Zerelda Cole James Simms Samuel, the mother of Frank and Jesse. He then worked on the family farm.

While Zerelda was considered by some to be a firebrand who would be unapologetically proud of her sons’ exploits, Samuel was thought much the opposite.

“Those who knew Dr. Samuel described him as a kind, soft-spoken, passive, gentle, friendly man who loved kids,” said Joe Hall, today a member of the extended Samuel-Hall family.

“It was said that he and Zerelda were outwardly mismatched but inwardly contented.”

During their 1863 visit the Union militia members, placing a rope around Samuel’s neck and throwing it over a tree branch, yanked Samuel into the air, hanging him at least once.

Frank James, hiding with his bushwhacker colleagues nearby, escaped the militia. That August he was among those following guerrilla leader William Quantrill to Lawrence, Kansas, the free state stronghold.

There Quantrill’s raiders killed between 160 and 190 men and boys before looting and burning much of the town.

By the following spring Jesse would be with his brother, part of the bushwhacking band led by “Bloody” Bill Anderson. At the September 1864 “Centralia Massacre” in mid-Missouri, Anderson’s guerrillas killed 22 unarmed Union soldiers who’d had the bad luck to arrive in Centralia by train during Anderson’s visit.

Descendants of Reuben Samuel, stepfather to Frank and Jesse James, believe he likely suffered brain damage after being hung from a tree branch during an 1863 visit to the family’s Clay County farm by federal militia members. This photo depicts Samuel sitting beneath the tree from which he was hung.
Descendants of Reuben Samuel, stepfather to Frank and Jesse James, believe he likely suffered brain damage after being hung from a tree branch during an 1863 visit to the family’s Clay County farm by federal militia members. This photo depicts Samuel sitting beneath the tree from which he was hung. (Courtesy | Joe Hall).

“Jesse’s whipping and the hanging of Dr. Samuel would be instrumental in Jesse’s decision to soon leave and join up with Anderson,” Hall said.

Samuel would never be the same following the May 1863 militia visit, Hall believes, adding, “The tortuous hanging of Dr. Samuel would have a lasting effect on his brain.”

In 1901, at age 73, Samuel entered a St. Joseph, Missouri, mental hospital. He remained a patient there until his death in 1908, at age 80.

Hall’s grandfather, George W. Hall, served as a pallbearer at Samuel’s funeral.

Zerelda, meanwhile, at the time of the 1863 visit had been pregnant with Hall’s great-grandmother, Fannie.

“The events of that date, as cruel as they were, ended with Zerelda – and, of course, Fannie, nary even a breathing human – being sent to jail,” Hall said.

1901 – ‘The Dignity of Being Acknowledged’

In 1901 the city of Liberty acquired what once had been the community’s fairgrounds, which were visible from the city’s long-time cemetery, which dated to the mid-19th century.

Over time the area became today’s Fairview and New Hope Cemeteries.

Hundreds of Clay County residents today are interred there, chief among them Alexander Doniphan, the 19th century Liberty lawyer and state representative whose record includes his famous refusal – while serving as a state militia brigadier general during the Missouri Mormon War of the 1830s – to execute Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.

Doniphan died in 1887 and his grave monument is a towering obelisk.

Many other graves, however, aren’t marked at all. 

Those include the graves of hundreds of Black residents, some of them perhaps former enslaved persons who once represented a significant portion of Clay County’s economy.

One study has identified Clay County as one of seven Missouri counties in which enslaved persons, in 1850, represented at least 24% of its population.

In 1850 there were 49 Liberty residents who owned 157 enslaved persons. Ten years later the number of Liberty slave owners had grown to 82, with the number of enslaved persons having increased to 346.

Any of those individuals or their descendants who rest in unmarked graves at Fairview and New Hope Cemeteries deserve to be remembered, said A.J. Byrd of Liberty. 

This summer, he said, they will be honored with the anticipated installation of a memorial that will include the names of 761 Black residents whose burials there so far have been confirmed by researchers.

A new memorial, honoring those buried in unmarked graves in the formerly segregated area of Fairview and New Hope Cemeteries, is scheduled to be dedicated this June.
A new memorial, honoring those buried in unmarked graves in the formerly segregated area of Fairview and New Hope Cemeteries, is scheduled to be dedicated this June. (Brian Burnes | Flatland)

“We want to acknowledge those citizens who helped build Liberty, under often inhumane conditions,” said Byrd, president of Clay County African American Legacy Inc., the local organization planning the memorial.

“These people were part of the reason why the city of Liberty operated efficiently and productively,” Byrd said, “but they failed to receive the dignity of being acknowledged or recognized upon their burials.

“It’s important that we today recognize their contributions.”

Memorial dedication ceremonies currently are scheduled for Saturday, June 18, which would incorporate the event with the Liberty’s Juneteenth celebration that weekend.

Shelton Ponder, co-chair of the memorial project, has traced his great-great-grandparents’ presence in the Liberty area to the early 1820s. The memorial project, he feels, is his opportunity, two centuries later, to honor those who helped build his community.

“My family has been here for about 200 years, so I feel like I am connected to everybody who is buried in that part of the cemetery,” Ponder said.

“I just happen to be here now, to be able to do this for them.”

Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City area writer and author. He is serving as president of the Jackson County Historical Society.

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