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Livingston County History
Celebrating 150 Years, 1821-1981
Published by The Retired Senior Volunteer Program
On January 6, 1837, Livingston County came into existence when Governor Daniel Dunklin signed a piece of legislation enacted by the Missouri Assembly. The county was named for the Hon. Edward Livingston, the eleventh Secretary of State of the United States under President Andrew Jackson.
The land that came to be called Livingston County dates back much further than 1837. Before settlers came to the area the land was populated by its natural. inhabitants - coyotes, beavers, squirrels, panthers, deer and rabbits. The Grand River flowed from the northwest to southeast, shagbark hickory, cottonwood, and white oak growing on its banks. Beneath the prairie grass covered hills a sub-soil of clay and thin veins of coal lay hidden.
An old Indian trail crossed what is now known as Medicine Creek and went north to the mouth of Honey Creek. The Chippewas, Sacs, Fox and Pottawatomies used the trail. They camped for brief times near the watercourses; when the game became scarce they moved on.
The Missouri Indians settled Livingston County in the early 1800’s. An example of their burial mounds can be found near the bank of the Grand River just upstream from Bedford. They were the first known occupants of Livingston County. The Indians settled a number of towns and villages in this county. One city was located a mile west of the present site of Chillicothe; another was located on Medicine Creek; another on the bluffs on the east fork of Grand River. One village was located three miles southeast of the present town of Springhill, another west of Farmersville. According to a treaty drawn up in 1833 the Indian title to the land in the Grand River Valley was nullified, and the Indians were to move north and west. The Shawnees were the last tribe to leave. They left behind the name of their town - Chillicothe.
French trappers are known to have explored and written of the Grand River as early as 1724. About six miles below the mouth of the river the French had held a fort; their trappers covered many miles trading with the Indians for beaver and otter.
In the late 1820’s settlers from Carroll and Ray counties came north in search of honey said to be found here. The “bee hunters”, as they were called, set up camp in the timber bottoms between the two forks of Grand River. In a few days, they returned to their homes with a wagon filled with barrels of honey.
In the spring in 1831, Samuel E. Todd chose a spot west of Utica as his home; other settlers soon followed. Numerous families reported seeing the giant meteor shower on the night of November 12, 1833.
Joseph Cox built the first log cabin in the Chillicothe area in the summer of 1832. Indians coming through Ray County had stolen one of his horses, and he traced them to Livingston County. He got his horse back, and was so impressed by the rolling countryside that he moved here. It was at the Joseph Cox house on April 6, 1837, that the first term, of the county court was held and the county divided into four townships - Shoal Creek, Indian Creek, Medicine Creek, and Grand River. The first term of the Circuit Court for Livingston County was also held later that summer at the Joseph Cox home. The judge, jury, lawyers, witnesses and defendants all boarded at the house free of charge. Corn pone, butter, and venison were served on log tables set up under the trees.
In August, 1837, the Livingston County Court took the first steps in laying out the town of Chillicothe. John Graves was appointed trustee to lay off lots by September 4th. He resigned and Nathan Gregory finished the surveying and platting in time for lots to be sold in October. The name Chillicothe comes from the Shawnee Indians and means “the big town where we live” or “our big home.” It was not until July, 1839, that Chillicothe was designated as a county seat.
Livingston County’s first courthouse was built in 1838, but because of an oversight in the plans it had no windows. A second courthouse was built in November, 1841, on the southwest corner of Webster and Cherry Streets. It was a two story brick structure with all rooms warmed by fireplaces. The original courthouse without windows was used as a school.
By this time Livingston County was becoming a much-traveled area as wagon trains and pioneers went west. One route led through the northern half of the county crossing East Fork of Grand River at Cox’s Ferry, then up through Navetown and on to the northwest. Another route came across the southern part of the county and crossed Shoal Creek at Josiah Whitney’s Mill in what is now Dawn. The southern route was the route the Mormons chose to take. The Mormons and their practice of polygamy angered settlers in Livingston County. A group of settlers from the forks of the river petitioned the Governor to expel the Mormons from the county. Josiah Whitney took matters in his own hands halting all wagons, at his mill and demanding that the Mormon men give him their guns and ammunition or turn back to Illinois.
Since they could not survive without guns to hunt for food they protested, but Whitney insisted that he was the law and determined to keep bigamists out of Missouri.
Whitney succeeded in turning some of the Mormons back, and others went on without their arms to Caldwell County. Sentiment against the Mormons ran high in Livingston County and a militia of two hundred men was organized. They encountered the Mormons at Haun’s Mill in Caldwell County. The Mormons offered no resistance and were told to move west. Before they could move, a second group attacked them and seventeen Mormons were killed. The militia looted the houses and stables and brought the bounty back to Livingston County.
In the spring of 1846 the first move was made to establish the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. As A. J. Roof noted in his History of Livingston County, “The newspapers of the towns through which it was thought the road would be built favored it; those located off the line were opposed to it, and the people divided with the newspapers.” When it was finished in 1859 passenger trains left Hannibal at 10:30 a.m. and reached St. Joseph, 206 miles away, at 9:30 p.m. Hannibal, Hudson (Macon), Brookfield, Chillicothe, and St. Joseph were the principal stations.
In 1858, Chillicothe had 1000 residents, two dry goods stores, a livery stable, a drug store, a hotel, an eating house, and a newspaper, “The Grand River Chronicle.” The town boasted of one physician, four lawyers and regular stagecoach service. The sixty mile trip to Bethany was one of the most popular. There were no paved streets or sidewalks and few fences in town. The pigs and chickens ran all over. The local Thespian Society, for men and boys only, put on a play called “Tootles” and charged twenty-five cents admission.
Through the beginning of the Civil War, Livingston County was uniformly Democratic in politics. In 1860 the Democratic vote was split by different candidates; but of the 1469 votes cast only twenty went to Abraham Lincoln.
In the winter of 1860 and 1861 the men began a series of Friday night meetings to discuss such questions: “Resolved: That the inaugural of President Lincoln means war.” The meetings were brought to an abrupt end in April when Fort Sumter was fired upon. Soon afterward, the first Federal cannon was moved to the square in Chillicothe.
Sentiment in Livingston County at the beginning of the war was strongly Secessionist. In 1862 all persons liable to military duty were asked to enroll themselves as loyal or disloyal. Several hundred in Livingston County registered as disloyal.
An example of the feelings of the county residents concerns a certain Reverend J. E. Gardner. In the election of 1860 only twenty people in the county stood up and by voice vote voted for Lincoln, fifteen in Monroe township and five in Blue Mound. Utica had voted for Bell, Breckenridge and Douglas. Rev. Gardner had been one to vote for Lincoln but then he went to Utica as a Northern Methodist minister, and on a camp meeting, the Reverend Gardner was “found in the wrong tent” at the revival. There was a meeting of citizens in Utica about December 20, 1860, and at that time thirty-seven residents gave the minister three days to leave their county. This time was extended and they finally forced him and his family out of town by January 4, 1861. He was rescued by a Mr. P. Rudolph from Monroe township.
By 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, sentiment was divided. At a public meeting discussing the Proclamation two supporters were arrested. One was Mr. Harbaugh, editor of the Constitution Newspaper; the other was Reverend T. B. Bratton, Presiding Elder of the Methodist Episcopal churches in this area. The officers of the Harper Union Ladies Encampment of Utica decided to rally to the cause of Reverend Bratton and Mr. Harbaugh.
The Harper Union Ladies Encampment had over 250 members and included most of the women from Utica and the surrounding areas. Carrying a Union flag and wearing red, white, and blue sashes, they marched on Chillicothe to call on Judge McFerron. When the judge appeared the ladies introduced themselves and said they had come to demand the release of Reverend Bratton and Mr. Harbaugh. The judge asked them by what right, and the ladies replied, “By our rights as loyal Americans.”
The judge reminded them that they did not have the vote and challenged their right to tell him what to do, but the women replied that free speech is guaranteed to men by the Constitution and the Reverend Bratton and Mr. Harbaugh were only venting their right to free speech and should not be imprisoned. Further discussion ensued and the women were told to roll up their flag, take off their red, white and blue sashes, and go home where they belonged. The judge eventually gave in, the two men were freed, and the meeting ended with the women singing “Rally Around the Flag Boys.”
In the three years from Lincoln’s election in 1860 until 1863 the sentiment in Livingston County had changed. In 1860 only a few had wanted to do away with slavery, but by 1863 only a handful stood against the Union and emancipation.
City pride began to be aroused in Chillicothe in the 1870’s and 80’s. The city park was rid of black locust sprouts and an attempt was made to keep the cows and pigs away after the City Council passed an ordinance that said livestock must be fenced in. Dr. Green helped to get an Opera House started. Tickets for Opening Night cost $10.00 and a ball was held afterwards at the new Leeper Hotel.
Disasters hit the county, too. In 1873 a bank robbery was made on People’s Bank, and an attempt was made to kidnap the bank president. The Wheeling Railroad burned in 1881. A tornado killed four persons, wrecked thirty-seven houses and did $65,000 worth of damage in 1881 in the Blue Mound area. An earlier tornado in 1880 had wiped out most of the town of Bedford. In 1886 the tower of Central School was struck by lightning.
Electric lights came to Chillicothe in 1885. They ran until midnight six days a week, no electricity on Sunday. The street railway was begun with four cars and ten little mules to haul people from one depot to another or up to the square. The first telephone system in Chillicothe began with sixteen phones in 1886. The Chillicothe, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad built a new line through Chillicothe. The innovations in the coming years would bring swifter changes than could be imagined. -- Janet Hartline
Sources used in this summary were the History of Caldwell and Livingston Counties, Missouri, 1886; Past and Present of Livingston County, Missouri by A. J. Roof, 1913; A History of Livingston County, Missouri published by the Centennial Committee, 1937, and Progress of Chillicothe and Livingston County since 1832 compiled by W. L. Cox, 1911.