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Past and Present of Livingston County
Volume 1. History
by Major A. J. Roof. 1913
In the summer of 1836 occurred in Northern Missouri certain incidents known in the aggregate as the "Heatherly War." With these incidents it is proper to deal in this volume, since certain companies of volunteers from this county took part in the war, and at the time the entire population was greatly excited and at times apprehensive.
From the official records of Carroll county, from the statements of living witnesses, and from other sources of information, it is learned that in the spring of this year a band of desperadoes, robbers and thieves lived in that part of Carroll county known as the Upper Grand river country, and now included in Mercer and Grundy counties. This band had for its principal member a family named Heatherly, from Kentucky, composed of the following persons: George Heatherly, Sr., the father; Jenny Heatherly, the mother; John Heatherly, Alfred Heatherly, George Heatherly, Jr., and James Heatherly, the sons, and Ann Heatherly, the daughter.
The Heatherlys lived far out on the frontier, and their cabin was a rendezvous for hard characters of all sorts. The antecedents of the family were bad. Old George Heatherly was regarded as a thief in Kentucky, and Mrs. Heatherly was a sister of the notorious Kentucky murderers and freebooters, Big and Little Harpe. The women of the family were prostitutes, and the men were believed to be villains of the hardest sort. It is said that one of Mrs. Heatherly's children was a mulatto, whose father was a coal black negro, that accompanied the family from Kentucky to Missouri. Bad as they were, however, the Heatherly's were perhaps not as black as they were painted, and many crimes were attributed to them of which, in all probability, they were innocent.
Living with the Heatherly's as boarders, visitors, or employes, were three or four young men whose reputations were none of the best, and who had doubtless drifted westward from the older states as they fled from officers of the law from crimes committed.
Old Mrs. Heatherly is said to have been the leading spirit of the gang, prompting and planning many a dark deed, and often assisting in its execution. Tales were told of the sudden and utter disappearance of many a land hunter and explorer, who visited the Upper Grand river country and was last seen in the neighborhood of the Heatherly house. These stories may or may not have been true, but all the same they were told, and gradually gained credence.
Early in the month of June, 1836, a hunting party of the Iowa Indians from Southern Iowa, came down on the East fork of Grand river on a hunting expedition. As soon as the Heatherly's heard of the proximity of the Indians they resolved to visit their camp, steal what horses they could, and carry them down to Missouri river counties and sell them. Taking with them James Dunbar, Alfred Hawkins and a man named Thomas, the four Heatherlys visited the scene of the Iowa's hunting operations and began to steal the ponies and horses which had been turned out to graze. Fortune favored them and they managed to secure quite a lot of ponies, and escaped with them to the forks of Grand river. Here they were overtaken by a pursuing party of the Iowas, who demanded a return of their property. The demand being either refused or not instantly complied with the Indians opened' fire on the thieves. The first volley killed Thomas. Other shots being fired the Heatherly gang retreated, leaving the ponies in the hands of their rightful owners.
Upon the defeat of their scheme the Heatherlys returned home, and began consulting among themselves as to the best course to pursue under the circumstances. Being much alarmed lest the Indians should give information of the affair to the whites and have the true story believed, it was resolved to anticipate a visit to the whites on the river, and go first themselves and tell a tale of their own. Dunbar had for some time shown symptoms of treachery to the party, or rather of a desire to break away from his evil associates. Soon after he was murdered and his body secreted, but afterwards found.
In a day or two the Heatherlys made their appearance in the settlements raising an alarm that the Indians were in the country murdering and robbing, and claimed that they killed Dunbar and other white men in the Upper Grand river country. The news was at first believed and there was great excitement throughout the country. A part of the story that the Indians were in the country was known to be true and the rest was readily believed. Carriers were sent to Ray, Clay and Clinton counties, and the people were thoroughly aroused.
Gen. B. M. Thompson, of Ray, commanding the militia forces in the district, ordered out several companies, and at the head of a regiment from Ray and Carroll, moved rapidly to the scene of the reported troubles. The whole country north of Carroll county was thoroughly scoured. An advance scouting party penetrated the section where the Indians were, visited their camp and found them quiet, and perfectly peaceable, and wondering at the cause of the visit of so many white men in arms.
Two companies from Clay were ordered out by Genera Thompson. The battalion, numbering about one hundred and fifty men, was commanded by Col. Shubael Allen. There accompanied the militia some volunteers, among whom was Gen. A. W. Doniphan. Obedient to orders Colonel Allen marched his battalion almost due north, nearly along the then western boundary of the state, to a point in what is now DeKalb county, and then turned east to the reported troublesome section. This was done to discover whether or not there was a movement of the savages from that quarter, or to flank the supposed hostile band which was thought to be advancing down Grand river. Arriving at Grand river the battalion crossed and encamped one Sunday on its banks.
After thorough examination and investigation of the situation and circumstances, General Thompson became perfectly satisfied that the Indians were not and had not been hostile - were innocent of the offenses alleged against them, but on the contrary, had been preyed upon by the Heatherly gang in the manner heretofore described. After consultation the officers returned the men to their homes and disbanded them and the great scare was over.
The depredations and crimes alleged against the Indians were now traced directly to the Heatherlys. A warrant for their arrest was issued, and July 17, Sheriff Lewis N. Rees, of Carroll county, with a strong posse, apprehended them, and their preliminary examinations came off before Squire Jesse Newlin, who then lived at Navetown, now Spring Hill, Livingston county. The examination attracted great attention and lasted several days. The result was that the accused were found to be the murderers - either as principals or accessories - of James Dunbar, and on the 27th day of July, they were given into the custody of the sheriff of Ray county for safe keeping. Old man Heatherly, his wife, and their daughter, Ann, were released on bail.
October 27, 1836, in obedience to a writ of habeas corpus, issued by judge John F. Ryland, in vacation, the sheriff of Ray county brought into the circuit court at Carrollton, the old man, George Heatherly, his wife, Jenny Heatherly, their sons, John, Alfred, James and George, Jr., and Alfred Hawkins, all charged with the murder of James Dunbar. The accused were returned to the custody of the sheriff.
The grand jury found bills of indictment against the Heatherlys, and a separate indictment against Alfred Hawkins. Austin A. King took his seat on the bench, as judge of the circuit, in the room of Judge Ryland, at his term. Thos. C. Birch was circuit attorney, but having been counsel for the accused in the preliminary examination, was discharged from the duties imposed upon him by the law in this case and Amos Rees was appointed by the court special prosecutor.
On Tuesday, March 17, 1837, John Heatherly was acquitted. There being no sufficient jail in Carroll county, the Heatherlys were sent to Lafayette county jail, and Hawkins to the jail of Chariton county for safe keeping. Bills to the amount of $530 were allowed certain parties for guarding the prisoners.
It being apparent to the prosecutor that no conviction could be had of the Heatherlys, nor of Hawkins, unless some of his fellow-criminals would testify against him, at the July term, 1837, before Judge King, a nolle pros. was entered against the Heatherlys, and they were discharged. Whereupon Hawkins was placed on trial and the Heatherlys testified against him. He was ably and vigorously defended by his counsel, who induced some of the jury to believe that the Heatherlys themselves were the guilty parties, and the result was that the jury disagreed and were discharged.
At the November term, 1837, Hawkins was again tried, at Carrollton, and this time convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to death. The sentence was afterward commuted to twenty years in the penitentiary, whither he was taken, but after serving about two years of his time he died, thus terminating "the Heatherly war." What eventually became of the Heatherly family is not known.