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The History of Washington, Missouri

Table of Contents


II.

THE FOUNDING OF WASHINGTON

Spain surrendered Louisiana to France in 1801, but the French flag was ascendant at St. Louis for but a single day.  Captain Stoddard, the representative of France, received it from De Lassus on March 9, 1804, and transferred his authority to the United States on the following day.  In the next year the population of Upper Louisiana increased from about 6,000 to more than 10,000 and of the new comers more than one thousand were Negro slaves.

The War of 1812 temporarily stopped this migration, but after hostilities ceased, began again, greater than before.  The roads through southern Illinois were filled with settlers bringing in possessions and slaves.  At St. Louis from thirty to fifty wagons crossed the river daily.  In 1815 a St. Louis newspaper made the following comment:

     "Swarms of immigrants are daily arriving from Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and among these are several gentlemen of considerable wealth,  Some are going to settle high on the Missouri."

One "gentleman from Kentucky" who settled in Franklin county at this time was to fill a very important place in local history.   William G. Owens, and Lucinda, his wife, are recognized as the founders of Washington.

William G. Owens was born in 1796, and was educated to be a lawyer.   He was married to Lucinda Young in 1815.  Soon after they emigrated to Missouri Territory, and located at the little town of New Port in 1818.

In that year Franklin county was officially organized, the tenth county in the state.  The first meeting of the circuit court was held on March 8, 1819, at the home of Hartley Sappington, on the bluffs about two and a half miles above Washington.   Benoni Sappington took the oath of office as sheriff, and William Laughlin, David Edwards, and Thomas Buckner were appointed commissioners.  Issac Murphy was the first circuit clerk.

New Port, the only town in the county, was made the county seat.   James McDonald and John Sullins donated one hundred acres to be used for the courthouse and townsite.  James McDonald was the chief contractor, and William S. Burch, the architect.  A two story brick building, costing $3,700, was built.

The Circuit court met in the new courthouse in July of the following year, and William Owens was made circuit clerk.  The first county court was held on January 22, 1821.  Henry Brown and Kinkaid Caldwell were justices, and William Owens, the clerk protem, became the first clerk of the county court.  William Owens was also the first postmaster of New Port, for a post-office had been established there in 1820.

Franklin county was one of the largest in the state, and after a few years it seemed desirable to obtain a more convenient location for the county seat.  A site was selected close to the geographical center of the county, lots were sold, and the proceeds were used to erect the courthouse and jail at Union.

The last meetings were held at New Port in 1826.  In the following year courts were held at the home of Ambrose Ransom at Union, and in June, 1828, the new courthouse was in use.  William Owens was one of the commissioners for securing the courthouse.  It was built of logs, had one large south room and three north rooms, and cost $884.79.  James McDonald was the contractor for this building also. 

Many of the residents of New Port moved to Union after the new courthouse was completed.  Among them were Pres Rule, who had opened the county's first store at New Port, Dr. Elijah McLean, and William Owens.

In spite of his youth, Major Owens had become one of Franklin County's leading citizens.  He was a justice of the peace of St. John's township and an officer of the militia.  He wrote bonds and deeds, drew up contracts and appraised estates.  At this time he began to acquire extensive holdings in real estate.

In May, 1819, the steamboat Independe4nce had gone up the river to "Old Franklin," and triumphantly returned to St. Louis two weeks later.   There were no regular packets prior to 1829, but William Owens doubtless realized that increasing traffic would boom the river town.  The New Port landing was poor and inaccessible.  Union was an inland village, but there was a good natural landing at Washington.

It was a propitious site for a town.  Situated as it was, between the two old settlements on Du Bois and St. John's creeks, and across the river from other s in Warren County, it was in the center of one of the most populous areas in this part of the state.  There were several ferries in the vicinity, and there was a road to Union.

Many settlers have had grants on land that is now a part of the City of Washington.  Early ones were those of John Long, James Mackay, William Massey, and John Magill.  Others were Isaiah Todd, Phillip Miller, Joshua Brock, William Truesdell, Chauncey Shepard, Hugh Stevenson, Scudder Smith, Joseph McCoy, Jane Armstrong and John Caldwell.  Someone, possibly John Caldwell, named the ferry site "Washington," for in the proceedings of the county court there is these item:

     "August 22, 1822, John Caldwelll is licensed to keep a ferry at Washington on the Missouri River by paying a tax of $5.50, and by giving bond in the sum of $150."

There was no town "at Washington" in 1822.  The boat landing was the "Washington Landing," and as the village grew up about it, the name persisted.  It was a popular name at that time, and neither William nor Lucinda Owens troubled to change it.

In 1828, William Owens leased land west of Washington for a clay mine.   Somewhat later he bought 150 acres from Scudder Smith.  The fifty acres adjacent to the ferry were selected for the original townsite.

The first lots were probably sold at public sale before the court house in Union on July 4, 1829.  According to a deed of 1830, William and Lucinda Owens sold to Dr. Elijah McLean "All that was not sold in the form of town lots. . . . .on July 4, 1829."

In the next three years lots were sold to Joseph McCoy, Charles Eberius, Phineas Thomas, Bernard Fricke, Joseph Hardin, Joseph Porter, Jessie Pritchett, and others.  Joseph McCoy sold some of his acreage to Daniel B. and Larkin D. Callaway, grandsons of Daniel Boone.

The old Franklin County Atlas of 1878 states that "Washington was laid off on the property of Lucinda Owens in 1839, though there had been for several years a small trade carried on at the ferry landing, out of which grew a small hamlet, including a store and several dwellings."

There is ample evidence, however, that the townsite had been surveyed and platted before the death of William Owens in 18334.  It is also significant that contemporary writers speak of him as the "founder of Washington," and that the records of the St. Francis Borgia Church state that Mrs. Owens "made a new attempt to found a town."  For a while the little village was actually called "New Washington."

The store mentioned by the Atlas was built by Eberius in 1832.   Frederich Muench, a distinguished pioneer of Warren County, wrote that the "two brothers Eberius built the first house in the town of Washington, and Bernard Fricke the second."

The Eberius store was located on the south side of Front street, between Jefferson and Market; his "dwelling" was at the corner of Main and Jefferson streets, and eat of it were a cooper shop and stable.  He also had a warehouse near the "Owens ferry landing," and in 1835, bought the brick house which had been build by Phineas Thomas.  This was the first brick house built in Washington, and was described as a "large two-story brick house with necessary outhouses," and was at the site of the reservoir.

Gert Goebel, who came with his father, David Goebel, and settled near New Port in 1834, wrote of stopping at the "boarding house of Charles Eberius" at that time.  He wrote that Eberius had come from Germany many years before, had lived in Kentucky for ten years, and had married an American woman there.  He spoke English fluently, and was a justice of the peace.

Since Charles Eberius was married to an American woman, Goebel evidently didn't consider them a "German family," for he gave the following account of the Frickes:

     "At the time of our coming there lived only one German family, that of Bernard Fricke, in Washington, the others were bachelors.   Mr. Fricke was a saddler by profession.  The unmarried men of the town prevailed upon Mrs. Fricke to give them board, and her place soon became so popular that new addition had to be build to the house.  Later on Mr. Fricke opened a hotel, the Washington House, and during the time when Washington was the terminus of the newly constructed Missouri Pacific, he did an enormous business."

Bernard Fricke's log tavern was also build in 1832, on the west side of Jefferson street, between Main and Second streets.  His son, Charles Fricke, was probably the first child born in the little village.

An entry in the diary of Frederick Steinses, for May 27, 1834, tells that he ferried across the Missouri to the "little town of Washington, . . . . which had but recently begun."  He, too, speaks of Bernard Fricke, and adds that Charles Eberius had a German clerk in his store named Menges.  He described the town as having two stores, and at the most ten scattered houses.

This tallies very closely with Gert Goebel's account of Washington at this period:

     "In the first half of the third decade, scarcely more than a dozen houses, mostly very modest log houses, were scattered along a hillside descending toward the river.  There were no streets, but well-beaten footpaths.  The forest bordered almost immediately upon this little group of houses.   Some isolated forest trees had been left standing.  A little cemetery was laid out and used not far from the spot where the city hall now is."

     "In olden times, nothing could be seen of the town (from the river) until one was in the midst of it."

It was almost prophetic that the two first settlers in the village of Washington should have been Germans, for in the last half of the nineteenth century, it was to become almost completely a German community.

From 1830 there was a very large settlement of German immigrants in the middle west, and due to the influence of Gottfried Duden, many of them located in this section of Missouri.

This philosophical dreamer had lived near Dutzow, in Warren county, from 1824 to 1827.  Upon his return to Germany, he published a book, popularly called "Duden's Letters," picturing the ease and delights of farm life in the Missouri valley.  "It is impossible for Europeans to understand," he wrote, "how comfortably and with what little exertion one can live in America."

This book was published at the close of the Napoleonic wars, a time of acute discontent and suffering in Germany.  Duden's idyll proved irresistible to people of all classes.

Many intellectuals and men of substantial wealth migrated because of their fierce longing for American democracy and freedom.  Most of the German immigrants of this period, however, were peasants, artisans and day laborers, who had experienced want and starvation in Germany, and were attracted by the cheap land and plentiful opportunities in the United States.  They were sturdy people, used to hard drudgery, and after a few years most of them possessed comfortable farms, and in many instances, considerable wealth.

This class fared better than their more intellectual and idealistic countrymen, the "Latin" farmers.  The latter, ill-equipped for the rigors of existence in the wilderness, spent most of their fortunes on labor for their farms and were impoverished and disappointed.

It was partly due to chance, and partly to Duden's Letters that twelve German Catholic families landed in Washington in the fall of 1833.  They spent the winter camped near the Fricke tavern and in the spring of 1834 took up claims, mot of them locating near Washington.  William Owen offered them lots for a church in Washington in November of that year, but on November 16, he was murdered.

There are many versions of the crime, by the accurate and observant Gert Goebel was living near Washington at that time, and his account is probably reliable:

     "Mr. Owens and his family then lived in Union, but owning a large estate comprising a great part of our town of Washington, was often here on business."

     "On the day of the murder, he and a young man, John Trustell, who lived in the Owens home, were in Washington.  As it was getting late, Mr. Owens told Trustell to ride on slowly towards Union, and he, (Owens) would soon overtake him."

     "About half a mile south of Washington, Trustell saw a man with a gun in the woods, but was not suspicious, as men out hunting were a common sight.  He thought this was a certain Mr. Jones, but could not be sure."

     "Riding further, Trustell reached the Dobyns farm, where he accepted an invitation to stop in and wait for Mr. Owens, as by that time the weather was exceedingly bad.  While there, he heard a shot in the direction of Washington, but yet was not suspicious.  But when Owens still did not come, Trustell, thinking the mule Owens rode might have slipped in the mud and fallen with its rider, started back toward Washington.  He returned in a few minutes very much excited, for he had found Mr. Owens lying in the road, dead. Owens's mule was grazing a short distance away.  When they lifted Owens's body out of the mud, they noticed blood. . . .He had been shot in the back."

Mr. Owens was to have been an important witness at court against John J. Porter, who was charged with forging a signature attached to a real estate transfer in the official county records, and also against Joseph McCoy, for a grave offense.

Porter, who was living in Washington, barricaded his house, and threatened to shoot anyone entering his premises.  The constable, aided by a large number of armed men, appeared on the scene, and Porter surrendered. 

Four suspects, including Porter and McCoy, were arrested, and in the absence of a jail in Union, were kept in a house in Washington for several weeks.   One, a stranger, was taken to the St. Louis county jail.  The others were allowed freedom under bond, but did not return for trial, so the bonds were forfeited, and the real truth of the murder was never known.

Lucinda Ow2ens probably moved to Washington soon after the death of her husband, for the sale of his personal property was held there in 1835.

The inventory of his estate shows that he had indeed become a man of property.  It lists an impressive assortment of household furnishings and a library of more than seventy-five volumes.  There are also numerous farm implements; some domestic animals, including a yoke of oxen, one horse, one mule, some cows, geese and hogs; a row boat and skiff, and "David, a servant."

It is interesting to observe that nineteen clients owed $107.00 for various legal services, and that there were promissory notes of seventeen persons for sums totaling about $400.  These two lists include the names of the prominent citizens in the county.  In addition to his official duties, William Owens had been the leading lawyer and money lender in the community.

He was also the largest holder of real estate at that time, for he owned more than a half section of land in the vicinity of Washington.

The property was shared equally by his widow and his five children, Mary Ann, Eliza Jane, Sarah, Harriet Emily, and James W., a two-year-old boy.  There was very little cash' the estate could provide only a small income, and to complicate matters, was tied up by litigation.

William Owens had sold lots in Washington, and had given bond that he would furnish proper deeds after the final payments had been made.  Many suits were brought against his estate by persons seeking to get a clear title to their land.   Consequently, Washington's growth was almost at a standstill, and the difficulties of the situation were increased by an attempt to start the rival town, "Bassora."

Little is known about the circumstances of the founding of Bassora.   All up and down the Missouri there was an epidemic of "town-founding" at that time.  It is probable that the promoters of Bassora hoped to profit by the misfortunes of the Owens family, and lure prospective settlers away from Washington.

Bassora was composed of two parcels of land, one a part of the original grant to Hugh Stephenson, and the other Chauncey Shephard's.  Both were purchased by Daniel Q. Kennett, and were sold by him to David Waldo in 1834.  In July, 1836, Baldwin King and Andrew King, Jr., bought this acreage, and in August sold undivided quarters to William Walker and George Morton.  The plat of Bassora was filed by these four men on October 8, 1836.

The town was laid out on a more level terrain than Washington, and a public landing and a "Public or Market Square" were provided in the plat.   Missouri Street, running parallel to the river, was to be 100 feet wide.  The cross streets were Penn, Henry, and Fulton streets; Washington and Jefferson avenues, both eighty feet wide, and Franklin, Hancock and Boone streets.

A post office had been established in Washington on April 13, 1837, with Robert Caldwell as postmaster.  On November 1, it was changed to Bassora, but on April 4, 1840, it was moved to Washington once more.  The business section, too, remained in the older community.  Residences were built in Bassora, but eventually, it was incorporated as a part of the city of Washington.  Today, Siegel avenue connects Third street on the original town with Second street in Bassora.

On October 12, 1838, Sarah Owens was married to John F. Mense.  He was described as being able to read and write in both German and English, and proved to be an astute, practical business man.  He began at once to try to untangle the Owens estate.  There is a receipt, dated December, 1838, for $20.00 paid by John Mense for "legal advice concerning the estate of the late William G. Owens."   Undoubtedly he was advised that Lucinda Owens must get a clear title to the town-site by purchasing it from the estate.  Then the plat could be filed, and parcels of land sold as town lots.

In that month, December, 1838, Lucinda Owens advertised in a St. Louis newspaper her intention of asking permission at the Franklin county court to sell fifty acres of the estate of  "the late William G. Owens, to pay the debts of said estate, and for the maintenance and education of his heirs."

The court granted permission in February; the land was appraised at $20.00 an acre, and on May 7, it was purchased by Mrs. Owens for $1,210.00 On May 29, the plat of Washington was filed at last.

On that date, Mrs. Owens appeared before Justice of the Peace Joseph R. Hardin, and  made the following affidavit:

     "Lots from No. 1 to No. 126 being 66 feet front by 132 feet back; from 127 to 144 are bottom lots, and falling in every day most, so the size cannot be stated.  The streets are 49 1/2 feet wide and are for public purposes."

Streets running parallel with the river in the original town were Front street, First, (afterwards Main Street), Second, and Third, and those at right angles were Locust, Walnut, Market, Jefferson and La Fayette.

Thus, after ten difficult and stormy years, the little town of Washington was firmly established.  Recognition should be given to William Owens, who first had the vision of starting a town here, and Lucinda Owens, who carried her husband's project to completion.

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