PALMYRA, Mo. — Local history experts and dignitaries told the story of Marion County from its origins to the present day, when the Show Me Missourah podcast arrived for an episode at the Marion County Courthouse in the county seat of Palmyra.
Scott Faughn sat down with local historian David Wilson, Presiding Commissioner David Lomax, state Rep. Louis Riggs, and Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Curator Henry Sweets to talk about the rich history of Marion County. Faughn has been stopping by one county at a time to share each region’s stories.
They started by discussing the first known white man to arrive on land which would become Marion County — Father Louis Hennepin — who settled near today’s Big Spring Park, northwest of the courthouse.
“There was a spring there, and it flows 365 days a year and has flowed forever,” Wilson said. “That’s where the Indians would come and get water, and that’s where he settled to try to bring the Indians to Christ.”
Faughn addressed how much the county has changed over the years, with Hannibal’s reputation as a booming town.
“Hannibal was a big lumber town, and steamboats at that time were burning mostly wood,” Lomax said, noting wood for construction traveled along the river, with scrap wood being used to fuel the boats.
Riggs said the New Madrid Earthquake definitely played a part in settlers coming to Marion County communities. They originally had land grants in that area, and decided to move to Marion County.
“A lot of the folks who settled Palmyra and Hannibal basically at the same time —1819 — came up here with a substitute land grant,” he said.
The stores served people filing their land grants and heading north and west, and “Palmyra has basically been 3,000 souls for 200 years,” Wilson said. The historic Gardner House in Palmyra was on the bustling stagecoach route.
Palmyra quickly grew, but Hannibal’s growth was slower at first, Sweets said. Marion City was established just to the north, attracting Easterners early on, but the 1836 flood wiped out the community situated in a flood plain. The town’s residents had previously dubbed Hannibal with monikers like “frog pond”, but the displaced residents were soon moving to Hannibal and Palmyra following the disaster.
Sweets said there is a marker today where Marion City was located. Hannibal initially had issues with land grants and clear titles to the land, but once those were resolved, the community took off.
He pointed out how Missouri was unique in being a free state with strong southern sympathies, bordered by Confederate states. Many families, including the Clemens family, came to Missouri from former slave states. Up north, Quincy, Ill. was settled by numerous Germans and abolitionists, Riggs said, and there was a lot of activity toward ending slavery.
“The first Black man to testify in open court in open court in Missouri testified in Palmyra,” he said.
The man was testifying against the abolitionist who got him to the Mississippi River but failed to get him to freedom in Quincy. He was convicted, but the sentence was commuted later.
Sweets said Hannibal was occupied by Union troops the duration of the Civil War due to its size and the southern sympathies. Hannibal’s population declined significantly because of the occupation.
The first railroad bridge burned during the Civil War was on the border between Marion and Shelby counties east of Hunnewell, Riggs said. The resulting conflicts brought Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to the area.”
In September 1862, Confederate Col. Joseph Porter raided Palmyra. Riggs said he briefly took the town. He was on a recruiting mission, and Riggs believes he was looking to gather people for training farther south.
Porter knew the area well, and there were several skirmishes in the area. He was defeated badly in Kirksville, Mo. During their raid of Palmyra, Porter’s group kidnapped a Union sympathizer named Andrew Allsman.
Riggs said the message was “you can bring him back, or we’ll kill 10 of yours.” Porter knew that some of the men in his company would not bring Allsman back alive, so he selected people to bring Allsman back to Palmyra. Unfortunately, Allsman was killed before he could return.
“Allsman did not appear at that point in time, and 10 men were taken out and shot,” Riggs said. “People around here think the fairgrounds have always been the fairgrounds, and they’re not. The old fairgrounds was where the 10 people were taken out and shot, and they were never the fairgrounds after that.”
Sweets talked about the most famous Marion County resident of all, Samuel Clemens. He talked about the family’s origins in Kentucky, then Tennessee. Soon, John Marshall Clemens and Jane Clemens moved to Florida, Mo., where Mark Twain was born in 1835.
As Hannibal grew, the Clemens family moved there in 1839, where there were about 7,000 residents. He wrote vividly of the community as he experienced the growth.
“He’s really writing his biography when he wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’,” Sweets said.
Sweets said Twain wrote with amazing accuracy about events which occurred years prior, including a murder he witnessed as a child. Twain’s years growing up in Hannibal “were very formative” to his works throughout his career.