Clay County Events
~ Written In 1885 ~
In the summer of 1836 occurred in Northern Missouri
certain incidents known in the aggregate as the
"Hetherly War". With these incidents it is
proper to deal in this volume, since 2 companies of
volunteers from Clay County took part in the war, and at
the time the entire population was greatly excited and at
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
This band had for its principal members, a family named
Hetherly, from Kentucky, composed of the following
persons: George Hetherly, Sr. the father, Jenny Hetherly,
the mother, John Hetherly, Alfred Hetherly, George
Hetherly, Jr., and James Hetherly, the sons, and Ann
Hetherly, the daughter.
The Hetherlys 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
Hetherly was regarded as a thief in Kentucky, and Mrs.
Hetherly was a sister to 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. One of
Mrs. Hetherly'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 Hetherly's were perhaps
not as black as they were painted, and many crimes were
attributed to them of which, in all probability, they
Living with the Hetherly's as boarders, visitors or
employees, 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 the
officers of the law from crimes committed.
Old Mrs. Hetherly 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 Hetherly 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 Hetherlys heard of the proximity of the Indians they
resolved to visit their camp, steal what horses they
could, and carry them down to the river counties and sell
Taking with them James Dunbar, Alfred Hawkins and a man
named Taylor, the four Hetherlys visited the scene of the
Iowas' 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
Here they were overtaken by a pursuing party of the
Iowas, who demanded a return of their property. The
demand not being either refused or instantly complied
with, the Indians opened fire on the thieves. The first
volley killed Thomas. Other shots being fired, the
Hetherly gang retreated, leaving the ponies in the hands
of their rightful owners.
Upon the defeat of their scheme, the Hetherlys 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
Dunbar had for some time shown symptoms of treachery to
the party, or rather of a desire to break away from his
evil associations. Soon after, he was murdered, and his
In a day or two, the Hetherlys made their appearance in
the settlements, rising an alarm that the Indians were in
the country murdering and robbing, and claimed that they
had killed Dunbar and other white men in the Upper Grand
river country. The news was a 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,
and the people were thoroughly aroused.
Gen. G. 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 two
companies from Ray were commanded by Capts. Matthew P.
Long and Wm. Pollard).
The whole country north of Carroll County was thoroughly
scoured. An advance scouting party penetrated the section
of country where the Indians were, visited their camp and
found them quite and perfectly peaceful, and wondering at
the cause of the visit of so many white men in arms.
Two companies from Clay were ordered out by Gen.
Thompson. These were commanded by Capts. Wallis and
Crawford, the same who had led the Clay militia in the
Black Hawk War. Campbell's Gazetteer states that one of
these companies was the "Liberty Blues"
commanded by David R. Atchison, but W. A. Breckenridge,
who belonged to Wallis' company, assures the writer that
the "Blues" were not out. (Gen. Atchison
himself, in a letter to the writer, corroborates this
statement). The battalion, numbering about 150 men, was
again commanded by Col. Shubael Allen. There accompanied
the militia, some volunteers, among whom were A. W.
Doniphan and O. P. Moss.
Obedient to orders, Col. 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 scene of the
troubles. 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 reported to be advancing
down Grand River.
The first night on the march after leaving the county,
Col. Allen's battalion encamped at Joel Burnam's, in the
southwest corner of Clinton county, near where union
Mills or Edgerton now stands. Here 30 or 40 Indians, Sacs
and Iowas, were encountered on a hunting expedition, all
friendly. Col. Allen held a council with them -- it is
not clear why.
During the deliberations he stated to the savages that
they would do well not to go on the war-path against the
whites, whose soldiers, he assured them "outnumbered
the blades of grass on all these prairies!" Arriving
at Grand River, the battalion crossed and encamped one
Sunday on its banks. No trouble of any sort was
After thorough examination and investigation of the
situation and the circumstances, Gen. Thompson became
perfectly satisfied that the Indians were not and had not
been hostile -- were innocent of the offenses alleged
against them, and, on the contrary, had been preyed upon
by the Hetherly 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 Clay County men marched to Liberty, via where
Haynesville and Kearney are now.
The depredations and crimes alleged against the Indians
were now traced directly to the Hetherlys. A warrant for
their arrest was issued, and July 17, Sheriff Lewis N.
Rees, of Carroll county (yet living in 1885) with a
strong posse, apprehended them, and their preliminary
examination came off before "Squire Jesse Newlin,
who then lived at Knavetown, now Spring Hill, Livingston
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.
There was strong talk of lynching them, but on the 27th
of July, they were given into the custody of the sheriff
of Ray county for safe keeping, until the October term of
the circuit court. Old man Hetherly, 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 Hetherly, his wife, Jenny
Hetherly, their sons, George, Jr., John, Alfred and James
Hetherly, 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
Hetherlys, 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
this term. Thos. C. Birch was circuit attorney, but
having been of 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 7, 1837, John Hetherly was acquitted.
There being no sufficient jail in Carroll County, the
Hetherlys were sent to the 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 Hetherlys, 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 Hetherelys, and they were
Whereupon Hawkins was placed on trial and the Hetherlys
testified against him. He was ably and vigorously
defended by his counsel, who induced some of the jury to
believe that the Hetherly's themselves were the guilty
parties, and the result was, that the jury disagreed, and
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
afterwards commuted to 20 years in the penitentiary,
whither he was taken, but after serving about 2 years of
his time, he died, and thus terminated "The Hetherly
What eventually became of the Hetherly family is not
This page was last updated
June 7, 2005.