Susan Randolph Steel Elegy: Clinton Co. Historical Society

Clinton Co. Historical Society

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Elegy to Mrs. Susan Randolph Steel

Elegy to Mrs. Susan Randolph Steel
Printed in the Plattsburg, Mo., Leader, July 1904
by James H. Birch

The death of Mrs. Susan Randolph Steel as chronicled in the Leader of last week, emphasizes the fact that she was the oldest resident in this community-the Alpha and Omega of the city of Plattsburg.

Her father, Reuben Randolph, came here in 1835, and was among the first settlers and residents of the town when it was located and platted-and built a cabinet factory on Minkler’s branch where John Baggs’ residence stands. He built a handsome residence on the slope on the east side, and the firs grist mill on the banks of Horse Fork. Here was organized the most Westernly settlement in the United States. The celebrated Platte Purchase had not then been added to the State of Missouri, and all West of us was an unknown and boundless wilderness.

The action of congress in 1837, in buying the Indian title and adding what has ever since been known as the Platte Purchase-in which are now located the counties of Platte, Buchanan, Andrew, Holt, Nodaway and Atchison, changed the map of the State. The discussion in congress had called attention to this wonderland-and when it was thrown open for settlement thousands from Virginia and Kentucky sought homes within its borders.

It was necessary to establish a new land office to accommodate the settlers and Mr. Tyler appointed the late Judge James H. Birch as Register, and he located it at Plattsburg. The location of the Land office at Plattsburg, brining, as it did, its daily throngs of land-hunters, made Plattsburg a great business, political and social center. When, however, sixty-three years ago, I came with my father, we found a well organized community of about 150 inhabitants-all looking forward to the opening of the Land office as the red-letter day of its existence.

Looking back over those sixty-three years calls up in my mind, not only the conditions then surrounding us, but the wonderful change that has been effected by time, and induces me to suggest some of them.

That 150 inhabitants represented brave men and elegant women who had followed their husbands to the very confines of the civilized world and among them was the lady of whom we write, acknowledged to be the most beautiful and accomplished young woman in Northwest Missouri.

The social circle was incomparable, for its superior could not be exceeded among the golden minarets of Gotham with its exclusive 400. At the head of the list was Mrs. Noah Fred Essig, whose snowy hair and sparkling eyes flashed a genuine welcome to all her associates. Following her were Mrs. Thos. McMichael and Mrs. Abraham Funkhouser proud of their Virginia lineage. Then came Mrs. Col. Winslow Turner, who was as proud of her Mayflower ancestry as the others were of their Virginia blood. Mrs. Wm. P. Gibson and Henry O. Riley; Mrs. N. M. Vance and her sister, Lydia Mitchell who never blushed for their Kentucky birth-nor did Mrs. Thos. Palmer who delighted to call herself a real Buckeye girl-Mrs. Eliza Birch, Mrs. Dr. Henry Essig-Mrs. Hetty Bumgardner, my mother and sister made up the roster. For elegance of manner, accomplishments and personal charms this bevy was unsurpassed, and chief among them all, shining as a bright particular star, claiming love and admiration from all around her, was Susan Randolph.

The men who laid the foundations of our little city were Dr. Noah F. Essig, who had been a surgeon under Boneparte at the battle of Wagram, and who afterwards witnessed his coronation as Emperor of Paris, and now lies in Greenlawn cemetery. His son, Dr. Henry Essig, Donald M. McDonald, who surveyed and platted the original town; Col. Winslow Turner, whose very presence, maner and conversation indicated the purity of his puritan ancestry from the Mayflower. He was clerk of both courts. Henry O. Riley-Col. Nathan M. Vance-merchant; Williamson P. Gibson, tailor; Thos. M. McMichael, merchant; Abraham Funkhouse, justice of the peace; Long, who built the row known as the old rope walk, where the new buildings are no being complete; Elijah Howell, who built a fine store room where Marshall Bros., and Thompson are located; George Funkhouser kept what in those days was called a grocery, on the corner where the First National Bank now stands. In those days a favorite song was, “On the wings of love I fly, from grocere to groceri.” Thos. Palmer, whose hotel was where the Clinton House now stands; Nelson O. Hopkins; Martin M. Nagle; Isaac Minkler, after whom Minkler’s branch was named; Carroll Hughes; John Lodgson, blacksmith, under whom I served a day blowing for him, and burnt my hand by picking up what seemed to be a very cold piece of iron, and which I found very hot.
Reuben Randolph, of course, was here and so was Hugh L. Dods, a Methodist preacher and Lewis Bumgardner. And last but not least Dr. Cyrus Hubbard. He had been educated at the University of Maine, and was a brother of the governor of that State. He was induced to open a school, and during the term unmercifully flogged our distinguished fellow-citizen, C. C. Jones, because he spelled “Tar” with an “o” and thereby got himself into difficulty. Columby and my brother Charley and myself organized for war and after mobilizing our forces brought on a battle royal which was fought out to a finish-which ended in a treaty which was not broken during the balance of the term. The principal article in the treaty was that no Yankee school teacher should whip a Southern boy. The Doctor finished out that five months’ term and then resumed his practice, but he had to get a new crystal for his big old silver watch, an unlucky inkstand had come in collision with it during the engagement.

Scattered over the county were many men who had been attracted by the great beauty and fertility of the county and had bought lands and erected comfortable homes. On the southwest was Churchill Jones, a tall, well educated man, dignified in manner and appearance and a typical F. F. V. But he was an awful Whig-and once in a controversy over politics with Thos. McMichael he became enraged and during his political objurgations declared that “Satan was an arch angel in comparison with a Democrat.” Of course I expected there would be bloodshed, but Uncle Tom had joined the Methodist church and had built a new church from his own pocket and he meekly forgave Mr. Jones for his insinuations.

His son, Columbus, lives on the old homestead, but I am sure if his father had ever dreamed that he would have joined the Democracy he would have disinherited him.

There was Jacob Walker and Wm. S. Wilkinson, whose son now occupies the house in which he was born. Going further south there were the Frys, Solomon, Jefferson, Benjamin and Elijah, and their children and grand-children live upon the lands their fathers left them. Further south was Wm. Atchison and Geo. B. Duncan and Frank Henshaw. Going west there was Michael Douthitt, Pleasant Gentry, Archibald Elliott, Pittman Hanks, the Halls, Fromans, Carpenter, General Winn, Capt. John Reed, Romulus E. Culver, whos son, the Judge, lives on the old homestead. Robert Johnson, McKissick, the Poagues, Eppie Tillery, Peter Gill, George W. Davis, the McClintocks, Armstrong and Hugh, the Burnams, Allen Atchison, Woodwards, Everetts, Stingleys and Lawrence Metzger, who built the first saw-mill on Castile Creek. Coming east we find the Trices, the Biggerstaffs, Swearingens and Shoemakers, Abraham Transue, who built the first saw-mill on Smith’s Fork; Thatchers, Oldhams, John and Israel Johns, and the Wards, who utilized the hickory saplings in making the old fashioned bark bottom chairs; the Lancasters “And the Jacksons will go $10.”

John Perry, an eccentric individual lived south of town on the farm which he afterwards sold to Josiah Stoutimore. He was elected justice of the peace and when people came to him to post a horse under the old stray law, ‘Squire Perry would take possession of the horse and getting on his own horse would go out to find the owner, and collect his fees. It was easier to do this than to make out the papers under the stray law.

Of all the men I have named I fail to remember but two are now alive-Granville Biggerstaff and Pleasant Gentry-but their children are well known all over the county.

These men were as brave and as noble a set of men as ever entered a wilderness to build homes and establish civil government-and their interests were all centered in Plattsburg, and they contributed greatly in giving it the character which it enjoyed in those early days.

The opening of the Land office on the 3d day of May, 1843 was the greatest event which to that time had ever transpired in Northwest Missouri. The new district embraced ranges 24 to 33 on the north side of the Missouri river, taken from the Old Lexington district, and the Platte Purchase extending to range 42, was bounded on the west by the Missouri river.

The hills and valleys surrounding Plattsburg were covered with wagons and tents. In the limits of the Old district lands could be entered in cash, but the lands in the Platte Purchase could not be until under the law each 160 had been offered at public sale. However, under the law of 1841, pre-emptions could be filed, and as the lands were occupied by settlers before the surveys were made nearly every tract had two or more claimants. This fact made the office the most remarkable trial court in the west-and this knowledge brought a host of the best lawyers to the town for the fees were large and it would take a whole year before they could be settled. The most noted case was Buchanan county against Joseph Robidoux. The county claimed ti under the county section act, and Robidoux under the act of 1837. It was decided by the Register, Judge Birch, and Mr. Samuels the Receiver, in favor of Robidoux. Gov. Hall was one of Robidoux’s lawyers. Day after day the court was held and the town crowded with lawyers and litigants and the Plattsburg people rejoiced in the troubles which filled their town with people. The first cash entry was made by Solomon Fry, of this county.

The greatest social event of the day followed the opening of the office, and consisted of a grand ball given in the double frame house erected by Elijah Howell on the corner of Maple and Main. It was something new in the history of the country, as up to that time Liberty was the only place where a ball could be considered.

In connection with the opening of this land office and the fierce contention, among the pre-emptors, it attracted great attention, and the beaux and bells from all the surrounding country were in attendance. Probably no such an assemblage has ever met since, and the gallaxy of beauty with their gallant knights could not be eclipsed.

Amid this wonderful, and I might say, magic scene, Miss Susan Randolph held undisputed sway. No rivalry was set up and she was declared the queen of the occasion. Her triumph was compete when her dancing card was made up, for on it could be found the names of the men who in after life rose to high position. Among them were a. W. Doniphan, James W. Denver, afterward Governor of Colorado and for whom the city of Denver was named, John H. Bidwell, afterward Governor of California, Peter H. Burnett who the next year led the first overland train to Oregon and then to California where he was supreme judge, C. C. Ellis, afterward judge of the Platte circuit.

Toward the close of the ball, when her card list was exhausted these enchanted spirits sought her presence, each begging for the honor of another dance. It was too late to dance with each and to decide for one against the other was a question as delicate as ever disturbed the mind of a lady. With a smile for each which assured them of success she bowed herself from their presence and came to me, who had been watching the pantomime, and she said, “Jimmy, I can’t let this ball pass without dancing with you,” and taking my arm she led me past the, and with true gallantry they bowed their acquiescence and acknowledgement of the graceful tact which the young beauty had denied them all.

I was as proud of this triumph as I was five years later when retiring from the war with Mexico, feeling as big as a major general, for although under seventeen, yet I wore on my arms the chevron of a corporal, knighted on the battle field by my commander, who died a General in the regular army, and Mrs. Steel then a matron kissed me and called me her “soldier boy.”

In 1844 Miss Randolph married Col. John Steel, the best known and most popular man that ever lived in the county. Elected and re-elected sheriff many times and in 1860 was elected to the legislature. The last race he ran for sheriff was the most exciting one ever held in the county. The Democrats were determined to beat him and put forward their most popular man, Bob Greer.  In those days the election was on the first Monday in August, and at the county seat the polls were kept open on Tuesday. The vote was viva voce and when the polls closed the exact vote was known. The vote from the county precincts showed that the race for sheriff was neck and neck, and all day Tuesday the friends of the two men exerted every resource for their favorite, and every vote cast was counted, and showed how the race was. Sometimes one was ahead and then the other, and so it was all day long until the polls closed and Steel had the race by one vote.

Late in the evening a Mexican greaser was brought up and voted for Steel. Under the treaty of Guadaloupe all Mexicans residing in the territory ceded were entitled to all the rights of citizenship, and his right was not questioned. But the Greer crowd went out on the street and raised the devil, by declaring that the other side were voting “niggers,” for the Mexican was black enough to justify the charge.

In 1842 Littleton S. Roberts was elected sheriff of Clinton county. At that election there was 132 votes cast. The northern boundary of the county was the Iowa line. It was 21 miles broad by 80 miles in length, containing nearly 1700 square miles, or one voter to every 13 square miles. About that time John Vasser sold his farm to Jacob Walker, and removed up next to the Iowa line and settled on the east fork of the west fork of Grand River in a magnificent white oak forest. Thirty years afterwards, when running a race for congress, I met Mr. Vasser in the northern part of Worth county, and after getting his pledge to vote for me for congress, asked him what made him sell out and come up here, and he replied, “Well Colonel they was getting too thick down there.”

Those early settlers were men of great force of character, mentally, orally and physically strong, who had sought this western wilderness to lay as they did homes for themselves and children. High bred and honorable there was no such thing known as theiving or murder. But they were fighters and killing was not uncommon. Wm. C. Gunter was killed in a street fight in the streets of Plattsburg. The most noted occurrence in those early days was the killing of Notley C. Young by Col. James M. Estil. They were both prominent men and each had followers and they were greatly excited. Estil had his trial before Squire Burnam. He was defended by Judge Birch and Col. A. W. Doniphan and was held in a $1,000 bond for the grand jury, but the grand fury failed to find an indictment.

Those pioneers had been bred in religious communities and their churches followed them. The M. E. church by reason of its itinerant policy had covered the country, and such men as Patton, Peoples, and Dr. Rush rode their fine horses and carried dismay to the “yellow legged chickens” and preached the gospel of the cross. Everybody attended church in those days, and Uncle John Stone’s yearly camp ground at round Prairie was a great visitation to old and young.

The Baptists were her, especially the old Hardshell, and such men ad Eppe Tillery and Eli Penny of Caldwell preached without pay or hope of reward in this world. The Hardshell was a wonderful impersonation. Like the roundheads at Drogheda, they feared neither man or the devil. Their doctrine was fundamental, logical and inexorable, no brass bands onor Sunday Schools for them, and they preached and believed in predestination, election and damnation, and finally separated from their missionary brethren who tried to soften the iron bars around the gates of St. Peter so that a poor sinner might get in who did not have an original certificate of election.

The Christian was here-No-but his forerunner the Campbellite was. That was before they had seized the keys from St. Peter. They called themselves Reformers then and were not ashamed of the name of Campbellite for it was Campbell’s flag that they were carrying to subdue the earth-and now that they have captured the Western world his name should not be stricken from their history.

Great meetings were held during the summer in the beautiful shade around the house of Sinuit Young, the grand-father of our fellow-citizen, about a mile north of town, where John Hill would discourse every Sunday, to large crowds. Duke Young made his yearly visits and enthused large crowds, at the court house. He was followed by Samuel S. Trice whose friends built the “Old Log Church” north of town; and the Rev. A. H. F. Payne was the most charming pulpit orator I ever listened to, capturing all hearts by his eloquence and earnestness.

Ah!  those glorious old days. It makes my very soul cry out in anguish to think that they are gone and gone forever. We had singing schools in those days and Woodford Tillery taught one in the “Old Log Church” in the evening after services were over, and there’s where Mose Shoemaker and I learned our do-ra-me- and Mose always brought his best girl behind him on his horse.

In the fall was organized our hunting parties and spent October in the prairies and forests of Grand River hunting the deer, coming home laden with venison hams for the winter. We raised no bees, for the forest was full of bee trees and yielded all we desired. We fattened our hogs on the mast in the woods and killed them when the snow fell-and the streams were full of fine fish, and our cattle lived winter and summer on the ranges, and no blue-grass corn fed beef ever had the rich, juicy taste of the beef fattened on the prairie grass.

We had mails in those days once a month, and when we got a weekly service we felt exalted. No post office boxes and rural routes and when the mail came the letters were opened and the postmaster would come out with them and read the names to the expectant crowd-and happy was he who drew a prize.

There are those who dwell with pride upon the present civilization-our fine churches, school houses, railroads, carriages, etc. The only wheeled vehicle outside of the wagons, in the country, was an old two-wheeled “gig” as it was called, belonging to Judge Birch, which was only used for sick people. Our sweet-hearts rode fine horses and challenged their gallants to out-ride them.

I must stop. I started out to photograph the condition of the country that surrounded Mrs. Steel in her youth-so that those of today could make the comparisons and note the changes. But the flood of memory overwhelms me and the panorama grows larger the longer I think of it.

When a young woman, all beyond her immediate vicinity was a boundless wilderness only inhabited by Indians and buffalo, and yet she has seen that energy which came with our early settlers has built state after state, which even the Pacific did not stop, for the flag floats in sight of the Chinese Empire.

When she first came it took a month to hear from her old Kentucky home, and yet the day she died had she had a son in Manilla he could have heard of it in an hour. And all this within the life-time of a lady who lived that life time in the city where she died.

A fearful thought arises in our minds. I fall this can transpire in one short life, what can we expect of the future? It is easy enough to write past history, but to forecast the future startles even the boldest imagination. But few people have seen as much as Mrs. Steel did. She started life on the very confines of civilization and died in the center of the grandest civilization of the earth, and bore her part proudly during the march. From the little hamlet on the western edge of the United States it has become the center of a great continent.

And while all this was transpiring, she lived a noble and blameless life, rendering to society and her associates the bright gifts which God had endowed her with, and the changes never changed the sweet courageous spirit that enshrined her when she gave up the comforts of her old home for a life in the wilderness.

As a wife, mother and neighbor her life was most exemplary. In all the enterprises that concerned society she bore her full share. Her hand and her heart was always open to the wants of the poor and low, and happy was the tramp who found himself in her presence.

To me she was always the inculcation of womanly love. I knew her better and longer than any one now living-and what I have written has been the result of that influence which for over sixty years I have always felt in her presence-and if I have failed to do her justice it is to be charged to the inability of her life-long friend.

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