Clay County MOGenWeb

Clay County Events

The Hetherly War

~ 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 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 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 were innocent.

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 them.

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 River.

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 own.

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 body found.

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 encountered.

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 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.

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 discharged.

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 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 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 War".

What eventually became of the Hetherly family is not known.


This page was last updated June 7, 2005.