Butler County Missouri
A county in the southeastern part of the State, bounded on the north by Wayne County, east by Stoddard and Dunklin, from which it is divided by St. Francis River, south by the State of Arkansas, and west by Ripley and Carter Counties; area, 639,600 acres. The surface of the county is hilly and broken in the northwestern part, and in the southeastern part it is comparatively level, the greater portion consisting of densely wooded bottom lands. The Big Black River, a beautiful crystal like stream, runs in a southerly direction through the county east of the center, and for a few months in the year is navigable for small steamboats as far as Poplar Bluff. Other streams in the county are Little Black, Cane, Ten-Mile and Indian Creeks, and numerous small tributaries, all west of Big Black River. Along the eastern border winds the St. Francis River. While classed as swamp lands, the bottoms are comparatively dry and make the richest of farming lands when cleared of timber.
In the center and northern sections there are broad valleys, having a rich, productive soil, and uplands and ridges of the greatest value as grass land and for grazing purposes. The high lands are covered plentifully with large oaks and yellow pine, while on the bottoms in the southern part are found oak, walnut, maple, poplar, ash, elm and large forests of cypress. Wild fruits of different kinds grow abundantly, and to a degree of perfection that renders their harvesting a matter of economy. The soil in the bottoms is a rich, dark loam.
That in the valleys and uplands is excellent for fruit-growing. The cultivation of cotton is a growing industry, but so far the most profitable pursuits are stock-raising and the manufacture of lumber. In some sections of the uplands good crops of a superior quality of tobacco have been grown. Among the exports from the county in 1898 were 159,300 pounds of cotton, 48,000 pounds cotton seed products, 15,007,100 feet lumber, 420,000 feet piling, 24,480, cross ties, 1,523 cars of cooperage and 125 cars of wagon hubs and spokes.
Little has been done in the way of prospecting for minerals in the county. An old tradition is that Indians found silver in the hills in the northern part, but the only minerals so far discovered are iron and lead, but not in paying quantities. Kaolin and granite exist in large deposits in the county. Prior to the advent of white men as settlers in what is now Butler County, it was one of the great hunting grounds of the Indians, also of the early French hunters, and for many years after the white man began the cultivation of the soil there the Indians remained in camps along the Big Black River, but on the most amicable terms with the white settlers. There is no record or tradition of the slightest trouble between them.
According to all available authorities, the first white man to become a permanent settler in the section now comprising Butler County was Solomon Kittrell, a Kentuckian, who located near Cane Creek and opened up a trading post. He was the first store-keeper in the county, and hauled his goods from Cape Girardeau by ox team. He did a good business with the Indians and hunters in fur trading. Later he opened a distillery and tan yard and made money. He died in 1872. He was one of the first county judges.
Daniel Epps was another pioneer. He settled on the "Military Road," along Ten-Mile Creek, where he built the first mill in the county. Thomas Scott and Malachi Hudspeth settled on Cane Creek, and Martin Sandlin was a pioneer on Little Black River. Other early settlers were Samuel Hillis, Samuel Polk, James Brannan, Frank and William Whitington and the families of Vandovers and Applebys.
Settlement along the Black River and its tributaries was slow. Hunting and trapping was the principal occupation of the settlers for more than a quarter of a century. In 1850 the population of the county was only 1,616, and for years after Butler County was organized money was such a scarce thing that taxes were paid chiefly in furs and peltries. These were the circulating medium, the money of the settlers. Needed supplies were received in exchange for the products of the hunt and the catch of the traps. The pioneers were a sturdy, easygoing class, hospitable and good-natured.
The county was organized from a part of Wayne by a legislative act approved February 27, 1849, and named in honor of William O. Butler. At that time nearly all the land belonged to the government. The majority of the settlers had no title to the tracts upon which they lived, other than that acquired by settlement. The act creating the county appointed John Stevens, of Cape Girardeau County; William Henley, of Stoddard, and Martin Sandlin, of Ripley County, commissioners to select a seat of justice. Sandlin died before any action was taken, and his place was filled by John F. Martin, of Ripley County.
The commissioners selected one hundred and forty acres of land on Black River, and this became part of the site of Poplar Bluff. At the time of its selection the land was part of the public domain, though William Hinkley had made some improvements upon it. September 15, 1849, the circuit court approved the report of the commissioners. March 18, 1850, the county court ordered that John Endaly employ a competent person to survey and lay out a county seat. It was also ordered that on May 17th of the same year a sale of the town lots of Poplar Bluff be held, no lot to be sold for less than $5, and the purchasers to be allowed twelve months in which to pay for the same. The sale netted $504.05. A second sale of lots was held in August 1851.
The first meeting of the county court was held at the house of Thomas Scott, on Cane Creek, June 18, 1849. The county judges were John Stevenson, Solomon Kittrell and Jonathan R. Sandlin, with Jacob C. Blount, clerk. A number of road petitions were considered, and a license granted to Gabriel Davis to run a ferry across Black River. Afterward sessions of the county court, by an order issued April 13, 1850, were held at Poplar Bluff.
In 1851 a small weather boarded plank courthouse was finished on the southeast corner of the public square. In 1859 a new courthouse was built. This was burned December 14, 1886 and in 1887 the present courthouse was built at a cost of $15,000. The first jail was a small log building. In 1885 a new jail was built.
The criminal court for the county was organized September 15, 1849, Judge Harrison Hough presiding. The session was held in the house of Thomas Scott. Not until the following September was a grand jury chosen, the members of which were W. R. Griffith, John L. Davis, James Cobb, Charles Appleby, Exum C. Scott, L. L. Burgen, Christian Wright, S. R. Rutherford, William Whittington, William Ellison, Jesse A. Gilley, L. M. Byers, Hamilton Scott, David Gowen, R. L. Brown and William Hill.
A number of indictments for selling liquor without license were returned, and one High was indicted for assault with intent to kill. At that time Newton Wallace was sheriff. In 1853 he drew from the State treasury $1,200 belonging to the road and canal fund. Saying that he was going to Tennessee for his niece, he left Poplar Bluff, taking with him the funds in his care and he never returned. There was little business before the courts the first ten years, the records occupying less than one hundred pages.
The first person to be sent to the penitentiary from the county was James Wingo, who was given a two-year term for larceny. One of the most interesting cases in the early history of the courts was that of John L. Fitts and his son Richard, for the murder of Dr. Tillman Rich, at Yancy Hotel in Poplar Bluff, May 19, 1860. John L. Fitts was a prominent citizen and objected to attentions paid his daughter by Rich. He and his son meeting Rich in the hotel, a quarrel between them took place in which Rich was stabbed to death. The trial of the father and son, on change of venue, came before the court in Wayne County and both were convicted of murder in the first degree at the October (1860) term of court. An appeal was taken to the higher court and the verdict set aside. The war breaking out, Fitts and his son went to Tennessee. In 1877, on requisition, the elder Fitts was returned to Missouri, retried and acquitted. In 1866 James Reed quarreled with one Hardin, about a half mile south of Poplar Bluff, over matters pertaining to the war. Reed killed Hardin and escaped. In 1870 he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to be hanged in November 1870. He escaped from the sheriff while he was en route to the jail at Ironton, and little effort was made to recapture him. The only case wherein capital punishment was inflicted was that of William Harbin, for the killing of A. Smith, July 4, 1888. The evidence was purely circumstantial. He was hanged in the jail yard at Poplar Bluff, January 15, 1892.
There was much skirmishing between the Confederates and Federals in the county during the Civil War. Many depredations were committed by lawless bands, who burned and plundered houses, stole stock, captured and, in a few instances, killed citizens. By both Northern and Southern forces some good men were court-martialed and shot on trivial charges, often based on flimsy foundations. Terror reigned within the county limits, and many residents left it. At the close of the war only four families resided in Poplar Bluff. For some years after peace was declared, organized bands of robbers, who made their rendezvous in Clay County, Arkansas, made raids into the county, plundered citizens and ran off with stock. Persistent warfare against them resulted in their extermination about 1873.
In educational matters, the county was lax for many years after its organization. There is no record of any school being started in its early history. Houses were far apart, no thickly populated settlements, and in the only village of the county (Poplar Bluff) as late as 1860 there were not more than sixty houses. In this can be seen the reason for laxity in educating the young whose principal training and instruction was received at the firesides of their homes.
In 1869 a school was established at Poplar Bluff by the Butler County Educational Society. This school was called the Black River Seminary and was in charge of Professor H. McKennon. Upon the establishment of the public school system, a few years later, it was turned over to the school trustees. The number of schools in the county in 1899 was sixty-five, with seventy-seven teachers, a school population of 5,531 and a school fund amounting to $48,354.70.
The first paper published in the county was the "Black River News," started in 1869 by G. L. Poplin and G. T. Bartlett. The papers at present published in the county are the "Citizen" and "Republican," at Poplar Bluff.
The county is divided into ten townships, named respectively: Ash Hill; Beaver Dam; Black River; Cane Creek; Epps; Gillis Bluff; Harviell; Neeley; Poplar Bluff; St. Francois.
The St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway has fifty miles of track in the county. The main line runs through the central part from north to south, and the Cairo branch from Poplar Bluff, in the center, eastward, and the Doniphan branch from Neeleysville, in the southwest corner, westward.
The assessed value of all taxable property in the county in 1899 was $3,850,987, divided as follows: Real estate, $2,276,771; personal, $607,723, merchants and manufacturers, $271,524, and railroad and telegraph, $694,969. The full estimated value of the same is $8,347,300. The population in 1900 was 16,769. [Source: Encyclopedia of the History of Missouri: Edited by Howard Louis Conard; Publ. 1901; Transcribed by Andrea Stawski Pack.]
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