On November 28, 1811, William Becknell began two days of service on a jury in St. Charles County, Missouri. (Note 1.) This is the earliest record establishing his presence in the Missouri Territory.
There is nothing remarkable about the court case, in which the following day the jury found that the defendant, Jacob Coons, owed the plaintiff, William Thompson, 86 dollars and 63-1/2 cents. From a modern viewpoint, however, it is surprising that the same day that their case was decided both Coons and Thompson served together on another jury in another civil lawsuit. (Note 2.)
The 12-man jury in that case (filed by James Boucher against Rudolph and Henry Haverstick) also included Daniel Colgan, James Morrison, and Drury Prichard. On November 29, 1811, therefore, Becknell was at the same place as Morrison, his future business partner at the Boone’s Lick salt works, and Prichard, his current or future father-in-law.
As described on the page “William Chribbs: IX. After 1808,” Prichard bought property in the town of St. Charles the following year, 1812, and continued to own property in the town for several years. It is apparent that his stepdaughter, Mary Chribbs, was also living at St. Charles by 1812, either with her mother and stepfather or with her new husband, William Becknell—if in fact she and Becknell had already married. Or perhaps both couples lived in the same household for a time.
Based on his documented activities, however, it is more likely that Becknell remained single for a couple more years. In the spring of 1812, he was living 130 miles west of St. Charles at Boone’s Lick and working for James Morrison. This fact is described in a deposition that Becknell gave in September 1813 in a business dispute between two pairs of brothers: James and Jesse Morrison and Thomas and Robert McKnight. (Note 3.) A complete transcription of the deposition is included on the page “1813 – Deposition in McKnight v. Morrison.”
The McKnights, including a third brother named John, conducted far-ranging trading activities. In May 1812, Robert McKnight had set out from St. Charles for Santa Fe and stopped at Boone’s Lick on the way. At Boone’s Lick, Becknell provided McKnight one of the Morrisons’ horses for the trip as part of an understanding that involved payment in pork and other goods the McKnights held at St. Charles. Becknell also provided McKnight a gun in exchange for one left at St. Charles by Charles Mayette, who was accompanying McKnight. After traveling west from Missouri, McKnight’s party was arrested by Spanish authorities, and Robert McKnight spent the next nine years imprisoned in Mexico.
Whatever was known back in the U.S. about his fate, in 1813, his brother Thomas sued the Morrisons over their business dealings. As part of their defense, the Morrisons claimed that the McKnights owed $60 for the horse, as laid out in Becknell’s deposition testimony, which was given on two dates: in St. Louis on September 6, 1813, and in St. Charles on June 22, 1814. (Note 4.) Becknell would be back in active military service on both of those dates, a circumstance undoubtedly encouraged by the fact that the Morrisons’ salt works at Boone’s Lick had shut down as the result of war.
The War of 1812
In June 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain. In Missouri, the St. Charles militia commanded by Nathan Boone was replaced by a company of the U.S. Mounted Rangers. (Note 5.) By the following year, that company was led by Captain Daniel Morgan Boone and Lieutenant James Callaway. The two Boones were sons of Daniel Boone, who by then was living on Femme Osage Creek, 20 miles southwest of the town of St. Charles. Callaway was their nephew, the son of Flanders and Jemima Boone Callaway.
Drury Prichard had served as a sergeant in the St. Charles militia unit during the middle part of 1812 until he was court-martialed in September of that year, as described on the page “William Chribbs: IX. After 1808.” Prichard’s name never appears in the records of the U.S. Mounted Rangers, but, on May 19, 1813, William Becknell enlisted as a first sergeant for one year. (Note 6.)
Larry Beachum has told the story of Becknell’s activities during the war, which will not be repeated in full here. For reference, the following list sets out the information about Becknell that appears on his company’s muster and pay rolls. (Note 7.)
- May 19, 1813 – June 30, 1813: Present at Cap au Gris (Capo Gray) on the Mississippi;
- June 30, 1813 – Aug. 31, 1813: Present at Camp Upper Cuivre;
- Aug. 31, 1813 – Oct. 31, 1813: Present at Camp Upper Cuivre;
- Oct. 31, 1813 – Dec. 31, 1813: Present at Camp Clemson;
- Dec. 31, 1813 – Feb. 28, 1814: Present at Camp Clemson;
- Feb. 28, 1813 – April 30, 1814: On command at Loutre (company at Cap au Gris);
- April 30, 1814 – May , 1814: Present;
- May 19, 1814 – June 30, 1814: On command (company at Stouts Fort);
- June 30, 1814 – Aug. 31, 1814: On detachment (appointed ensign July 13, 1814, by order of General Howard);
- Aug. 31, 1814 – Sept. 30, 1814: On furlough per Lt. Col. Dodge* (company at Cap au Gris), [*probably Henry Dodge (1782-1867), later governor of the Wisconsin Territory and U.S. Senator from Wisconsin];
- Sept. 30, 1814 – Dec. 31, 1814: Present at Camp Clemson;
- Dec. 31, 1814 – March 31, 1815: Present at Camp Clemson (commanded by 1st Lieut. David Bailey after Capt. Callaway’s death);
- March 31, 1814 – June 20, 1815: Discharged June 20, 1815 at Woods Fort.
When Becknell’s first year was up, he reenlisted in the same company but at the lesser rank of private. Within two months, however, he was promoted to ensign on the order of General Benjamin Howard. At the same time, James Callaway was appointed captain and assumed command of the company.
In 1810, President Madison had appointed Howard to serve as Governor of the Louisiana Territory (later renamed the Missouri Territory). In 1812, Howard resigned his post to serve as brigadier general over American forces west of the Mississippi River, including the U.S. Mounted Rangers in Missouri.
Becknell spent most of his two years of service in a wide arc of territory 20 to 60 miles northwest of the town of St. Charles between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. In mid-summer of 1814, the company was at Cap au Gris, where the Cuivre River flows into the Mississippi east of the present-day town of Troy.
While at Cap au Gris, Becknell was present during a conversation between Howard and Callaway that Becknell would recount in a deposition two years later. (Note 8.) It appears that Howard either had borrowed $400 from Callaway or had otherwise become indebted to him for that amount. During their conversation, according to Becknell, Howard asked Callaway to draw up a “bill” for the debt, which Callaway did, and Howard signed it. A complete transcription of the deposition is included on the page “1816 – Deposition in Callaway v. Howard.”
Shortly after, the company traveled up the Mississippi to the Rock River (at the present-day Quad Cities) where the Battle of Credit Island would take place on September 4 and 5. The American forces, led by General Zachary Taylor, were defeated and retreated downstream to Fort Johnson, located where the state boundaries of Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa meet. Howard returned to St. Louis but fell ill on the way there.
Callaway had married Nancy Howell in 1805, and the couple had three young children. During his extended time away from home, he wrote lengthy letters to his wife, many of which survive in the collection of the Missouri History Museum. On September 25, 1814, he wrote a poignant letter to her from “Fort Johnson, Eastside Mississippi, Foot of the Lower Rapids.” (Note 9.) Near the end of the letter, Callaway tells his wife that he has “requested Mr. Becknell to go to Genl Howard and know of him how long I am to stay at this place and if I am to stay here he will call and see you and you will send me some winter cloathes, sugar, cheese, butter.”
So Becknell evidently traveled from Fort Johnson to St. Louis in the second half of that September. But it is unlikely that he met with Howard because the general died in St. Louis on September 18. Becknell probably then went west to call on Nancy Callaway where the Callaway and Boone families lived on Femme Osage Creek (marked as “Daniel Boone Home” on the map above).
The Death of Captain Callaway
The War of 1812 formally ended with the Treaty of Ghent, which was finalized in December 1814 and signed by President Madison in February 1815. In the west, however, the war was mostly with the Indians instead of the British, and that conflict would continue.
Over the winter of 1814-1815, Captain Callaway’s company operated from Camp Clemson on Loutre (Otter) Island, located where Loutre Creek enters the Missouri River at the present-day town of Hermann. To the north was territory inhabited by Sac and Fox Indians.
In early March 1815, a detachment from Camp Clemson headed north to recover horses that had been taken by Indians. After retaking possession of the horses, the soldiers were on their return and crossing Loutre Creek when they were attacked by Indians. At least four soldiers were killed, including Callaway. Shortly after, Callaway’s father was with a party that traveled to the site to bury the men. (Note 10.)
Becknell evidently conveyed the events to Colonel Russell in a letter written March 7 and 8. On March 18, the Missouri Gazette published what it described as a copy of that letter. (Note 11.) A complete transcription is included on the page “1815 – Report of Capt. James Callaway’s Death.”
By June, the company was operating further north out of Woods Fort, located where the town of Troy was later established. It was there on June 20 that Becknell was discharged with the rank of ensign at the end of his two years of service. (Note 12.)
Back in St. Charles on August 15, 1815, he executed a power of attorney to Richard Kerr for the purpose of obtaining the money owed him for his second year of service. (Note 13.) According to that document, Becknell believed that he was due at least $601.
From St. Charles to Franklin
After the war, Becknell briefly resided at a place called Gatty’s Emplacement, about a half mile west of the center of the town of St. Charles. His presence there is described in an 1818 transaction in which Becknell sold to John Heath a half-interest in land that Becknell claimed by a right of preemption. (Note 14.) According to the deed, Heath’s interest was dependent upon him acting as Becknell’s agent in acquiring title to the property. Because Becknell’s name doesn’t appear again in the county’s property records, it is unlikely that Heath was successful.
By the time Becknell executed the 1818 deed, he had moved west to Howard County. (Note 15.) That county had been formed in 1816 and was named for the recently deceased General Howard. At the county’s inception, it included the territories of the later surrounding counties of Boone, Cole, and Cooper, among many others. Howard County’s initial center of commerce was the town of Franklin on the Missouri River. That town, along with nearby Boone’s Lick and Arrow Rock, would be the center of Becknell’s activities for almost 20 years.
Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks
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