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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p13  I

Early Days in Missouri

Ancestry — The Mark Twain Home — Boyhood at Hannibal, Mo. — Conditions in Missouri After Civil War — Mississippi Steamboat — Youthful Pranks — School — An Escape From Drowning — Interest in Politics.

Men and women often ask me how one born in the heart of the Middle West could have taken up sea‑faring as a vocation.

At the time I decided to enter the Naval Academy and to become a Midshipman if possible, I did not know of my sea‑going forebears. Ancestry is either quickly forgotten, or little talked of in the West by the second and third generations. Of course, immediately after the Civil War, men in my part of Missouri, who had been Confederates, had to remain silent for a long time, and they talked little of their family lineage. After I came East, however, I found many records in the archives of Maryland and Virginia of my sea‑going progenitors.

One of my mother's family, a direct ancestor, I believe, visited the shores of America in 1602, and on his return to England wrote and published a volume entitled Brereton's Brief and True Relation of the Discovery of the Northern Part of Virginia, 1602. Recently, I was permitted to enter a private room of the New York Public Library and read the book, while an attendant closely watched me. There are only two copies of the volume extant — the one in the New York Library, and another in London.

I also found the land grant of an ancestor who was a sea captain in the time of Cromwell. This grant of three hundred acres called "Brereton's Chance" was located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, near the present town of Salisbury. The names of the passengers he brought to Maryland are indicated in the grant, and some of them  p14 later became well known in that part of the country.

I maintain that I am a Simon-pure American, as the latest date that any member of my father's family settled in this country was in 1730, while my mother's family, exclusive of the ancestor who came here in 1602, began migrating to America about 1662, and established themselves on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in southern Delaware.

I have always deemed it a great privilege to have known all four of my grandparents. They lived and died in the same city in which I resided as a boy.

My maternal grandfather rode on horseback from Baltimore to St. Louis in 1835. He was so impressed with the appearance of the country that he returned to Maryland in the same manner and in January, 1836, took as his bride Miss Elizabeth Bacon, of Laurel, Delaware. She rode behind him on his horse all the way to Shelby County, Missouri. There the Brewingtons, the Bacons, the Parkers, the Lewises, and other close kin took up land and erected buildings, one of these being a chapel, known to this day as Bacon's Chapel.

My mother was born in Shelby County in 1838. On one occasion, when she was a baby, my grandfather went to the grist mill near the present town of Spalding Springs, and during his absence wolves surrounded the house and greatly frightened my grandmother who was alone with my mother. The slaves afforded her no protection as they were quartered in smaller buildings some distance away. Upon her husband's return my grandmother insisted that they move nearer to civilization. He agreed, and they located first at Bowling Green, in Pike County, then in the town of Louisiana, on the river, and finally settled in Hannibal in 1850, where they built a home in which, fifty years later, the head of the house died.

My father's family had arrived there in 1844. By a singular coincidence, my grandfather Coontz was the first to live on the land which was later purchased by my  p15 other grandfather, and finally, in 1870, after the descendants of the two families had intermarried, my father bought it from his father-in‑law.

Both of my grandfathers were slave holders, and I have often heard my mother tell of her experiences while on a visit to the east in 1853, accompanied by her negro nurse, Jane. They went by boat from St. Louis down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio and thence up that stream to Parkersburg. After leaving St. Louis, Jane was kept in seclusion when the boat docked at Illinois, Indiana and Ohio ports. Even at that time, the "under­ground railway" for slaves had been established. My recollection of the narrative is that the family took a stage at Parkersburg and rode east to Cumberland, Md., where they boarded a train on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

My grandmother Coontz did not believe in slavery, and my grandfather Brewington did not believe in secession. When the Civil War broke out, however, and my grandmother's first son died in St. Louis, her convictions underwent a change and she became a violent rebel. My grandfather declared against secession, said its right name was revolution, and declared that he would not be a seceder. In fact, he was the only member of our families who did not finally espouse the Confederate cause. His daughters, his sons and his sons-in‑law all sympathized with the Confederacy, and the boys entered the Southern army. He alone remained steadfastly loyal. Later on, after the close of the war, his powerful help and influence as a Union man was often needed. The killing of some of his own kind failed to shake him in his stand, and the end of the war, in 1865, was a great relief.

My grandfather Brewington died December 31, 1900, in his ninety-third year, at which time I was thirty‑six years old. He had kept a diary since January 1, 1825, and in later years I have known courts of justice to consult it for the purpose of verifying dates and conditions. A notable instance of such reference occurred in a murder  p16 trial, when the character of the weather, and particularly as to whether there was snow on the ground at the time the crime was committed, was in question. My grandfather began his diary each morning with a statement of the condition of the weather and of the direction of the wind — the way a real sailor man starts his log. At the age of sixty‑two this grandfather retired from business, probably believing that he had not many years to live and wishing to spend them in ease. When he died, thirty‑one years later, his fortune had shrunk to twelve thousand dollars. We have always thought that had he lived to be one hundred years old he would have left no estate.

Grandfather knew personally all the early presidents except George Washington. He remembered the War of 1812, and the Battle of Waterloo. His own grandfather, a soldier of the Revolution, lived until 1823.

On my father's side, most of my ancestors first settled in Philadelphia. Some of them came from England with William Penn. They migrated slowly across western Maryland into the valley of Virginia, establishing themselves in what is now Jefferson County, West Virginia. Many of my relatives still own parts of the ten thousand acres originally purchased from Lord Fairfax in 1732. The cornerstone of this grant was renewed by our cousin, Senator Daniel Bedinger Lucas, of West Virginia, in 1906.​a

The Coontzes reached Missouri, about 1787, via Tennessee and Kentucky, and first settled near St. Charles. Coontz's Fort, west of St. Charles, was built by John Coontz before 1800, and a marker has been placed there by the Missouri Daughters of the American Revolution. Between the towns of St. Charles and Hannibal, seven generations of the Coontz family lie buried.​b

My great-grandmother Coontz, a widow, at the age of sixty‑six, moved from the valley of Virginia to Florida, Missouri. She was a real pioneer. It is related that soon after her arrival there a boundary dispute arose between Iowa and Missouri, where the Des Moines River cuts  p17 off a small part of the territory claimed by Missouri. Grandmother's first cousin, General Robert Lucas, was Governor of Iowa, and her own son R. E. Coontz had to face him when the troops of the opposing camps were stationed in southeastern Iowa and northeastern Missouri, respectively. Whether it was because of the advice which the old lady gave them, or for some other reason, I know not, but the troops were finally withdrawn and the matter was settled by Congress. A part of the present Lee County, Iowa, was in controversy.​c

My grandfather Coontz was a great hunter, and in those days game was still plentiful around Hannibal. He was an especially good deer hunter. In this connection, Mr. Charley Buchanan, an old timer, used to regale me with the story of the election of 1868. Grandfather wished to vote for Horatio Seymour, of New York, for president, but registration requirements were strict. Missouri was under control of the republicans and their registrars, and he had not been able to register. On election day he went hunting, but decided, after killing two deer, that he was going to vote. Accordingly, he repaired to the polling place, carrying one of the deer himself, while a boy behind him brought the other one. He laid his rifle and a loaded double-barreled shot gun on the table between himself and the election judges and stated his desire to vote. There was little delay in getting him a ballot, which he prepared and placed in the ballot box. Whether or not the vote was counted, I do not know. Buchanan had not been allowed to vote.

My father was born in Florida, Monroe County, Missouri, when the family lived next door to Mark Twain. The Clemens family and the Coontz family, with others from Monroe County, moved to Hannibal about the same time, and most of them lived in the same street. In fact, our home until 1904 was three squares higher up on the bluff from the river front than the Mark Twain home, which is now preserved and maintained by a prominent citizen of Hannibal, Mr. George A. Mahan. Both my  p18 father and my mother attended school in Hannibal with Mark Twain.

I was born in Hannibal, June 11, 1864, in a brick house still standing at the northwest corner of Sixth and Bird Streets, in the second story front room from which my mother could look out upon the Mississippi and see the passing steamboats. The town has built up since then and this view of the river is no longer to be had. While I was quite young we moved one square north on the hill. There we had a wonderful view of the river and for many miles to the east across the lowlands of Illinois. Here most of my early youth was spent. Our garden was large enough to grow fruit trees and vegetables. I was fortunate in being the oldest child in my family, as were also my father and mother in their respective families.

The earliest incident in my recollection is my father's return home from a trip to Mississippi and Louisiana, wearing a beard. Business was unsettled and bad in Hannibal, and he left matters there to be handled by his father-in‑law, while he took mules down the river by steamboat, and sold them, on time, to southern planters who were trying to recover financially after the Civil War. He had headquarters in Natchez, Mississippi, and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and he often told me stories of his travels. One of the most amusing was of an incident that happened late one night when he boarded a steamer at Vicksburg, north-bound for Natchez, and asked for a state room. The purser told him the steamer was crowded, and that he would be obliged to assign him to a room with another gentleman. My father assented and upon entering the room found the lower berth occupied by a person wearing a night gown and a cap. He hastily withdrew and reported to the purser who laughed and said, "Why, that's Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis; he always sleeps in a night cap."

Most of my information about the Civil War came to me from two aunts, one a sister of my father and the other a sister of my mother. The men talked little about  p19 the war, except among themselves. I remember one day opening a closet and seeing some startling white clothes. In response to my inquiries, my aunts told me they had made them for the Ku Klux Klan. The only Ku Klux incident that I personally recall occurred, I think, in 1874, when the democrats made a determined and successful effort to carry Hannibal.

In the presence of negroes there was much talk to the effect that colored people made remarkably good oil, when properly boiled. It was said that large vats were being built, so that if colored men attempted to vote at the election they would be thrown into them and boiled for their oil. As a boy, the talk made a marked impression upon me, and it must have made a still greater one upon the negroes, for the democrats carried the election by a large majority, and continued to do so for the next forty or fifty years. The population of Hannibal was about one‑third colored at that time, as the negroes had already begun migrating to the cities from the country, in search of work on the river front.

In December, 1870, a vacancy occurred in the office of county collector for Marion County. Although my father was a democrat, and only one of the three county judges who were empowered to name the collector of that party, he was selected for the position. They also expected him to be made deputy sheriff of the county which needed cleaning up. The deciding vote was cast by Judge Francis A. Hanley, who resided in Palmyra, the county seat.

At that time the notorious "Miller gang" had been operating in northeastern Missouri. There were three or four Miller brothers, as I recall. With the assistance of friends they had broken jail and were at large. My father organized a posse, found the outlaws in the southeastern part of the county, and personally put a load of buckshot in the head of one of them. The entire gang was recaptured and sent to the penitentiary for long terms. Threats were made that they would seek revenge  p20 upon my father when they should get out of jail, and they had such an effect upon me that as soon as I saw my father carried a revolver in his right hip pocket, I also began to carry one, without his knowledge. Until I left home for the Naval Academy, I never went down town without this weapon. I practised until I became a good pistol shot. I killed rabbits and squirrels, and we always enjoyed eating them. My hand even now goes instinctively to my right hip pocket in an emergency, and I still treasure highly the old Smith and Wesson .32 caliber revolver.

After the Civil War, conditions in Missouri were unsettled for a long, long time. There were Indians in our part of the state, as we know from the history of the times of old Keokuk and others, and they would often come to our house for food. Our colored cook was terribly afraid of them and used to tell me such awful tales of Indians that on sight of them I would rush to the house to get cakes, or fruit and jam for them, while they waited at the gate. Their burial ground was two squares from our house and our cook never missed attending an Indian funeral; neither did I, although my mother never knew of it. I have seen them bury food with the corpse, and on one occasion they brought a fine Indian horse belonging to an old chief and were about to kill the animal when the civil authorities intervened. I think the last of the Indians in our section moved further west about 1870.

Throughout the Civil War one or two regiments of federal soldiers were camped in Hannibal — one at the corner of Maple Avenue and Center Street, and the other in South Hannibal. It is a strange thing that no matter where soldiers are quartered, people will take a dislike to them.

After the war, hundreds of German and Irish soldiers remained in Hannibal and went into business. Many of the Germans opened saloons, and the Irish became grocers or policemen. As late as 1881, I believe there  p21 were more saloons in the town than there were groceries.​d Just before the war a number of New Englanders had settled in northeast Missouri, and one family, the Winchells, of Connecticut, established a newspaper there, The Hannibal Courier, with Winchell, Ebert and Marsh as proprietors. For many years it was the rallying point of radicalism in Missouri.

The two or three republicans whom I knew, as a boy, wore black beards and when the term "Black Republicans" was used I thought that every republican wore a black beard. For a time, most of these outsiders prospered in business, and many of them held political offices, but as the years went by and the democrats came into control of local affairs, they gradually disappeared. With the exception of a few families, they failed in their undertakings, and either moved back to New England or went farther west.

Politics were very bitter. I remember, during the campaign of 1872, the controversies we had at the private school of Mrs. Hamilton, which I attended. Politically, the students were about equally divided. One faction would sing,

"Grant rides a white horse and Greeley rides a mule,

Grant is a gentleman and Greely is a fool."

while the other element would chant the couplet with the names reversed. Every day, from the opening of school in September until the close of the campaign, they sang this refrain. As a result, there were many fist fights. I distinctly recall the election, especially as my father was a candidate for local office. When he came home at nine o'clock on election night, I was still up, and my mother inquired how the election had gone. "Well," he said, "I have lost the city by three hundred votes, but I have carried the county by eight hundred, and will be elected."

With no railroads running north and south through  p22 our section, and none across the Mississippi, until 1871, Hannibal was strictly a steamboat town. The trade was divided between passenger boats and rafts. Whenever a steamboat arrived at the wharf most of the inhabitants went down to the water front. Large quantities of merchandise of all kinds were piled along the levee, waiting to be hauled into the town by drays, or shipped to other points on the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. St. Joseph, at this time, was a more important commercial center than Kansas City, and the principal point for starting west. Lumbering was one of the industries that made Hannibal prosperous, and many men were employed in the trade.

It is interesting to know why the Union Pacific Railroad selected Omaha, rather than St. Joseph, as the place to cross the Missouri River. The story is that several capitalists who were promoting the enterprise visited St. Joseph and were about to decide upon the city as the terminus of the road, when they encountered some unreconstructed Confederates. After having a row with them they determined to establish the main line further north, and settled upon Omaha as the eastern starting point. I recall their description of driving the golden spike at the point in Utah where the two branches were joined.

My father and my grandfather were connected with, and stockholders in Mississippi River steamboat companies, and particularly the one known as the "White Collar Line." My father had charge of the passenger department in Hannibal, in addition to his other business, and, at times of rivalry with other lines, I have known tickets to St. Louis to be sold for as little as fifty cents. The town boys never tired of watching the steamboats and the negro roustabouts at work. The old‑fashioned gangplank was in use, and before the companies began to build so‑called wharves and landings, the boat would run its prow into the mud until it stuck, and then back out when ready to move on to the next landing.

My father tried piloting at the same time Mark Twain  p23 did, but abandoned it. My Uncle John was a pilot, and many times he has taken me into the pilot house of the Natrona, which towed lumber rafts on the Mississippi, going as far north as LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I was the envy of all the boys when I would step out on the deck. It seems to me that nearly all the old steamboats eventually burned. I can recall the old Tom Jasper, the Rob Roy, the Mollie McPike, the Red Wing and the Clinton, and the songs the roustabouts used to sing on these old timers.

In 1871 the Wabash Railroad bridge across the Mississippi was completed, and on November 11th of that year my grandfather took me up the river road to what is now "Pettibone Park" or "Riverside Park" to see it. We got out of our buggy, climbed part of the way up the hillside, and watched the first train from Illinois cross the Mississippi River on the new bridge, and enter the tunnel. It was a great sight — such a great sight, indeed, that the following year our Sunday school advertised that it would take the children through the tunnel and across the bridge before going out to the picnic grounds.

Those were the days of Methodist and Baptist camp meetings. My grandmother Coontz was a Baptist, until about 1875, when pressure from the majority became so great that she joined the Southern Methodists. I remember the great Baptist camp meeting at Asher's Ford, Ralls County, which she attended. I drove twenty miles in a buggy with my Cousin Cynthia to attend that meeting. I did not gain admittance to the big tent in which the services were held, but I enjoyed myself talking with my relatives and eating the good things that were provided. I could, however, hear the singing and rejoicing.

About this time the Hannibal boys of my age used to visit the Mark Twain cave. We were just beginning to hear of "Mark Twain," who was later to become so famous. (Twain moved to Nevada about 1863.) The last time I was in Hannibal, Mr. Cameron, the owner of  p24 the cave, reminded me that my name was cut on the side of one of the passageways, under date of 1874, and my father's as of August 3, 1861. For a few years before I entered the Naval Academy, I used to guide parties through the cave. I must have been a popular guide, for I made no charge for my services.

It used to be a popular stunt to drive to the cave on Sundays and holidays, and I find in my scrapbook an account of my father's and mother's being there as young people. One day while they were driving home from such an outing the horse became frightened and ran away. My mother was thrown over the bluff and into the Mississippi. Her jaw bone was broken and she lay unconscious in the water until my father, recovering in the top of a tree, managed to get down and rescue her. The result was a romance which ended in their marriage.

The hills, the islands and the river were all well known to us youngsters who, at that time, had no idea how famous Mark Twain was to make everything connected with our city. On week days we used skiffs on the river and went swimming, but never on Sundays.

About 1871 gas was first used in Hannibal. Before that time we used candles, and a few rich people had what were later known as student lamps. I can still see my grandmother Coontz making candles, twenty-four at a time, but I cannot understand even now how it was that the wick always went straight down through the middle.

Grandfather Coontz had the only cider press in that section of the country. He permitted his friends and neighbors to use it, and during the cider-making season it was in operation night and day. For some reason it seems that the cider tasted better in those days than it does today. Perhaps it was because they used partly rotten apples as well as good ones.

Hannibal had its first public library about this time, and I spent too much time there for my own good, reading the works of Oliver Optic, Mayne Reid and various  p25 other authors of Indian stories. In order to read at night one had to stand near the gas jet, which had three or four folding arms, and there was always danger of one's clothing becoming ignited, if there happened to be a draft of air through the room. And, speaking of fires, I recall how everyone talked about the great Chicago fire, and of the financial panic that occurred in 1873.

I entered school in the fall of 1871, at the age of seven years. Kindergartens had not then been heard of in our part of the world. The school was on Broadway, and the teacher was Miss Jennie Walters, of McVeightown, Pa. Later she married my cousin, Judge Thomas Bacon, and her grandson is now (1930) a Midshipman at Annapolis.

On July 5, 1873, the date of high water on the Mississippi, my father took my mother, a younger sister and me and started on the great trip up the river. We boarded the steamer Clinton, with Captain Brock commanding, and in eight days we reached St. Paul. There was no railroad rivalry in those days and in consequence no hurry. The pilot stopped the boat at night wherever it pleased him to do so. Being connected with the company our family had the privileges of the pilot house, and it was a wonderful journey. The Mississippi River steamboats were then at their best. We spent every day of the trip on the saloon deck viewing the scenery. At night we always had an appetizing dinner, and after the table was cleared all of the employees, from the barber to the waiters, came in with their musical instruments and there was dancing until midnight. Then the Southerners turned to playing poker until two in the morning, when the bar closed. The sight of gambling shocked me, for, with the rest of the boys of my acquaintance, I had been reared very strictly.

Today people are somewhat amazed at the manner in which our Sundays were passed. Sunday School began at 9:15, immediately after breakfast, and then without leaving church we attended the regular service, which  p26 often lasted until one and sometimes until two in the afternoon, if the preacher got "wound up." Dinner was followed by singing school, between three and four o'clock, followed by a walk until 5:30. At 6:30 there was a church service similar to that of the Epworth League, and church again from 7:30 until 9. Then we went home. Walking was a wonderful exercise.

On our trip to St. Paul we found Indians at almost every landing. They were particularly numerous in northeastern Iowa and in Minnesota. We saw numbers of them at Red Wing and Winona, where they offered to sell us bear skins. One of our side trips which I recall was across the beautiful Lake Pepin, which at that time seemed to me to be a great sea. The upper part of the Mississippi was very picturesque. There were many wooded islands in the stream and high bluffs on each side of the river. Here and there was a promontory called "Lovers' Leap," and its story was ever the same, of a beautiful Indian maiden who had plunged from the eminence into the Great Father of Waters, to her death.

In St. Paul, which was not a large town at that time, we stayed at the Merchants' Hotel. To reach Minneapolis we had to drive to the mouth of the Minnesota River opposite Fort Snelling. There we crossed on a ferry drawn from shore to shore by a windlass with ropes for hauling attached to each end of the boat. It was really a scow. We drove to Fort Snelling — then a much more noted post than it is now — and from there to the famous Minnehaha Falls, where we witnessed a wedding under the cascade. We were told that it was not an unusual occurrence. The Falls of St. Anthony had not then been "improved" as they are now, and we saw them in all their natural beauty as we crossed the river. Then we visited Lake Como and a high bluff known as Gibbs' Lookout, and returned to St. Paul.

The voyage down the Mississippi with the current was much faster than the north-bound passage. The water at times was dangerously high. There used to be a mark,  p27 and I believe it is still to be seen, on a saloon kept by John G. Foss, at Main and Bird Streets, which read, "High water, March, 1851." It was the highest ever known.

As the only recreation we had on Sundays was walking, every hill within a radius of five miles from the center of Hannibal was thoroughly explored by the boys of the town. I still remember clearly almost every foot of the landscape in that part of Missouri. To me there is no scenery more beautiful than that along the bluff crowned banks of the Mississippi, whether in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin or Minnesota. A visit to Riverside Park, in Hannibal, will confirm my judgment.

In 1872, after I had been in school for about six months, it was decided that I had had enough education for a time, and that I should begin living a part of each year on the farm owned by my uncle, Charles L. Bounds. He had, a short time before, returned to Missouri from Nevada where he had been forced to go after being paroled in 1863. He had lived in the little mining camp of Pioche and ran a freight line between that point and Boullionvilleº to Baker City, Oregon, a dangerous trade in those days on account of the Indians.

This farm was in Adair County and consisted of 240 acres, about two miles southeast of the village of Millard on the North Missouri Railroad which later became a part of the Wabash system. It had been owned by my grandfather and was sold to my uncle when he decided to become a farmer. I made the trip alone from our home to the farm. My father gave me a letter of introduction to the conductor on the Wabash train and he kindly let me off within a quarter of a mile of my uncle's farm, stopping the train at a crossing in order to do so.

Farming in Adair County at that time was not an easy pursuit. My uncle and aunt arrived there in 1871, with four horses. They first built a barn and lived on the upper floor while it was new and clean and their house was being erected. It was extremely difficult to get a  p28 servant and only a few people were able to have one. Much of the ground was what was known as sod — that is, it had never been ploughed over. One hundred and sixty acres of the farm formed a square, and there was a timber tract of forty acres about six or eight miles from the home place. There was scarcely a tree on the prairie. Each farmer had to purchase twenty to forty acres of woodland along the river, and twice a year, with eight or ten helpers, they cut timber.

They would fell the trees and prepare them for hauling. Then they would place them on a peculiarly constructed wagon and convey them to the farm house. No saws were used, and the logs were split up by the workmen, each one of whom was an expert axeman. My uncle paid his helper (they were never called "hired men") eighteen dollars a month and gave him his board. He was a husky fellow named Johnny Klingman. Johnny frequently took me out to hunt prairie chickens, which were numerous and very good to eat.

The country was not thickly settled and we kept our cattle on the range. The railroad was not fenced in, and from time to time passing locomotives would kill a farmer's steer. Upon such occasions three appraisers would be named from among the neighborhood farmers to determine the damage. A good steer was valued at about thirty dollars, and the thirty dollars which the farmer received in compensation for the loss of his animal was in many cases all the money he would see for months.

When I arrived at my uncle's I found that all of the men in the neighborhood were away. About a week later they returned home from northwestern Iowa. Horse thieves had been through the section stealing animals. Practically all of the men in the surrounding community had been soldiers in the Civil War, and they organized a posse to follow the thieves. They came upon them near Sioux City, captured and hanged every one of them, leaving their bodies dangling from the trees as a warning. They brought back only the horses. Horse stealing in  p29 Missouri was considered almost a capital offense. Until recently there existed in northeast Missouri the Anti-Horse Thief Association, and for many years a fine old citizen named Suter, who lived near Palmyra, was its president.

There were on the farm when I arrived there, seven cows, and I was soon taught to milk. Later, in Hannibal, when my father bought a fine Jersey cow, it became one of my tasks to milk her. I milked that cow for the last time on the morning I started for the Naval Academy, in 1881. I never learned who milked the cow that night, but imagine the colored girl must have learned the art.

At the farm we rarely saw our neighbors, but met them at church or at the little trading town. They were the Colstons, the Bumpuses, the Hynds, the Beechers, the Wheelers, the Burtons, the Starrs, the Morgans, the Grants, the Zimmermans, the Foncannons, the Wilcoxes and the Colletts. All of the old timers are now dead, but doubtless some of their descendants are still living in Adair County.

The land was not as rich as the land further south and east between the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers. My uncle's house stood on a watershed. Water thrown out of the east side of the house ran into Salt River, and thence into the Mississippi, while that thrown out on the west side found its way to the Chariton and thence to the Missouri. Of course, eventually, it all reached the Great River north of St. Louis.

My uncle was a very religious man and a brother of Bishop McKendree Bounds. I believe my uncle and aunt entertained every Methodist bishop and minister who came within miles of their home. Each Sunday we went many miles to Sunday School, and to any church where there was a preacher. On one occasion my uncle was teaching a class when a young man named George Hynds frankly said he did not believe in Christ. He said he believed in nothing of which he had no personal evidence. My uncle waited until the next Sunday and then led the lesson around to George Washington, for whom young  p30 Hynds was named, and had George expatiate upon the Father of His Country. Finally, my uncle called his attention to the fact that he had no more personal evidence of Washington than of Christ, and the youth's views immediately underwent a change.

My aunt was not equipped for the hard work of a farmer's wife. In harvest time we often had as many as thirty-eight of the neighbors at the house for meals. Farmers used to help each other at such times without pay, but they always had their meals at the farm house where they were at work. It seemed to me that it was impossible for my aunt to bake enough biscuits — which were eaten with sorghum molasses — or to cook enough ham and eggs, and the potatoes and corn bread that went with them, to feed those hungry men.

There were no labor unions, and the men worked from daybreak until sundown. One of my first jobs was to drive a mile to the open prairie and bring home the cows every night. Once a week I rode out on the prairie for several miles to look after the horses and mares. We had a beautiful little mare that wore a bell and I could usually hear its tinkle for a distance of seven miles. My father bought her from uncle in 1872. I rode on horseback and always carried a light lunch and a pouch of water. The journey was long and lonesome, for I rarely met or saw a human being on the prairie.

My uncle's horses and cattle were salted from time to time. A great trough was built not far from the barn and we handled the entire herds at stated periods. I fail to understand why farmers do not require salt troughs for their animals now, but I have not seen one for a long time. When the cattle were driven in for salting, the young were branded, each farmer having his own brand in order to identify his stock. Branding was a horrible thing. The animals were roped and thrown while a hot iron for a moment seared their flesh.

On the last day of August, 1873 (I shall always remember the date), I went wading in Bear Creek just  p31 where it enters the Mississippi. I could not swim nor could my companions. I got beyond my depth and was swept into the river. Twice I sank beneath the surface of the water, and gave up hope of saving myself. I know the experience of drowning, or rather the sensation of it. There is no pain, but rather a feeling of exhilaration, as one's lungs fill with water. Every act of my life flashed through my brain in lightning-like succession. Providencially,º I touched a sand bar just as I was about to go down for the third time, and a colored man working at a nearby lumber yard came out and quickly rescued me. He beat me home and told the story to my parents. My mother cried over my narrow escape, but alas, my father took me to the woodshed and gave me a sound whipping with a cowhide. He was a powerful man, weighing two hundred and twenty-five pounds. He never had but one other occasion to inflict corporal punishment upon me.

Francis M. Cockrell was a candidate for the democratic nomination for governor of Missouri in 1874, and I recall his visit to our home. My father and uncle were delegates to the convention. Cockrell had been a brave Confederate soldier, while his opponent, Charles H. Hardin, had supported the Union. It must have been an exciting convention, for Hardin won the nomination by a vote of one hundred and fifty-nine and two‑thirds votes to one hundred and fifty-nine and one‑third votes for Cockrell. However, his defeat by so narrow a margin redounded to his benefit. When the legislature met during the following winter Cockrell was elected United States senator, and held the office for thirty years, equaling the length of service of Thomas H. Benton. Incidentally, I take occasion to mention that my father was named after Senator Benton. My father's brother, who was born in 1848, was named John Fremont Coontz, after the Pathfinder. Later, when Fremont turned republican and abolitionist, the "Fremont" part of his name was quickly dropped.

During the same campaign year mentioned we had as  p32 a guest at our home the Honorable Henry Watterson, of Louisville, Ky., who afterwards became famous as an editor and writer. I recall my pride in listening to the lecture which he delivered in our town, and in accompanying him to the railroad station where he took the midnight train for St. Louis.

The democrats came into control of Congress and of our state in 1874, and I remember hearing a disgruntled workman on the street, who was getting the usual wage of a dollar a day, declare that a man could no longer get an office by election in Hannibal unless he were a Methodist and a Mason. The statement made an impression upon me. When I looked around at the pew holders in the Methodist Church on the following Sunday and noted the number of them who had just been elected to offices, I came to believe that the workman's assertion was substantially correct. The Lakenans, Hickmans, Carstarphens, Rowes, Coontzes, Bacons, Ebys and Andersons held the offices.

General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William T. Sherman visited Quincy, Illinois, a town twenty miles north of Hannibal, and delivered an address in the spring of 1875. The local papers said he might be a candidate for the democratic nomination for president in 1876. As a member of the city council, my father attended the meeting and made the tactical error of taking me with him. The general delivered his address from a platform erected in the City Park. My father sat on the rostrum with the distinguished guests and I occupied the first seat off the speaker's dais. At the conclusion of General Sherman's remarks the chairman announced that he would pass among the audience and shake hands. He came straight to my seat and held out his hand. Having heard my Georgia and Alabama relatives tell the story of his march to the sea, in 1865, I said, "Not me!" and turned my back upon him. My father and the Hannibal delegation were deeply mortified, and I was told that I would be permitted to make no more trips to meet heroes.

 p33  About this time my school work was not progressing very satisfactorily, particularly mathematics, and my mother concluded that I had had enough of lady teachers. My last instructor had been Miss Fannie Hawkins, sister of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hawkins, U. S. A., and sister-in‑law of General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.E. R. S. Canby, who was killed in the lava beds, either of California or Oregon,​e by the Modoc Indians. Naturally I had a full history of the Modoc War, and named my sled "Modoc."

Thayer's Notes:

a Daniel Bedinger Lucas, lawyer and poet, was not the Senator; that was his father William Lucas, who had died in 1877.

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b Last time I checked, Find-a‑Grave listed 41 persons by the last name of Coontz buried in Missouri before 1930.

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c The "Honey War" pitting Missouri against Iowa was mostly about a faulty surveyor's line, resulting in "The Iowa-Missouri Disputed Boundary" (MVHR 3:77‑84) and the further link there to Jeff Morrison's fine page.

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d Now that supermarkets have pretty much driven small grocery stores out of business, I imagine this is the situation again in most of the United States. It certainly is in my neighborhood of Chicago.

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e Oregon.

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Page updated: 31 Dec 16