RESEARCH UNVEILS CURIOUS HISTORY OF CALLAWAY COUNTY SEAT SWAPPING
Fulton Sun, June 17, 2011
By: Tom Riley
Special to the Fulton Sun
In early spring, 1821, several of Callaway County’s most prominent, early residents met to discharge the duty specifically delegated to them by Missouri’s legislature to created and locate the county’s first “seat of justice.” After meeting for days, this commission formally issued its report, founding the county seat of Elizabeth—a town where no one ever lived, where only one building was ever erected, and whose location is no longer even known. Yet, before the town of Elizabeth literally fell off the map, its history changed the story of Callaway County for good.
The first settlement in the county, the French trading post “Cote Sans Dessein,” was one of the most important sites in the entire Louisiana Territory in the very early 1800’s. This “Hill Without Design” was situated along the sole rock ledge on the northern bank of the Missouri river about 10 miles east of what is now Jefferson City. Dozens of French traders and their families settled there and the post remained the largest settlement in the county for years.
The surrounding area sat largely inaccessible without any roads until 1815, when Nathaniel Boone, son of Daniel Boone, surveyed and marked out the Boone’s Lick Road from Daniel Boone’s homestead in St. Charles County to a large salt-lick in Howard County. Later that year, the first American settlers of the county, John Ham and Jonathan Crow, established their homesteads along the Auxvasse creek. Though neither bothered to build a house for years, their names are indelibly attached to the county in Ham’s Prairie and the Crow’s fork of the Auxvasse Creek.
Nathaniel Boone returned to Callaway County in 1816 with crews that surveyed most of the county’s land. The surveys facilitated the sale of home-sites, and immigration to the county and surrounding areas surged. Settlers from Virginia, Kentucky, and the rest of the upper south poured into farmland north of the Missouri river (the southern culture and economy giving rise to the name “Little Dixie”).
As the Missouri Compromise eventually allowed the territory’s admission as a state, the Missouri General Assembly formed a committee to locate the state capital. In what would be a harbinger of things to come, the Committee initially decided on Cote Sans Dessein, before the remainder of the legislators concluded that was probably a bad idea since no one knew who actually owned the land where the capitol was to be placed. So, they voted to move the capital to the southern side of the river in 1821, though neither the governor nor the legislature moved there until 1826, after the “City of Jefferson” had been laid out by another of Daniel Boone’s sons.
At the same time, things north of the river were not going much more smoothly. By 1820, the area’s residents were numerous enough to petition the Missouri territorial legislature to form their own county. The legislature responded by passing “An Act to Establish Callaway County, Missouri” on November 25, 1820. The county was named for yet another of Daniel Boone’s relatives, his grandson, Captain James Callaway, who lived near Boone in St. Charles County. After serving as deputy sheriff, Capt. Callaway formed and led companies of rangers and became a notable Indian fighter, until the Indians shot and killed him on March 7, 1815. Callaway neither lived nor died in the county that bears his name.
In the legislation creating Callaway County, a commission of five county residents was formed to locate a new town, which would be the county seat. In the commission’s first official business, they met at one of the county’s first taverns, Brite’s Tavern, which was located on Ham’s Prairie and owned by one of the commission members, Henry Brite. After meeting for three days to inspect suitable locations for the county’s principal town, they finally decided on the county seat’s location—not far from the front door of Brite’s Tavern. For good measure, they also named the town “Elizabeth,” after Henry Brite’s wife.
On March 5, 1821, three of the five Commissioners issued a report declaring that they had identified the most suitable place for “the Permanent seat of Justice of Callaway County.” The Commissioners located the county seat on the “west end of the Prairie commonly known by the name of Ham’s Prairie” and accepted a donation of 100 acres from Benjamin Young and Thomas Smith on which the town would be built.
The rest of the county was not quite so impressed with the Brites’ hospitality or the town’s location. In fact, the fourth commissioner did not sign the report at all and the fifth, one Enoch Fruit, actually protested the decision on the Commission’s very report, objecting that the town’s location was not close enough to the center of the county. In fact, Elizabeth was far removed from the county’s center, was not near Boone’s Lick Road, and was not even on any of the county’s large creeks.
Despite the immediate concern over the town’s location, the county leaders proceeded to survey and divide Elizabeth into lots. The first lots were sold barely two months after the town was formed and, in one of the less optimistic gestures in town-founding, the proceeds of the sales were entirely used to construct Elizabeth’s only public building: the jail.
By 1824, the complaints regarding Elizabeth were so widespread that a petition to move the county seat had been signed by the majority of county residents. The Missouri General Assembly responded by passing “An Act to Remove the Seat of Justice of Callaway County” mandating that the county’s seat be moved to a location within three miles of the county center. The legislature also created a new commission to locate the new county seat—this time, none was a resident of Callaway County.
The new commission met at the home of Robert Spence Dunlap, who lived near the center of the county, to begin reviewing potential sites for the new town. Eventually, the committee unanimously agreed on a location, 50 acres on a southern facing slope that ran down toward Stinson’s creek. The commission agreed to buy the land from its owner, George Nichols, for Fifty Dollars; Nichols, who lived right outside the town, held the honor of being the only person besides Thomas Jefferson for whom one of the town’s original streets was named. The commission reported the location of the new county seat on June 29, 1825. Anyone who had purchased lots in Elizabeth was allowed a credit for the purchase price to be applied to buy lots in the new town, and the land on which Elizabeth was to be built reverted to its original owners; about that time, Elizabeth’s jail, which was still its only building, burned to the ground.
Having finally decided on an agreeable site for the new county seat, it was determined to re-christen the seat of justice with what the commissioners unanimously concluded would be a well-received and respected name. They called the town Volney, for Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney, our town’s eponymous hero.
Comte de Volney was a French philosopher and author who served in France’s national assembly after the French revolution and whose writings were widely influential at the time (Thomas Jefferson translated some of his work for the American audience). Yet, considering the fact that he was one of the first authors to cast doubt on the historicity of Jesus Christ and, when he toured America in 1795, was accused by John Adams’ administration of being a spy and evicted from the country, his name didn’t strike everyone as a perfect fit for the new town, to say the least.
Before the end of the year, Dunlap petitioned the Callaway County Court to change the town’s name—arguing that the Commission’s act of naming the town after a French infidel and suspected spy was not exactly the most Christian or patriotic of statements to make. When asked what name he would suggest instead, Dunlap opined that Robert Fulton (the developer of the steamboat and a figure synonymous with progress) would be appropriate. The court agreed, and, with that, the county seat of Callaway County finally came to rest in Fulton.