The first divorce case in Franklin County was heard in 1819 — the same year the county was officially established.
That discovery by volunteers with the Washington Historical Society who have been preparing the old circuit court files for microfilm came as a big surprise to Marc Houseman, director of the Washington Historical Society Museum and chairman of the Franklin County Bicentennial Committee.
“We think of divorce as a modern issue, although we knew people did get divorced then, but we don’t think of it as happening all that often,” he said. “I would have thought maybe once every five years there was a case, but there were multiple cases each year.
“And what’s really interesting are in the cases of divorce involving infidelity, they name the culprit, who has been sleeping with so-and-so’s wife. They name them in the record,” Houseman remarked. “It’s interesting to look with modern eyes at what was happening 200 years ago, and realizing this isn’t so different from today.
“One woman suing her husband for divorce named five women that he was supposedly cavorting with.”
There were cases where husbands were initiating the divorces, and others where wives were. And there was infidelity on both sides, although in some cases divorces were sought for reasons of physical abuse or cruelty, Houseman noted.
While most of the early circuit court cases are for simple things like theft or a squabble over property — “His fence is on my land!” — it is surprising to realize there were a good number of divorces, said Houseman.
This month marks the 200th anniversary of Franklin County, and a yearlong celebration with various events and activities has been planned (see sidebar for some details).
An opening ceremony will be held Saturday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m. in the John Edson Anglin Performing Arts Center on the campus of East Central College in Union. A short reception with refreshments will follow.
The ceremony is open to the public, and everyone is invited to attend; however, people are asked to RSVP by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Let’s Go! There’s Plenty of Land!’
Months before Franklin County was officially established in January 1819, plans and paperwork had been already arranged, said Houseman, who noted the need for a new county was likely due to growing population size.
There were maybe less than 1,000 people living in the area, he said, but that was enough to make people who were living in areas that would become Washington, Union, St. Clair and New Haven, for example, not want to travel into St. Louis to do their government business, like pay their taxes or take a neighbor to court.
“Right after the Louisiana Purchase, this area and almost the whole southern half of the state was part of St. Louis County,” said Houseman. “So I think it was a combination of the people and the powers that were, saying we need to start dividing this up. It had happened in the Eastern states long ago, so it was just a natural step.”
Around 1818 is also when this area began to see a sizable migration of people from states like Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas. William and Lucinda Owens, who would go on to found the city of Washington in 1839 after her husband’s untimely death, arrived in Newport in 1818, said Houseman. Elijah McLean also arrived in the area at that time.
There also were other families who had been living here for some time, he said, mentioning the Sullinses, the Richardsons and the Caldwells by name as some of those who were involved in organizing the new county. Some of those names are still around, because their descendants are here, but others are gone.
Life in the area was primitive, with people living in log cabins. The Louisiana Purchase had been completed more than a decade earlier, and most of the Native Americans had been moved out of the area, so there was no longer a perceived threat of attack.
“The federal government was encouarging settlement in this area, kind of pushing for it,” said Houseman.
The first settlers in this area in the early 1800s were not German, as many people think, but “multi-generational Americans” who were migrating west as the country expanded.
“They had already been in the U.S. for two, three, five generations out east,” said Houseman. “There is this very common pattern of people going from Virginia to Kentucky to Missouri.
“They were in Virginia from the time of the Revolution, if not prior, and then as the country expanded westward, Kentucky was the next go-to place of settlement. And once Boone decided he was going to go west and the government encouraged him, he literally blazed a trail from Kentucky to Missouri, and that was just like he was paving the interstate. ‘Let’s go! Everybody says there’s plenty of land!’ ”
Traditions played into the population growth around 1818 as well, said Houseman, explaining at that time, families tended to be much larger, but the oldest son inherited everything after the parents passed away.
“The other children were left wondering, ‘What am I going to do? Where’s my land?’ ” said Houseman.
The Missouri territory offered them an option.
“You go out there, live on the land for a year, build a cabin, you homestead it, and then you go to the government and make a claim on that land,” said Houseman. “You prove that you’re going to stay there, and they will grant it to you for no money. It’s free.
“The government encouraged that greatly because they were building a human buffer between the white people and the Native Americans,” he said. “They had pushed the Native Americans out and then they pushed the white Americans right after that to kind of be a human fence. By giving away most of the land, that was a good incentive for people to move westward.”
Those first settlers also were likely adventurous people by nature, because many of them didn’t stop once they arrived in Missouri.
“A lot of those first-generation settlers here, if you try to find them, as in where they’re buried, you won’t find them here,” said Houseman. “They’re in Oregon, California and out West because they kept going.
“The Richardsons whose name appears in the early history of Franklin County, you see Nathan Richardson, Daniel Richardson, over and over again. Where are they? Most are buried in Oregon or Washington state. Not all, but a good number.”
Newport Was First County Seat
In 1819, the size and shape of Franklin County was much larger than it is today.
“It went farther west — all the way to what is now Osage County — and to the south it made an uneven triangular point all the way down into what is now Iron County,” said Houseman.
That large size only lasted about a year or two and then pieces of Franklin County were shaved off to form other counties. Gasconade County to the west was one of the first, Houseman noted.
When Franklin County first formed, there was no courthouse yet, so Hartley Sappington, who had just arrived here from Kentucky in 1818, offered his house as a meeting location.
“He had, by comparison, a larger log house in what is now the Schulze Industrial Park, where St. John’s Creek is by Rawlings. That little cemetery up there by Rawlings parking lot, that’s Hartley Sappington’s cemetery,” said Houseman, who has been writing a monthly feature for The Missourian’s Newspaper In Education program from the perspective of Sappington’s youngest daughter, Druscilla.
“Druscilla’s Journal,” which appears the second weekend issue of each month through May, illustrates what it was like to live here when the county was new and details on what happened.
“The next article is going to say, ‘Papa offered our house as the meeting place,’ ” said Houseman.
In 1819, Newport, which is located just a few miles west of what is now Washington, was selected as the location for the county seat, because that is where most people were living. The population was more concentrated in the northern part of the county because the river was the transportation, said Houseman.
Construction of a two-story brick courthouse began in 1820, although the second story was never finished.
“There are court cases involving that,” Houseman noted. “The county wouldn’t pay the contractor, and the Newport Courthouse fell into private ownership for a while because of that.”
In the early days of Franklin County, the leaders were called county judges, not commissioners, said Houseman.
In 1819, the county employed a sheriff (one of Hartley Sappington’s sons) and a county clerk. The first circuit judge was George Beverly Tucker.
A permanent monument to mark the site of the first Franklin County Courthouse was placed at Newport in a ceremony held last September.
Moved to Union in 1826
By 1826, the county seat was officially moved to what is now Union to be more centrally located.
“It was called Union because it united the far corners of the county in a more central location governmentally,” Houseman explained.
Again, there was no courthouse there, so a local resident, Ambrose Ransom, offered his house as a meeting location. He owned a large log building located off of what today is the historic courthouse square at the convergence of Main, Church, Locust and Oak streets in Downtown Union. Ransom’s building also included a tavern, Houseman noted.
There is a little discrepency over what happened next. Some historians (including Houseman) believe a log courthouse was built on the spot where the historic Franklin County Courthouse stands today. That log courthouse was replaced by a two-story red brick courthouse in the 1840s.
Some historians leave out that there was ever a log courthouse in Union, said Houseman
The red brick courthouse shown in the photo with this story was built in a federalist style on the same location, with an addition built on later. At some point, a fire occurred in the building, and the entire structure was demolished in the 1920s to make way for the stone courthouse that still stands on the courthouse square.
The building known today as the Historic Franklin County Courthouse was built in 1922-23. It was used for government business until 10 years ago, when doors to the Franklin County Judicial Center at the corner of Main and Church streets were opened in 2008.
Two years before that, county administrative offices had relocated from the historic courthouse to the Franklin County Government Center at the corner of Church and Locust streets.
The historic courthouse today is home to the Franklin County Veterans Museum.
Website Features History, Upcoming Events, More
In celebration of Franklin County’s 200th anniversary, a website filled with details of its history and upcoming events has been created at http://franklinmo200.com.
In a section called “Franklin County’s Bicentennial Stories” you will find features on the first car in Franklin County, St. Francis Borgia Church, the Hearst family, Union’s covered bridges and Franz Schwarzer, Missouri’s “zither king.”
More stories are welcome, and there is a form where people can click to submit their own.
In a “Glimpses of Our Past” section, people will find features about the Union Fairgrounds and the John B. Busch family of Washington.
Under the “Events” tab, people will find (off to the right side) a list of categories with more information on buildings, communities, people and places. There also are “recent posts” on Liberty Field, Train Town USA and the Opera House of Pacific.
There also is a list of upcoming events being held throughout the year to celebrate the bicentennial.