Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Water problem doomed Smithton from the start

The first settlement here was a cluster of about five hastily built log cabins and Richard Gentry’s home, store and "house of entertainment." Before Missouri was a state, President Thomas Jefferson approved the opening of a government land office at Franklin. The "receiver of lands" who was in charge of the office was named Thomas Smith. When landowners wanted a name for their fledgling town someone suggested that it be named for the genial fellow who sold them land for $4 to $6 per acre. Smithton it was. On July 23 they advertised in the Franklin Intelligencer for someone to build Gentry’s "double hewed log house, with shingled roof, a story and a half in height." They also asked for bids to dig and wall a well. Both were to be completed by that November at which time payment would be made.

There was a spring with endless water down the hill near Flat Branch but carrying water up a steep hill was torture! The search for a vein of water included the digging of a very deep hole into the earth. Having failed in their first attempt, they dug again in a different location — again 60 feet deep. Still no luck! A third hole was 90 feet down but didn’t produce water! Smithton was doomed!

In 1815 in all of Howard County — from which Boone and others would be carved — there were only 500 residents. The threat of attacks was minimized when American Indians signed a treaty relinquishing claim to land north of the Missouri River, at the end of the War of 1812. Many new settlers were anxious to build their cabins near their friends and relatives. Edwin Stephens said of the area, "Her fertile soil, genial climate and rich, undeveloped resources attracted hundreds of the wealthiest and best families of Kentucky and Virginia." However, there was no reliable source of water at Smithton.

The Booneslick Trail was lined with wagons in 1816 when Stephens wrote, "The present limits of Boone County were merely a passway for the vast hordes who were moving westward to the vicinity of Franklin ... the town around which all the new comers clustered."

Franklin’s population was more than 13,000 when the residents of Smithton faced moving to a spot that had ample water for themselves and their relatives and friends.

A group of settlers, some of them farmers, saw the opportunity to establish a new town down the hill near Flat Branch where water was plentiful. Thirty-five entrepreneurs formed The Smithton Company and bought land from the government to resell at a profit. They purchased the ground on which Columbia now stands on Nov. 13, 1818. They carefully staked off "in lots" of 11 acres each, "out lots" of 44 acres and a downtown business district. They called the new town Columbia and named the main street Broadway. It was 100 feet wide because it was the site of livestock sales and had to be wide enough for farmers to unload their animals and turn their teams and wagons around.

Smithton residents dismantled their log cabins and rebuilt them in Columbia on "land of equal value" generously traded by members of The Smithton Company. The change was completed about the time Missouri was accepted as a state which was in 1821. The first structure built in Columbia was at the southeast comer of Fifth and Broadway. One entrepreneur’s name is familiar in present day Columbia: David Gordon, whose brick mansion stands in ruins on his farm "like a guard at the east portals of Columbia."

Other familiar early names were: Todd, Gentry, Moss, Berry, Cave, Woodson, Wright, Bass, Hickman and Turner.

Life was not easy in frontier Columbia. We’ll discuss that on another Tuesday.


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