The territory encompassed by Clay County, Missouri, bordered on the south by the Missouri River, has always been an attractive area for settlers and passers-through. The history of Clay County spans centuries and exploring the historic sites and museums brings fun for the whole family.
Archaeological evidence near Excelsior Springs and Riverside indicate an ancient culture that flourished in the area from 3,000 to 1,000 BCE. Pottery shards found near Excelsior Springs are some of the oldest known in the state of Missouri. The Nebo Hill culture, named for the archaeological site on Nebo Hill, is known to have distinctive spearhead and axe designs that have been found as far north as Canada, indicating an active trade network, and is believed to be ancestral to the later Hopewellian culture that thrived around the Kansas City region. Early Native American artifacts found in the county are on display at the Clay County Museum in Liberty. Clay County was organized on January 2, 1822, shortly after Missouri statehood. Settlers came to the area from the Upper South states, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. Many settlers brought enslaved people with them and cultivated labor-intensive crops, including hemp and tobacco. Another indication of the southern cultural migration is the name of Clay County. The county was named for Henry Clay, a U. S. Representative from Kentucky. Henry Clay is perhaps best-known for his work to broker compromises between Southern and Northern factions in the U.S. House and Senate, including the Nullification Crisis and the Missouri Compromise, and later the Compromise of 1850.
One example of early Kentucky transplants to Clay County is Jonathan and Mary Atkins. Together with their family, the Atkins purchased a 129-acre farm from John and Polly Hightower in 1834. The farm included a two-story log cabin that was constructed between 1824 and the early 1830s. The Atkins family further improved the land and by 1850, produced hemp and wheat, maintained an orchard. The Atkins were enterprising farmers who also maintained a blacksmith shop and livery stable and operated a steam sawmill. With their prosperity, they expanded the log home into a larger I-House, typical of the antebellum era. The Atkins-Johnson House is recognized as one of the oldest continuously lived in homes in Clay County, built by the some of the earliest pioneers in the county. You can explore the home and farm, learn more about the Atkins and Johnson families and view portions of the cabin construction through “truth windows” that peel back the layers of construction to the 1820s cabin. Be sure to mark your calendar for Children’s Garden Day on July 18, the Vintage Baseball Game on August 15 and the Big Shoal County Fair on September 12.
While conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers were not uncommon in Missouri in the 1830s, Clay County experienced a different kind of strife in 1838. Led by Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, many of his followers settled in western Missouri in the 1830s. The tight-knit and rapidly growing community frightened non-members who saw the growing numbers as a threat. These non-Mormon settlers attacked Mormons, who fled into Clay County. Initially, Mormons were welcomed into the county as temporary refugees. As Mormons began to settle into a permanent community in Clay County, citizens requested their removal in 1836. Tensions grew between the two groups, including the arrest of Joseph Smith and open warfare soon broke out. Eventually Governor Lilburn Boggs declared in Executive Order No. 44 that “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State…” The Mormon community left Missouri to escape religious persecution and settled in Nauvoo, Illinois. Visit the restored Liberty Jail Historic Site to learn more about the Mormon War and how Joseph Smith shaped Latter Day Saint doctrine during his imprisonment in Liberty. By 1860, slaves made up approximately 25% of the county’s population and many of Clay County’s white residents had deep southern sympathies. In one of the first actions of the Civil War, occurring just eight days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 21, 1861, approximately 200 armed men from Clay and Jackson counties arrived on horseback at the gate of the Missouri Depot. Just four miles from Liberty, the Depot, also known as the Liberty Arsenal, housed three cannon, 13 large iron guns, over 1,000 pistols and rifles, more than 22,000 pounds of power, and wagonloads of ammunition and other weapons. Despite the large cache of munitions, only three men guarded the arsenal. The guards had a few minutes warning when a note arrived that secessionists were on their way to seize the arsenal. With no hope of making a defense, the guards turned the arsenal over to the secessionists who spent a week removing the munitions and distributing them across the countryside. This first action of the citizens of Missouri against the federal government put the federal commanders of Missouri on alert of coming trouble. To learn more about the Liberty Arsenal, visit the historic marker at Seven Hills Road and Southview Drive in Liberty. The Clay County Archives has a wealth of information on historic sites throughout the county, including the Arsenal. It is well worth a stop if you are in Liberty when the archives are open, Monday through Wednseday.
While some Clay Countians participated in armed action during the Civil War, others prospered due to wartime demands. Waltus Watkins, also a Kentucky transplant to Missouri, established a diversified farm and woolen mill in the 1830s. His holdings eventually encompassed 3,660 acres in Clay and Ray counties and included a farm, brick kiln, gristmill, saw mill and woolen mill. The woolen mill opened in 1860 and did a steady business selling cloth during the Civil War. Visit the Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site to explore the life of the Watkins, their home, farm and mill. Be sure to mark your calendar for special events at the historic site hosted by the Watkins Mill Association. The 2015 calendar includes the following events: July 18: Watkins Mill Association Workshop – DIY Sign Making Made Easy July 18: Movie night at the campground August 15: Watkins Mill Association Workshop – Genealogy September 12: Music Fest & Back Porch Jam October 10: 6K Walk / Run Around the Lake October 10: Fall on the Farm October 17: Watkins Mill Association Workshop – Painting Nature October 24: Halloween Campout November 14: Watkins Mill Association Workshop – Making Christmas Wreaths December 5: Christmas on the Farm
Some of Clay County’s most famous—or infamous—citizens include Frank and Jesse James. Heritage Travelers come from all fifty states and various countries to visit the home of these outlaws. The truth behind the myths that surround Frank and Jesse is, perhaps, more fascinating that all the Hollywood treatments of their stories. The uncertainty of life in western Missouri and the chaotic nature of the Civil War in this area deeply shaped the lives of the James family. You can explore the early lives of Frank and Jesse at the Jesse James Farm and Museum in Kearney. Visit the Jesse James Bank Museum or call ahead for an appointment at the Frank James Bank Museum to learn how the legend and legacy of the James Gang grew.
Following the Civil War, the African American community of Clay County worked together to establish a strong educational system for the African American youth of Liberty. In 1877, African American residents established the Garrison School, which provided education through 10th grade for black students in Liberty until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. Today you can visit the Garrison School Cultural Center, which hosts special events and exhibits on the African American history of Clay County. While you’re in Liberty, be sure to take a historic Liberty walking tour. You can download your tours from Historic Downtown Liberty’s website. To round our your exploration of Clay County’s history, be sure to visit the Shoal Creek Living History Museum to take a self guided tour through the relocated historic buildings. Whether you’re settling down or just passing through, Clay County has centuries of history to explore!