Friday, August 22, 2008

The Great Missouri River Flood of 1844

HUGE CROWDS OF PEOPLE GATHERED ON THE BANKS OF THE GREAT Missouri River. The sky was clear and blue with not a single cloud. The strange sights presented here this June would never be forgotten.

A huge stack of straw had been swept away down the river carrying several hogs. As the odd watercraft passed the crowd some of the porkers could be plainly seen rooting around while the others lay nearby lazily sleeping, unconcerned with the peril that had befallen them. [24] They were players on the stage of the Great Missouri River Flood of 1844. They were the daily entertainment for the crowds gathered on the bluffs.

Just at the time the “June Rise” began and the snow packs were melting in the mountains, a heavy rain commenced to fall all over Kansas and Western Missouri. “Every evening out of a clear sky just as the sun went down there arose a dark, ominous looking cloud in the northwest. Flashes of lightning and the heaviest thunder followed, and about ten o’clock the rain would begin to fall in torrents.”[25] The rain continued its torrential fall for thirty days and then came thundering down into the Missouri River just in time to meet the spring thaw. In a few short days the bottomlands across the river as far back as the bluffs were overflowed. The Missouri River was more than thirty feet above flood stage. [26]

Houses floated down the river almost completely intact. Chickens rode the roofs of stables crowing loudly about their plight. [27] Hundreds of cattle, hogs, horses and mules were lost by farmers who were unable to remove their stock or who had foolishly waited until the last moment. The loss to the farmers of Missouri and Illinois was substantial.

On 22 June 1844, one such farmer, William Austin of Sugar Tree Bottom, one of the hardest hit areas in Carroll County, wrote a letter to his wife detailing the problems he had encountered and the fate of his neighbors:

I am in Carrollton to see what has become of my negroes that I moved out last Sunday to keep them from being drowned by the flood…my neighbors both above and below me are missed their crops, fences and stock are all washed away, out of 75 or 80 farms in Sugar Tree Bottom not more than five or six have escaped. My farm is the highest in the bottom which is about six feet above the high water mark at present. I sent out my negroes & stock to the hills and remained at home alone…Kiss the children for me and accept for yourself the love of your affectionate Husband.

W. W. Austin

P.S. I came from my farm to the foot of the Bluff at Carrollton in a skiff in company with Wm. Turner.” [28]

It is against the backdrop of the flood that John and Sarah Campbell celebrated their first anniversary and the birth of their first child, a daughter, Mary William. [29] Mary had been born a few months before the flood, but when the old timers of Carrollton discussed the birth of “Mollie” Campbell, the Flood of 1844 would always be mentioned in the same breath. She would forever be known as the child of the flood. [30]

John and Sarah were witnesses to the destruction of 1844. The fate of the land, stock, and crops would be of interest to every man engaged in farming and John was a tobacco farmer, a member of the community of farmers that made up Carroll County. Sarah was the wife of a farmer and the daughter of the prominent Graham farming family; she would have wanted to know the fate of her neighbors as well. [31]

The perfect vantage point for the daily parade down the Missouri River in 1844 would have been Mary Campbell’s home at Miles Point, a steamboat landing on the Missouri. [32] The Campbell family were very close; and as newlyweds John and Sarah would have visited John’s mother often, particularly since the death of his father. [32] The visits were probably more frequent this June because of the sights and sounds that were the topic of conversation all over the county.

Perhaps because of what John saw, or perhaps because the seventeen year old Sarah, a new wife and mother, wanted the security of living in town, John began to explore the possibility of becoming a merchant.

John’s brother William had become a successful merchant in Jessamine County, Kentucky, and John wanted that same success. [34] He was interested in buying or becoming a partner in the store in Mandeville owned by Harrison Graham and Sarah’s brother Jack Reed Graham. Jack Reed was known to drink a quart of whiskey a day and still be able to sell more goods than anyone in the store.

John did not go into business with Harrison and Jack Graham. Whether it was the fact that Harrison and Jack didn’t want to sell, didn’t want a partner or because of Jack’s drinking, whatever the reason, John did not realize his dream of becoming a merchant until 1850. [35]


[24] Missouri Historical Company, History of Carroll County, Missouri: Carefully
Written and Compiled from the Most Authentic Official and Private Sources, Including a History of its Townships, Cities, Towns and Villages, Together with a Condensed History of Missouri; the Constitution of the United States, and State of Missouri; a Military Record of its Volunteers in either Army of the Great Civil War; General and Local Statistics; Miscellany; Reminiscences, Grave, Tragic and Humorous; Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Citizens Identified with the Interests of the Country. (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Company, 1881.), 265.

[25] Pierre Menard Chouteau, High Water: Playful Pranks of the Missouri. Kansas City Times, April 1, 1872, “The Floods of 1827 and 1844 – Will There be a Flood this Spring – Some Recollections of a Native of the Soil”. The Western Historical Manuscript Collection in Kansas City, University of Missouri. [Online at], accessed January 2005.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Missouri Historical Company, History of Carroll County, Missouri, 265.

[28] Letter of W. W. Austin to his wife, 22 June 1844; held by Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri.

[29] Carroll County Genealogical Association, Oak Hill Cemetery, (Carrollton, Missouri: HJH Quick Printing), 91; Family data, Transcription of John Campbell Family Bible, 25 December 1942. Frank Tull, Campbell – Graham Family Genealogy Papers, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri.

[30] Frank Tull, Campbell – Graham Family, 55.

[31] Ibid., 65.

[32] Marilyn Neathery McCluen, Frederick (Old Fed) Grider and His Twenty-Two Children (Rockwood, Tennessee: Self-Published), 526.

[33] Rogers Campbell estate (1840), Probate Estate Files, Reel C35303, Vol. 1830-1848, Carroll County, Missouri. Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.

[34] Note William Campbell’s worth $20,000. William Campbell household, 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Jessamine County, Nicholasville Post Office, Kentucky, population schedule, Page Unreadable, Line 37 – 40, dwelling 997; family 997; PDF file, Online: ProQuest Company, 2005, subscription database, National Archives Micropublication Series M653, Roll, 378, Page 143. [Online at], accessed November 2004.

[35] Frank Tull, Campbell – Graham Family, 36.



Blogger Donna said...


Very nice. I think the next time I try a biographical sketch, I'll just hand my sources over to you. You'd do a better job!


August 23, 2008 at 7:05 AM  
Blogger Lidian said...

Wonderful, as usual!

August 23, 2008 at 9:24 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Again you are an inspiration. I start a writing class this week and hope I learn to do the job half as well.


September 6, 2008 at 6:39 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Thank you all for your kind words.

Good luck Caroline. I loved the writing workshop I took. I hope you learn to do it twice as well and will share with all of us.


September 6, 2008 at 8:06 PM  

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