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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

History of an Excuse: Clearing a Land Title for Timothy Phelps in 1839

Hornbeck survey.png
Missouri State Archives, Papers of Original Claimants-1st Board of Land Commissioners
Survey No. 377 to Noel Hornbeck, original French survey

We’ve all heard excuses for people’s failures, some legitimate and others not. Sometimes we can find examples of excuses in history, too. Today’s story involves an excuse for a problem with clearing a land title early in the history of Perry County, Missouri.

One of the most attractive parts of Perry County for early settlers was the Bois Brule Bottoms in the northeast corner. It was fertile bottom land, and even though subject to flooding, was attractive as farmland. Michael Burns settled one tract about two miles northwest of present-day Belgique in 1797 and farmed it for two years. Robert McLaughlin grew crops on the land in 1799, before Cornelius Hornbeck formally settled it and obtained a grant. Hornbeck also went by the names of Neal or Noel. Hornbeck and others came to Missouri from Kentucky in November 1799 to Dodge’s Salt Works. He returned to Kentucky in 1800 after growing a crop, and the Board of Commissioners confirmed the land grant as Survey Number 377 in 1806.

Hornbeck sold the land to William Gaty (or Girty) in 1810 while both were in New Orleans. Gaty had already occupied the tract and farmed it beginning in 1801. Witnesses later disagreed whether the price was $100 in salt or 100 bushels of salt. John Kinnison, one of the men who came to Missouri with Hornbeck, also witnessed the deed in New Orleans at the Governor’s House. Gaty carefully placed the deed in his provender bag and left New Orleans for Perry County. Gaty continued to farm the tract until he moved to Scott County in 1820.

William Gaty died in 1825, and as part of his estate settlement, the Scott County Court ordered sale of the Perry County tract in 1830. William’s widow Charity sold the land to Timothy Phelps, who lived in Washington County, Missouri. Unfortunately, when Phelps tried to sell the land in 1834, questions arose about the chain of title, or chain of ownership. There was no evidence of the deed from Hornbeck to Gaty. Gaty failed to record it, no copy could be located, and the widow of Gaty did not have it. Phelps field a petition with Circuit Court in July 1839 to subpoena witnesses, anticipating a lawsuit.

Phelps found there were several witnesses to the New Orleans transaction and located John Kinnison. Kinnison’s deposition brought the excuse to light. When Gaty left New Orleans to return to Perry County, and placed the deed in his provender bag, he knew he had it. However, Kinnison testified Gaty later told him he had lost the deed during the trip, and supposed his horse ate it. Gaty’s plan had been to locate Kinnison, along with John Greenewalt, James Burns, and William Burns, who witnessed the deed, and take their depositions to establish title. However, a poor advisor suggested he let the land go for taxes and buy it back. This never happened, and Gaty died without clearing ownership.

Nevertheless, the action of Timothy Phelps resulted in a clear title, and the land is farmed to this day. As so often happened in the early 19th Century, Phelps lost the land to pay a fine levied after a lawsuit in Washington County, and it passed to others. We have the ancestor of “the dog ate my homework,” and a nice example of a historical excuse.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.