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Friday, March 31, 2017

From the Border Wars to a Landmark Lost: The Legacy of Marcus Gill

"It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future."
- William Murtagh

Preservation, whether through buildings or through stories, can link us to some of the most exciting times in American history.

In Jackson Co., antebellum evidence of the men, women and children - and slaves- that lived in turmoil along the border during early settlement are erased from our view. It takes a lot of digging and even more creative thinking to piece together the extraordinary change from farms and fields to the mapped-out metropolitan areas we have today.

It's time to rediscover another fascinating family that knew this area all-too-well.
Col. Marcus Gill

Colonel Marcus Gill has some seriously deep roots in the soil surrounding New Santa Fe in Jackson Co., Mo.

What makes Marcus Gill stand out from all the others?

Well, it could be because part of his vast land is a park today. Or maybe it's the fact that his son was one of Kansas City's mayors.

Or that he was extremely outspoken about many political issues.

... and he was friends with the notorious William Clarke Quantrill. Like, good friends.

However you look at it, Marcus Gill has a history that is worth telling.

Marcus Gill was born in Bath County, Ky. in 1814. He came from a family of abundant means, living in an area called Gill's Mill, Ky. He was the third oldest son out of 13 children. His father, Samuel Creswell Gill (1783-1854) was the son of a Revolutionary War vet and had a vast amount of land in Bath Co., Ky.

Samuel Gill is an example of a rags to riches story. When he married his wife, he had nothing to his name. His only earthly possessions were one bay pony, a dollar in money and a featherbed. 

A map indicating the approximate location
of Gill's Mill near Owingsville
In true pioneer perseverance, this didn't stop Samuel. He and his wife, Sarah hopped on the back of their pony and moved to Bath Co., Ky. near Owingsville. Within a short amount of time, he had bought an expansive amount of land and built a mill that served in the area.

This is where their fourth child, Marcus was born. This large homestead included at least three slaves at one time.

Marcus was a natural leader even as a young man in Kentucky.  Early on, he developed a great interest in military affairs. When a militia was organized in his area, Marcus learned to use a musket and joined.  

He quickly raced to the top; he was the leader of this "fine old regiment" and marched as a colonel - a title he used his entire life.

In 1837, Marcus married 19 year-old Sarah Ann Bruton. By 1840, he had surpassed his father in the slave category and had four slaves.

Things moved quite quickly for Marcus; in 1841, his father opted to sell his expansive farm of 1,045 acres to his son for the bargain price of $10,000. 
Tri-Weekly Maysville Eagle newspaper clipping
April 2, 1846


That equates to over $250,000 in today's money- quite the spread for a young man. 

Marcus must have been an industrious young fellow; in 1842 at the age of 28, he was appointed postmaster of Gill's Mill.

Tragedy hit Marcus and his little family in 1846 when his wife, Sarah died in childbirth. They had four children: Enoch (1839), Turner (1841), Leah (1843), and Sarah Ann (1846-1848).

Ten months later, Marcus married his wife's younger first cousin, Mary Jane Bruton Foster, a widow with two children. 

In fact, in stereotypical Southern fashion, Mary was actually double cousins with his first wife - sharing relations on both their mother and father's side.

Stories like these always take me aback- a man marrying his wife's cousin? But this was pretty standard during this time period. A man wasn't exactly expected - or equipped- to rear children.

With over 1,000 acres to care for, Marcus needed help. He continued to add to his chattel. By 1850, he owned 19 slaves ranging from 50 years old to seven months old.

Seven months old.
A rare slave record from October 1859 showing Marcus Gill purchasing "a negro woman Renetta" and her "child girl
9 months old." Courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections

You'd think that Marcus had it made- he had no reason to leave an area where he had such a deep connection and expansive land. But, alas, Marcus was a man of industrious tendencies.

Maybe Marcus felt as if it was time to venture out to a new land where he could get more bang for his buck.

He sold his farm and mill in Gill's Mill, Ky., which had doubled in value in the decade he owned it. Over $500,000 in today's money was tucked into his pocket as he pushed onto the next adventure.
Etching of a Kentucky flatboat on the Mississippi River

In March 1854, Marcus packed up and moved to Missouri. He constructed a large flat boat with covered decks. Piled high were his belongings, a year's worth of supplies, wagons, farming implements and between 20 to 25 slaves.  

Slave labor propelled the power to the boat while Marcus took the wheel.

At St. Louis, he employed a steamer to tow him up the mighty Missouri River and into the one year-old village of Kansas City. 

According to descendants of Marcus Gill, no soon after he docked, a suave gentleman approached Marcus and presented the opportunity to buy 115 acres of land in Kansas City- land that would be now part of the heart of the city.
Mary Jane Bruton-Gill, 
Marcus' second wife

It was up for the bargain price of $1500.

Marcus took this proposition as being utterly preposterous and even added to family that he came close to "spitting in the fellow's face."

This, of course, was a mistake that Marcus scrutinized over for years to come; the land would have been worth millions in just a few decades.

For $5,895 ($25 an acre), Marcus Gill bought from Dabney Lipscomb, founder of New Santa Fe, a large stretch of land in Washington Township. His farm butted up to the town to the south, following the curves of the Santa Fe Trail, stretched to 114th Street to the north, bordered Kansas Territory to the west, and went just past Wornall Rd. to the east.

He built a log home from the walnut trees on the land. The house was just south of Minor Dr. near present-day Summit St.

Two slave cabins steps away from what would be a free state to the west were built to shelter his 20+ slaves.
Another slave record showing Marcus Gill purchasing a "negro boy named Amaus" for $550.00 in Oct. 1859

I'd say that's tight quarters.
The Gill family by 1860 had expanded to include a total of eight children living. Susan (1848), Sally Ann (1852), William (1856), Mary (1859) and Louella (1860) joined the older three children from Marcus' first marriage. Two children, Henrietta (1848-1852) and Marcus, Jr. (1854-1857) passed away and were buried on the Gill farms in both Kentucky and Missouri.

Life along the Missouri-Kansas border was far from low-key. Years of the Border Wars in the 1850s had boisterous men such as Gill up in arms. He, along with many of his neighbors, were hellbent on hunkering down and staying on their land no matter the price.

June 19, 1855 newspaper article
From the Squatter Sovereign (Atchison, Ks.)
Keep in mind that Marcus was one of the largest slaveowners in Washington Township.

This should have made him a target.

He and many of his slaveholding neighbors participated in many pro-slavery conventions and fought tooth and nail to keep this institution alive and well. Col. Gill once again showcased his leadership skills and showed that he was not about to go down without a fight.

He considered slavery to be his right. Bleeding Kansas was steps away; Jayhawkers unjustly pushed onto neighboring lands with weapons in hand. Somehow, he managed to stay somewhat safe from their mayhem.

According to his granddaughter, "There were few of the lawless ruffians who dared to interfere with his affairs."

Ah, but Marcus was miraculously good at picking friends that could help him out in a pinch.

Who better to keep in your company than a man that would soon become a household name- a man feared by the free-soilers that settled into Kansas Territory?!

William Clark Quantrill was one of Marcus' allies at the heat of the impending war.

In fact, Quantrill- a teacher at the time- spent the winter of 1860 at Gill's New Santa Fe home. According to historians, Quantrill "became a great favorite" of the Gill family.

To be a border ruffian meant you were on the move. Quantrill couldn't quite stay squatting anywhere for long. But in his early ruffian days, when he was praised as being a "great shot," Quantrill's services were needed by none other than Col. Gill.

The relationship between Gill and Quantrill continued through 1861. Gill hired Quantrill to escort him to safer territory.

Liberty Tribune article from April 24, 1861
Col. Marcus Gill saw the writing on the wall. It was far from safe in New Santa Fe with the impending war. His most valuable movable chattel were in danger. He needed to get his slaves to safer country.

So to Texas Marcus went, leaving his beloved farm behind.

Col. Gill didn't go alone; 50 men, women and children (including neighbors) went along for the long trip to Texas.

A newspaper article published in the Cass County Democrat and republished in Liberty, Mo. magnifies the event of Gill leaving for calmer countryside.

The account was made to be an event of celebration- showing us today that the democratic pro-slavery views were especially common in eastern Missouri.

A little "negro boy" riding a donkey (alluded in the article to be related to Abraham Lincoln) carried a secession flag.

The biggest and loudest of the bunch was from an elderly slave, most likely belonging to Gill, who waved his hat toward the Confederate flag and shouted, "Hurrah for the Cotton States!"

Wow. Just wow.

This whole account makes my skin crawl and raises so many unanswered questions.

How on EARTH did these slaves proclaim they were FOR slavery?

It's hard to decipher what could have possibly be going through these unjustly held prisoners of slavery. So many- correction... MOST of the accounts of true viewpoints of slaves has been lost.

Most likely they wanted to forget what it was like to be chattel.

Regardless, Marcus made his way with wagons-full of family, slaves and belongings to Texas with Quantrill in tow.

Marcus' two oldest sons, Enoch and Turner, enlisted in the Confederacy. Enoch B. Gill, later a well-known attorney, enlisted in Waul's Texas Legion in 1862 and later in the Missouri Infantry. Enoch suffered the tyranny of war when he left a leg on the battlefield.

Turner Anderson Gill enlisted in the 6th Missouri Infantry and was wounded at the Battle of Corinth. He was held as a prisoner of war and later released. That didn't stop him; he then enlisted with Shelby and saw combat at the Battle of Westport.

Turner was mayor of Kansas City in 1875-1876.

The aftermath of the war was vividly clear to Col. Marcus Gill and his newly emancipated slaves.

He had the harshness of reality to face.

Before the war, he swept down to Texas with the best money could buy. He was worth a fortune pre-war, but as he returned to Jackson Co., Mo. in 1865, he was a completely different man...
A Confederate note for $1,000

... With a different caravan.

He had traveled to Texas as a true Southern gentleman but returned with little more than a pair of Mexican ponies harnessed with raw hide.

That was it.

One of the iron yoke used on this humble return journey is still in the possession of his descendants.

The Confederate bonds that Marcus had invested heavily in were now worthless.

I can only imagine the return journey was much quieter than his departure.

Regardless of the harsh realities and financial ruin Marcus faced, he showed his true pioneer mentality- the same mentality that guided him as a young man- and pushed to restore whatever he had left on the border in Jackson Co.
Atchison Daily Champion article from
April 28, 1876 showcasing the
"showdown" between Enoch Gill &
Jesse Noland

When he returned, he found that his house was standing but all of his movable possessions had been stolen. His fencing surrounding his large acreage had been torn down.

He had work to do, and work he did.

In August 1871, an accident where his ankle was crushed by a Texas longhorn had him never the same.

By 1884, enough was enough. The ankle injury to 70 year-old Gill had him in constant pain. He and his wife decided that the mineral springs in Plattsburg, Clinton Co., Mo. would benefit Marcus and his pain.

Instead of selling the beloved farm he had fought for, Marcus opted to gift his land to his children. The main house that he had built was gifted along with 90 acres to his daughter, Susan Bruton Gill McGee (1848-1901). She was the second oldest of Gill's daughters.

Everyone was given land except for his oldest daughter, Leah.

Geesh. What did she do to leave her out of a pretty large inheritance?!

Well... that's a wee bit complicated...

A newspaper article in 1876 sheds some light on the situation. Leah's husband, Jesse Noland, had received some property from Marcus Gill before his jaunt to Texas. Marcus had been indicted for forgery but believed that the charge was due to the actions of his son-in-law, Jesse.

Col. Gill believed the forgery was his son-in-law's doing, but allegedly Jesse was going to let him take the fall for it.

On the public square in Independence, a true "showdown" occurred between Marcus' son, Enoch B. Gill and Jesse Noland.

Pistols were drawn but Enoch had the upper hand. Before he could fire, the marshal intervened and both were arrested- but not before Jesse struck Enoch with "a serious blow" to the face.
1894 four-generation family portrait
(L-R) Mrs. Marcus Gill, Susan Celeste Nelson,

 Susan McGee & Nellie Gill McGee Nelson
Reminder: Enoch lost a leg in the war.

I guess that didn't stop him!

This event and the charges mentioned may be why Marcus decided Leah didn't get the property where the house stood - or any property at all.

Leah later divorced Jesse, but the damage had been done.

The house went to Susan McGee, second oldest daughter and wife to Allen B.H. McGee (1815-1903). Col. McGee was the son of one of the first fourteen original landowners in Kansas City.

During this time, 119th St. in Kansas from Nall Ave. to State Line, which now changes into Minor Dr. in Missouri, was called Gill Road. The road led directly to the Gill homestead that Susan now owned with her husband.

A.B.H. McGee was only two years younger than his wife's father, Marcus.

They married in 1869 at her father's home. In fact, each of the Gill daughters were married in front of the original fireplace that adorned the front parlor at the homestead.

Plattsburg's pleasant, healing waters weren't enough to save Col. Marcus Gill from the end. On Dec. 9th, 1886, he passed away from a bacterial infection and blood poisoning from his fatal yet old wound from 1871.
A.B.H. McGee I, Susan Gill McGee's husband

Marcus' widow passed away eight years later.

Susan and her husband lived a happy marriage and maintained the well-manicured Gill farm until her death. Her only son, A.B.H. McGee II inherited the property.

The house was greatly enlarged and further improved in the early to mid 1900s, making it one of the largest and well-respected old homesteads in Washington Township. The house became known as the Gill-McGee house, or oftentimes just the McGee house.

The 20-room home was continuously occupied by the family until 1959. At this point, development had driven sales in the south Kansas City area. J.C. Nichols and other large real estate companies were buying up land and platting subdivisions.

J.C. Nichols had purchased the Gill-McGee property. Not an organization ready to turn down the chance to make a dime, they rented the old home and the land.
A rare aerial shot of the Gill-McGee home taken about 1955. The home is visible in the top right-hand side. A carriage
house and multiple barns were part of the expansive property. A lake is seen in the top of the photograph along with a dam.
The lake and land surrounding it (13 acres) comprises Migliazzo Park today.
Courtesy of the McGee Family
By the early 1960s, streets were being paved.

As Santa Fe Trail was partially rerouted and the streets were beginning to resurrect on the once-picturesque landscape of Marcus Gill's land, the chances of the house being saved were plummeting. The 100+ year-old homestead had engineers on the prowl.

The house had become somewhat unkempt by the 1970s; regular maintenance by J.C. Nichols was not a priority. As Verona Hills subdivision blossomed on the nearby land, time was running out to preserve the property.

Planned street map for Verona Hills, circa 1965
State Historical Society of Missouri

Even the newly-formed Historical Society of New Santa Fe was trying to find the funds to see if the house could be moved in order to be saved.

Efforts by concerned residents such as Doug Harding, a UMKC student and historian who resided in the 1970s at the Gill-McGee farmstead, went unanswered. There were even proposals, including the South Development Area Plan that had Martha Truman Dr. passing through Verona Hills to State Line Rd.

So why couldn't the Gill-McGee historic farmstead be an attraction near this road?

In Harding's "Study of Verona Hills," where he proposed the farmstead be restored, he wrote, "If J.C. Nichols [is] a pioneer in urban and suburban development, why not continue that noble tradition?"

This is not what happened.

Janice Bugler Reeves lived from 1969 until 1977 with Doug Harding and others at the Gill-McGee house. She has fond memories of this diamond in the rough hidden amongst the trees off Minor Dr.
A drawing by Janice Bugler Reeves of the Gill-McGee Farm

This was in the heart of the 1970s; several people at this time called the Gill-McGee house their home and were extremely proud of its provenance.

Janice fondly recalled, "I am so grateful I was able to be a part of the house- that I was able to live in a place with historical meaning and background."

Features of the oldest part of the home- a part these young tenants knew had history- included walnut hardwood floors with square wooden nails holding the sturdy structure into place.

The fireplace where all of Marcus Gill's daughters were married was in the smallest of the rooms that Janice remembers.

Reminder: these young kids knew the history of the home. And they embraced it.
Janice and friends gathered at a 4th of July barbeque at the
Gill-McGee House in 1976

An addition, most likely added by A.B.H. McGee II in the early 1900s included imported French toilets, a bidet, two ballrooms- one upstairs and one down in the basement, three fireplaces and a Turkish bath.

Yes. A Turkish bath.
This place was stylin' in its day!

If these young 20-something borderline hippies knew that the Gill-McGee house was historical, how did the owner, J.C. Nichols not?

Well, that was J.C. Nichols' claim.

According to Janice, J.C. Nichols was willing to sell the house....

For $20,000.

That was a steep price for a house that desperately needed restoration.

J.C. Nichols had made their suburban plans for mass settlement, and it did not include the historic Gill home.
This dramatic photo featured in the Kansas City Star shows how construction halted when demolition began.
The oldest section of the house is visible on the right-hand side.

In 1978, just shy of 125 years after Col. Marcus Gill constructed a log cabin, Janice and her friends' lease wasn't renewed and bulldozers began the demolition of the historic home.

I'm getting really tired of writing "bulldozed" in my blog posts.

. . . I digress.
One of the historic barns burned in a fire prior to the
destruction of the home. Minor Dr. can be seen in
the background.

As destruction of the Gill-McGee farmhouse continued, it became clear that the "old" farmhouse was older than they had originally thought. As the demo crew dismantled the home, walnut logs were exposed.

Demolition stopped immediately and a phone call to J.C. Nichols was made.

Moe Courville, a J.C. Nichols employee and an owner of one of the first homes built in Verona Hills, received the phone call at the Plaza office.

He immediately went to the site to see what was up.

Almost 40 years later, Moe vividly remembers the scene. "Exposed was a three-room log cabin with hand hewn walnut timbers."

Moe remembers vividly that construction stopped for months in order to decipher what to do with this property.
The oldest part of the home with the log cabin hidden underneath

A decision was made. J.C. Nichols donated the home to Jackson County Parks and Recreation. According to an article published in the Kansas City Star, the oldest section, built by Marcus Gill and visited by Quantrill in the winter of 1860, was to be moved to Lake Jacomo.

By Lake Jacomo, they mean the future sight of Missouri Town.

But this historic structure didn't get its happy ending- or so it appears.

The Gill-McGee farmstead - the oldest part of it- was to be repurposed as a mill at Missouri Town according to the Kansas City Star.

Yes, a mill.

Maybe they could have aptly named it "Gill's Mill."

What truly happened after this is a mystery in and of itself. Janice Bugler Reeves visited the site with friends after they had moved to see what was discovered underneath the walls.

With her friends in tow, they took off to visit their beloved residence one last time so they could check out the original log cabin that had been neatly hidden underneath plaster.
Janice Bugler Reeves and friends went back to the house to see the log cabin exposed. This is the original front
entrance of the home and shows the hand-hewn logs. At the top, the partial remains of the rest of the house
are visible, including the chimney from a later addition.

Even now, the emotional connection that Janice feels for this farmhouse is evident. "I was damn lucky to live there, and I got to share it with so many people along the way."

The old timbers were hauled away, and from what Janice heard later, they were destroyed by a fire in a warehouse.


Here's what I do know: there is no mill at Missouri Town.

Jackson County Parks and Recreation believes that the logs were donated to Missouri Town and may have been used to fill in logs where needed within its multiple buildings.

I can only hope this is the case and fire didn't consume the logs.

The Marcus Gill farmstead was lifted away in pieces, but not before some of the lucky few took some memorabilia from the property.

Janice grabbed some old hooks from a closet in her bedroom. Doug Harding snuck away with the mantlepiece from the newer section that had the verse, "A world of strife shut out, A world of love shut in" carefully painted by one of Marcus Gill's relatives.

And even Moe Courville felt a connection and gathered a few square nails to take home with him.

See, that house had something special about it.

Sometime later when grading was completed and roads were constructed, the stone wall that neatly surrounded the farmstead was erased from the landscape.
That stone wall, as several documents explain, was built by Marcus Gill's slaves.
Marcus Gill Farm monument at
Migliazzo Park (119th & Pennsylvania)

And so more history was hauled away in the dumpsters.

The only land that remains largely untouched from Marcus Gill's frontier farm next to the Santa Fe Trail is at Migliazzo Park.

Yes, Migliazzo Park, named after a commissioner of KC Parks and Recreation.

But all of these decisions, however controversial, didn't stop some of Gill's descendants from making sure Marcus' name didn't go completely erased.

Byron Shutz gifted a monument to the K.C. Parks Board in honor of his great-great grandfather, Col. Marcus Gill. Thus, visitors to Migliazzo Park can learn a little about this incredibly zealous pioneer.

Local residents around the Verona Hills area may not know much about the land, but some have actually heard of Marcus Gill.

And here I am today, wishing that I could change the past- that I had the ability to erase the destruction of the Gill-McGee house.

That's a little hypocritical of me, honestly.

We can't erase the past, even with bulldozers. But we certainly can be mindful of what is going on around us- so that we don't make these same mistakes.

An antebellum Kansas City home which stood at the outbreak of the Border Wars, hosted Quantrill, miraculously survived the Civil War unscathed, housed a future mayor, and became millionaire A.B.H. McGee's pride and joy was cast away into the endless sea of trashed landmarks.

Today, we must work to preserve, learn and treasure the homes that can be saved. And just like the painted mantlepiece that was salvaged from the clearing of the Gill-McGee house, we can look upon the now-altered landscape and imagine a sturdy house that was definitely more than just a home.

It was a treasure.
By: Dora Greenwell

Two birds within one nest;
Two hearts within one breast;
Two spirits in one fair,
Firm league of love and prayer, 
Together bound for aye, together blest.

An ear that waits to catch
A hand upon the latch;
A step that hastens its sweet rest to win;
A world of care without,
A world of strife shut out,
A world of love shut in.

The fireplace at the Gill-McGee homestead showcasing
the verse on the mantlepiece
The Gill McGee Farm 1854-1978
The back side of the Gill-McGee house shows how the home was in need of maintenance. Janice recalled that
they had to paint the front of the house themselves.
Hand-drawn map by Janice Bugler Reeves showing the locations of buildings during her stay
at the Gill-McGee Farm from 1969-1978
*A special thanks to Janice Bugler Reeves and Moe Courville for being open to discussing their memories. Photos of the Gill-McGee house were all provided by Janice Bugler Reeves.