From the moment I was born in a old river town where the Pony Express was born and Jesse James met his end, history came alive. I spent my first decade in a house built in the early 1880's in an aging neighborhood. My Granny and Pop's house where I spent a great deal of my earliest years was considered new, having been built in 1917.
Over many decades, a variety of individuals found their way to St. Joe for numerous reasons and together, they became my large and extended family. And they lived history, good, bad, and ugly.
Some, like the Lewis family, were headed for Oregon after a trail they'd blazed from the Old World to Virginia to Kentucky and onward to Illinois. The birth of another child, one who would become my great-great grandfather, contributed to a change of plan and they settled, putting down roots in the town on the edge of both the Missouri River and the frontier.
Two of my great-grandfathers, Reinhard Sontheimer and Ben Hayward, were immigrants. Reinhard left Germany in a time of unrest with his youngest brother in tow. After time spent in New York City, where, as a stonemason, he worked on the Brooklyn Bridge and some time in New Jersey, he came to Missouri. He married Emma Zumwalt, whose family were true Missouri pioneers, and after spending a few years in Louisiana, MO, the family headed west to St. Joseph.
Ben grew up on an estate in England where his father served as the head gardener. Although he'd been apprenticed to a machine shop, he was impressed into Her Majesty Victoria's Royal Navy. After some years at sea, traveling around the world, he decided to depart the ship in Canada and headed by land to St. Joseph, MO to join his brothers, who were working for the railroad.
Young Tom Lewis, my great-grandfather, married a young lady who had come into town to work. Her father, Milton Mann Snapp, had moved from Kentucky to the fertile farmland near Fillmore MO.
South of St. Joseph near Halleck (where all that remains is a cemetery), my Granny's grandfather, Asher King, had a farm. He and his father fled Ireland during the famine, the only two of their family and ended up in Tennessee. He moved to Missouri, decided to fight for the Confederacy so returned to Tennessee, leaving his Kentucky born wife, Amanda, to hold the farm - which she did, despite a visit from Quantrill's Raiders.
One of the later arrivals was my grandfather, Pat Neely, who came from Virginia. He married Edna Lewis, whose father had taken his family to Jefferson City and back.
Stories abounded and I was the kid who listened to the old folks talk. I savored the stories about pioneers and immigrants, about soldiers in wars that included the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
The stories all checked out as I grew older and began tracing family history. I discovered documentation to prove what the elders, especially Granny, said were true. When I read Alex Haley's Roots, I enjoyed it because here was another family's saga, detailed and remembered.
History is important. Without it, the individual, the family, the society are walking without a map to show them where they have been. We learn from the past and from our mistakes so to me, selective history is wrong. As Robert Heinlein wrote, A generation which ignores history has no past - and no future. To know where we are going, it's vital to know where we have been.
Is it any wonder that I worry about our country and the generations to come?
-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is community editor for both The Neosho Daily News and The Aurora Advertiser. She is also a freelance writer and novelist who traces family history with endless passion.