People could say that William Jefferson Williams was a scalawag, litigious, and complex man. Yet he was hardworking and a family man. William Jefferson Williams left a large footprint on this earth and there are many, many records to prove this.
Jeff Williams, as he was sometimes called and the name used in this bio, was born 12 December 1818 in the area where Franklin County, Tennessee is today. He was born to Philip Williams and Catherine (Miller) Williams. Philip had volunteered for the first Seminole War and arrived home in time for the birth of his third son, Jeff. They lived in a time when settlers continued to move into Indian lands creating a constant threat to the settlers. The Seminole Wars were the result of the West Florida boundary dispute the United States had with Spain. The U.S. also accused Spain of harboring run-away-slaves and not restraining the Indians in West Florida from raiding the U.S. In the 1830s men still talked about the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The Second Seminole War (1835-42) resulted from efforts to move the Seminoles to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).¹
In 1837, U.S. leaders put out a call for volunteers to help with the cause. Jeff and his brothers were at an age when the idea of military action was exciting. In October of 1837, Jeff Williams, along with his brothers Hardy and Jacob Marion, enlisted to fight in Captain Snodgrass’s Company I, North Alabama Mounted Volunteers, from Jackson County, Alabama and commanded by Company Commander A. J. Jacobway. There was such a tremendous response to the call for action that more volunteers than needed signed up. Recruits guarded areas already under control because so many signed up for duty, including the volunteers from Captain Snodgrass’s mounted Alabama volunteers. Enlisted regular troops did the actual fighting as recruits were generally undisciplined. Most likely disappointed at their inaction, the brothers sought a discharge from the Mounted Volunteers at Fort Mitchell, Georgia after serving seven months of volunteer duty.²
The Williams family land lay in the rolling foothills of the Sequatchie Mountains. To the east, in the distance, the grey silhouette of the mountains could be seen. It was in these rolling hills that Jeff asked Elizabeth Stubblefield to marry him.
They married on 1 June 1838.³ He was nineteen and she was fifteen. Shortly thereafter Elizabeth became pregnant with their first child Catherine.
Another life-altering event occurred that changed their lives forever. Jeff and Elizabeth decided to travel west to Missouri with friends and family members. Saying goodbye to loved ones, maybe never to see them again, was extremely hard as would the difficult trip traveling by wagon train five hundred and twenty-five miles to their destination. For Elizabeth, it would have been even harder as she was pregnant. Catherine was born on 23 June 1839 in Gasconade County, Missouri. The birth of her brother Henry followed a year later on 5 June 1840. The year 1842 brought good and bad news; the good news is their third son John was born. But sadly they received communication that Jeff’s father Philip had died.
Through the years Jeff Williams was in and out of court. Several times he was the plaintiff, meaning he was suing someone for a grievance. And many times he was on the receiving end of the complaint as the defendant. James Page sued him in 1843 for causes unknown. This case lasted for more than two years and ended when both sides agreed to dismiss the case and pay for their own court costs.
Who knows what was going on in Jeff’s mind when he assaulted John Owens in May of 1846? The grand jury of Osage County was impaneled on 5 May 1846 and found that there was sufficient cause to charge Jeff with felonious assault. In those days court proceedings took place every quarter which caused legal proceedings to last over a period of time. Jeff’s case went to trial on 13 Apr 1847 and over the course of several years, the truth about the assault was revealed. Jeff had assaulted John Owens with a stick three feet long, two inches in diameter, and weighing four pounds. He hit Owens on the head, back, arms, and shoulders leaving cuts and bruises. This trial ended in 1842 when Jeff was found guilty of the assault and ordered to pay a fine of one hundred dollars and spend three months in jail.
Two more children, Nathaniel and Cynthia were born to the couple in 1848 and 1849 respectively. The 1850 agricultural census showed that Jeff owned 20 acres of land. Many families the size of the Williams family had more land to sustain their needs. He owned two horses, one mule, seven cows, five sheep, and thirty hogs. And he raised Indian corn and Irish potatoes. The sheep provided six pounds of wool and the cows provided one hundred pounds of butter. The sale of products and livestock was probably enough to feed the family well and evidently there was enough of an excess over the years to allow Jeff to buy forty more acres of land in 1851.
Before his assault trial ended, Jeff Williams was also called into court by Hugh Wilson in 1851. Wilson testified that on or about 3 May 1850, Jeff Williams sold him his claim on the government of the United States that he received for his service as a volunteer in Captain Augustus Rainey’s company which was mustered in the services of the United States in 1846. The court record indicated that Jeff Williams had volunteered for Captain Rainey’s Company, Third Missouri Volunteers, enrolled in Van Buren, Missouri, and mustered in at Fort Leavenworth. Over the course of two years, testimony was taken and the case was dismissed on 25 April 1853. However, Jeff Williams was ordered to pay the court costs.
And while all of this was going on in his life, perhaps to let off steam, Jeff Williams ran his horse through the town of Linn, Missouri on 26 October 1852. The State of Missouri charged him for “wrongfully and unlawfully running his horse upon a public road and highway so as to interrupt traveling therein, and to put to fright the horses and other animals, by them rode or driven.” Jeff threw himself upon the mercy of the court and pleaded guilty. His court fine was $5.00 and he was remanded to the custody of the sheriff until the fine was paid.
Despite all the drama in his life, Jeff continued to farm. The year 1854 produced a flurry of buying and selling of land ending with Jeff owning about one hundred and sixty-two acres. That year Benjamin Franklin was born to the couple.
On 9 November 1855, Jeff Williams attended a get-together at the home belonging to James Owens for the purpose of moving rails. The rails were on land next to the Owens home. This land had been cleared by the Owens family but claimed by Runge [first name unknown] and Charles Kuhagen. Jeff’s simple act of charity would ensnare him in a burglary and assault trial that would last two years and provide hundreds of pages of testimony from people who were involved.
The day began when a group of men and women arrived in order to help move rails. The idea was abandoned and the group began drinking. Fred Crider produced a fiddle and dancing commenced. While everyone was dancing a fight took place that involved several men who were accused of assaulting Helmuth Gens, Charles Kuhagen, and Runge. Apparently, the Owens family had cleared a parcel of land and before they went to the courthouse to file a claim on the land Kuhagen and Runge made the claim on the land. This created a great deal of resentment toward these men, and Helmuth Gens, Kuhagen’s brother-in-law.
During the trial, Helmuth Gens testified that on the 9th of November Jesse Owens, Lansford Shockley, Jonathan Stubblefield, Nathaniel Stubblefield, Frederick Crider, Jeff Williams, James Owens, John Griffith, and others had broken into and entered his home. The group of men was armed with sticks, clubs, knives, guns, axes, and an iron wedge. Runge and Kuhagen were accosted and received cuts and bruises. One of the men had drawn up a note payable to James Owens for one hundred dollars and forced Gens to sign it. It was this action that caused Helmuth Gens to go to the authorities which resulted in all of the charges being issues. Finally, at the end of 1857, the case ended with Jeff Williams and others being acquitted of the charges against them. Nathaniel Stubblefield and Jesse Owens were found guilty of assault.
In the middle of the trial, in November 1856, Robert was born. Two years later in 1858, Martha their last child was born. Over nineteen years, Elizabeth would bear eleven children and lose two of them, Charles and Robert.
Two years later, Jeff was ensnared in another court case with William Haley. On 10 December 1859, the constable of Osage County was ordered to serve a writ to William Haley in a judgment obtained by William Campbell. The writ was executed on 6 January 1860 by then deputy constable, Jeff Williams. When the writ was presented to him, Haley stated he would pay Campbell but would not pay Jeff Williams a commission for his part in serving the writ. In those days much of the legal administrative costs were paid by fees assessed for carrying out legal activities. When Haley refused to pay Jeff, Jeff seized a dark brown horse belonging to Haley and sold the horse. That was when Haley took him to court. A jury found Jeff not guilty and assessed Haley $59.90 in court costs over and above what he owed Campbell and Jeff. In 1873 Jeff took William Haley to court. It appears that Haley had not paid what he owed Jeff. The prosecuting attorney refused to take up the case and referred Jeff to the State of Missouri legal system if he wanted to recoup his money. No further documents were found in the case.
The Civil War was well underway when the following decree was issued by Lt. Col. Williams of A Company, 28th Regiment Enrolled Missouri Militia on 9 August 1862:
“All the Enrolled Militia (E.M.M.) within this Sub-District (composed of the counties of Cole, Osage, Miller north of the Osage River and Maries west of the Gasconade River) are hereby summoned and called into active service and will assemble without delay in Jefferson City. The militia duly enrolled and not yet organized into companies will immediately upon their arrival at this post be organized into companies of not less than sixty-seven nor more than one hundred men. Parts of companies will be consolidated. The militia when organized into companies will be subsisted, their horses foraged, and transportation taken when needed from Rebels of all shades and Union men when necessary giving the latter receipts for what is taken which will be claimed against the State of Missouri. All who do not now enroll and organize for the defense of the State will be regarded and treated as traitors and hereafter can claim no protection from the Federal Government.”⁴
Jeff enlisted as the captain of Company C. On 29 August the company was called into service. The primary responsibility of the E.M.M. during the Civil War was to guard railroad bridges and other strategic resources to aid the war effort. Jeff’s company was called to action several times including 30 September 1862 when he was ordered to “concentrate all your available force at St. Aubert Station P. R. R. immediately. Let each man take three days rations.”⁵
Next year, in 1863, Jeff was captain of Company A of the 9th Provisional Regiment. His son Henry was the bugler of the Company. They were enrolled and called into service on 17 March and discharged on 31 December. Both were allowed to return to their homes, continue farming, and take part in the lives of their spouse and children for the remainder of the war. In 1864, Jeff’s oldest daughter Catherine and her husband Fred Crider sold their land to Jeff and moved to Texas.
The Civil War did not diminish Jeff’s financial stability. In 1870 the agriculture census showed him owning 150 acres of improved land and 183 acres of unimproved land. He owned seven horses, twelve mules, seven cows, two oxen, thirty sheep, and four hogs. He was growing winter wheat, Indian corn, oats, peas, beans, and Irish potatoes. From the sheep, twenty-four pounds of wool were produced and the cows produced eighty pounds of butter. Fifty gallons of molasses were also produced. No doubt it took every member of the family who could help, along with hired help, to keep this farm going. Unfortunately, their son Charles was sickly and died at the age of twenty the next year on 30 June 1871. He is buried next to Jeff in Francis Cemetery.
In 1880 all of Jeff’s children had left home with the exception of his son William and William’s wife Sephronia. The 1880 agricultural census showed William as owning the land. The number of acres of land they owned had decreased by eighty-three. They still owned horses, mules, cows, and hogs added chickens and got rid of their oxen and sheep. They grew Indian corn, oats, wheat, Sorghum, and Irish potatoes. And some lands were set aside for an apple orchard. The family made extra money through the sale of cattle and wood they cut from their timber. Life appeared to be good.
Jeff Williams committed suicide on 11 December 1885. What had changed between 1880, when it appeared that he was doing well financially, and 1885 when he took his life? Most likely the recession that occurred in the U.S. between 1882 and 1885 caused his financial well-being to decline. And the final settlement for his estate bears that out. At the time of the final settlement, after the sale of items in his estate and outstanding bills were accounted the estate was in the arrears of $73.66 leaving Elizabeth with no money.
Family lore says he took his life because he was upset that he couldn’t buy his grandsons the hats that they wanted. The truth is he was in desperate financial trouble.
Jeff Williams is buried in Francis Cemetery in Osage County. His sons Henry, Charles, and Robert are buried near-by. It is unknown where Elizabeth is buried.
Jeff Williams led an interesting life having volunteered for military service in the Seminole War, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. He traveled from Tennessee to Missouri and saw things many of his generation never saw. He used the court system to his advantage and sometimes that worked against him. He was a rabble-rouser yet appeared to be a man of principle and hard-work. It’s a shame he ended his life in a tragic way, at his own hands. No doubt he is one of our family’s most fascinating characters.
²Dan’s World, Williams (http://drw.50webs.com/will.html : accessed 1 Sep 2014), Philip Williams Family History
³2013; Ancestry.com, Tennessee, State Marriages, 1780-2002 (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 27 Oct 2013); William J. Williams to Elizabeth A. Stubblefield
⁴Records of Events 28th Enrolled Militia of Osage County, Missouri, http://www.osagecounty.org/civilwar/emm/28emm.html
2 thoughts on “William Jefferson Williams…Not Your Average Man”
My 4th great grandfather via son Henry. Thanks for the awesome biographical sketch!
Hi Chris. Thanks for your kind words. Henry was my great-great grandfather through Virginia Williams.