· · · MISSOURI, ARKANSAS · · ·
The bill coming before the House for admitting us [Missouri] into the union … lops off that part of the boundary … between the White River and 36°30 north latitude and west of the river St. Francis.… The enemies to our prosperity … [believe] the new state should have a pretty, geometrical appearance on the map.
—JACKSON [MISSOURI] HERALD, SEPTEMBER 4, 1819
No private citizen has left a more obvious irregularity in the shape of a state than John Hardeman Walker, the man responsible for the “boot heel” of Missouri. Not only did he succeed in altering the southern boundary of Missouri that Congress was contemplating, but he did so in his early twenties.
Already known as “the czar of the St. Francis River Valley,” Walker owned extensive amounts of land emanating west of present-day Caruthersville, Missouri. When Missouri was preparing for statehood, Walker realized that the southern boundary being proposed would put his land below Missouri, in what would later become the state of Arkansas. As the map makes clear, he did not want that.
Why did Walker care? Slavery would not have been his motive since Missouri, which already had slavery, was seeking admission as a slave state. Some historians have speculated that he may have been impatient to be part of a state, with its attendant voting rights.1 Indeed, the far less-populated region of Arkansas would not become a state for another fifteen years. He himself never said. But actions he took throughout his life reveal that John Hardeman Walker understood raw power.
John Hardeman Walker (1794-1860) (photo credit 17.1)
The boot heel of Missouri
Walker did not come from a powerful or wealthy family. His pioneering family had left Kentucky in 1809 and moved to a small village, Little Prairie, on the western bank of the Mississippi. Today Little Prairie no longer exists. “The bank of the river where the village stood,” he later reminisced, “has washed away near three quarters of a mile back … so that the happy scenes of my boyish days are extinct.”2
The Walkers were the only English-speaking family in Little Prairie. Their neighbors were French settlers from the days, only recently ended by the Louisiana Purchase, when France owned the land. Walker became close friends with a townsman named Jean-Baptiste Zegon. Together they would go on hunting expeditions, during the last of which Walker’s land acquisitions were made possible.
On December 16, 1811, Walker and Zegon were hunting across the Mississippi River in the wilderness of western Tennessee. In the middle of the night, as Walker later recalled,
We were awakened by a noise like distant thunder, and a trembling of the earth, which brought us both to our feet. The dash of the water against the bank of the lake, and rattling of the limbs in the tree-tops—now and then the falling of a dry branch in the water, or near us on the ground—all these things first led me to believe there was a storm approaching. But no. There was not a breath of air stirring.… It soon became still. My friend said, “May be, he is de shake of de earth.”
It was indeed an earthquake, the first of several that, in 1811 and 1812, devastated parts of what are today Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
Making their way through forests where no traces could be found of the paths along which they’d come, Walker and Zegon eventually arrived at the point on the river across from their village. There, Walker tells us, his friend’s face “turned pale as death. The cause was soon visible. No smoke arose from the chimneys of our habitations, and not a single human being could be seen.” After fashioning a raft and crossing, they discovered that all the homesteads lay in shambles and that everyone had fled. They encountered only a neighbor, returning to assess the damage, followed by Walker’s father, desperate to find his son.
The French inhabitants of Little Prairie, determining that the structures were beyond repair, and knowing they were destined to become a minority now that their land had become part of the United States, opted to migrate to Canada. The Walkers returned to Kentucky, but John came back some months later, despite the fact that earthquakes and aftershocks were continuing. The unsteady ground presented a desolate landscape, absent of all but a few human beings, though evidence of their former presence remained scattered about—not the least of which was their cattle, now roaming free. In one of the greatest examples in American history of “Finders, keepers / Losers, weepers,” Walker took possession of the land and the cattle, enclosing the herds in far-reaching barriers he fashioned using the rivers and streams. He was, in his own words, “the natural heir to Little Prairie.”3
Land that Walker wanted but didn’t “inherit” he purchased at rock-bottom prices from owners who had opted, like those of Little Prairie, to leave the area, or whose livelihoods had evaporated in their absence. Walker’s holdings quickly spread west toward the St. Francis River.
Anyone who, as Walker demonstrated, so intuitively understood power would also have foreseen that Missouri would become the most powerful state in the region. It had access to the two most important rivers in the American hinterland (the Mississippi and the Missouri) and possessed the land where they converged: St. Louis. Not surprisingly, Walker’s efforts to include his land in Missouri commenced immediately after its initial petition for statehood. This 1817 document, circulated and signed primarily by citizens in the vicinity of St. Louis, proposed a southern border that simply extended the line that ran across the bottom of Virginia and Kentucky at (with some irregularities) 36°30’.4 Had it been adopted, this proposal would have put Walker’s land in Arkansas.
The following year, Missouri’s territorial legislature passed its own proposal for statehood. It sought far more extensive boundaries, including the region where Walker owned land, along with additional land below 36°30’. Clearly, residents of those regions had persuaded the legislature to rethink the citizens’ proposal. Yet between the time of the legislature’s 1818 proposal and the enactment of statehood by Congress in 1819, the area below 36°30 was reduced to include only Walker’s region between the Mississippi and St. Francis Rivers.
Missouri legislature’s proposal
Looking back some years later, Missouri Senator George W. Carleton spoke of how Walker had met with the people who would define the boundaries and so eloquently stated the reasons his region was more properly part of Missouri that he succeeded in persuading them.5 Nonpoliticians remembered things differently. The Kansas City Star reported that, after convincing the territorial legislature to propose boundaries including his land, Walker went to Washington “with his old, muzzle-loading shotgun, not with any intention probably of ridding the country of any budding statesmen, but just to let them know at the capital that he was in earnest.” More likely is that Walker relied on something other than a shotgun or eloquence to convince the lawmakers, something neither party would want recorded—such as money. Indeed, no record of this wealthy landowner’s presence in Washington has been found in any newspapers or in any annals of Congress, despite the fact that shotguns in Congress were newsworthy even then, and eloquent reasoning is not something lobbyists keep private.
The debate in Congress over Missouri statehood suggests how Walker could have operated without attracting attention. It was highly emotional, touching on the nation’s very existence. At issue was slavery in the states to be created out of the Louisiana Purchase. What ultimately resulted was the Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery in any new territory or state north of 36°30’, with the exception (this being the compromise) of Missouri. In the newspapers and the halls of Congress, attention was closely focused on this issue, thereby enabling Walker to go about his particular business unnoticed. Indeed, the only time the debate turned to the “boot heel” being appended to Missouri’s southern border was when Rhode Island Senator James Burrill Jr. declared, “With respect to the boundaries of the new state, I desire more definite information.… By a certain bill which has been laid on our desk by mistake, it appears that certain other boundaries have been thought of, and I wish to know the cause of this variation of boundaries.” The record shows no response being provided.
Immediately after Missouri became a state, Walker made his first public appearance in the political arena. He became the sheriff in his neck of the woods, New Madrid County. He was just twenty-four years old. He went on to be the county’s presiding judge and later created the city plan for the town of Caruthersville, close by where Little Prairie had been. There he lived out his days and is buried alongside the Methodist church.