|Benjamin Vanlandingham was the first white settler to build a home in what is now the city of Palmyra. He tramped over the wooded hills of what is now Marion County and selected a spot a few hundred yards away from the spring to build his cabin.
"Old Benny Flannigan" as some of the early settlers called him was not a town builder. He did not see the site as an ideal location for a city of the future. He was a shoe cobbler and after visiting the Gash settlement on South River found that there was a growing need for his services in the area. He thought the flowing clear water of the spring and the wooded hills around it a good spot to establish his home and ply his trade. In the fall of 1818 Vanlandingham and his three sons, Lewis Meshack and William, with the help of some "neighbors" erected a cabin of logs near the spring. During the winter of '18 and '19 he hammered away at his cobbler's bench making shoes for the early settlers in the county, from the stock of leather he had brought with him.
"Old Ben" was not the resident of the town that first winter. A band of Sac Indians moved into the area and camped for a time on the site now occupied by the Marion County Courthouse. His neighbors caused Mr. Vanlandingham no uneasiness as they were friendly and all shared the sweet water from the spring with no difficulties.
Although Benjamin Vanlandingham was not a town builder and had no idea that he would be the first settler of a thriving city which was soon to be chopped out of the wilderness, the legend of the Indians cast its spell for he lived out his life in the area and many citizens of Palmyra today can trace their lineage to him.
The "Town-Builders" men with foresight and daring, arrived the following spring. The first two were Maj. Obadiah Dickerson and Moses D. Bates who came into the area while looking over the county and the former built a cabin on what is now known as Dickerson street, also near the spring.
Dickerson was a pioneer of vision and foresight and thinking that Pike County of which this area was then a part, would soon split up because of the rapidly growing population, he decided to lay out a town and get it established as the county seat of the new county when it was formed.
On August 10, 1819, the city was laid out by four men, Dickerson, Samuel R. Caldwell, Joel Shaw and John McCune.
Soon afterward James L. Vaughn came and opened the first store. His log cabin store carried a stock of powder, lead, coffee, pepper, salt, coarse muslins, woolens, some cutlery and a small assortment of "notions."
Jacob Fry was one of the first arrivals and established a "tavern" or hotel.
The town grew rapidly with a large influx of immigrants from the east and by the next year, 1820, had 150 inhabitants. The rapid increase in population brought the need for a post office to the forefront and Maj. Dickerson became the first postmaster.
The founders of Palmyra hesitated for some time before they named their town. It is reported that the name of "Springfield" was first proposed but someone with a love of the classics suggested the name of "Palmyra" in honor of the famous ancient city of Syria, The Tadmor of Scripture, built by King Solomon, "in the wilderness."
The town increased in size at a remarkable rate and is reputed to have had a population of 250 or more by 1824. At that time a new public land district was created in Missouri and the following year Palmyra was named as a site for a land office.
In 1824 and up to some time in 1825, a band of 200 or 300 northern Indians, presumably Sacs, camped on the town site. They said it was their old camping ground and they and come to see it, and drink from the water of big spring. The Indians wandered unrestrained about the streets and cabins of the village and the settlers wandered about the lodges and wigwams of the Indians. The curiosity to see and know more of each other was mutual.
The dream of the town founders of establishing Palmyra as the county seat of the new county they had envisioned started taking substantial form on February 16, 1825.
Marion County was surveyed in 1818 along with several other counties by government surveyors appointed by the legislature. The chain bearer for this work was Moses D. Bates. The surveyors provided the name of "Marion" for the county, after General Francis Marion, who was known as the "Swamp Fox of Carolina" in the Revolutionary War.
The courthouse, which was built of brick, stood on the east side of the public square about midway from north to south, front toward the east, on the almost precise location of the present courthouse. The building cost about $1,750.00 exclusive of the carpenter's work, plastering, etc. The work progressed slowly and was not accepted by the county court until February, 1835.
The village of Palmyra grew rapidly after it became the county seat.
The first newspaper, The Missouri Courier, was established in 1832 by Steward and Angevine with Robert W. Steward as the editor. In the fall of 1837 a second newspaper, The Political Examiner, was established with William Carson as editor and Samuel Haydon as publisher. It lived but a year or two and was succeeded in 1839 by the Missouri Whig, which later became the Palmyra Spectator, which is still in operation in the city.
In 1847 a railroad company was formed in Hannibal which received a charter to build a line across the state from that city to St. Joseph, a rapidly growing city on the Missouri River at the western edge of the state.
The first train to run between Hannibal and Palmyra was about June 10, 1856. It was a construction train and it was not until early in July that the passenger trains were running. These trains connected with the post coaches at Palmyra and the packet boats at Hannibal.
After its completion the railroad played a very important part in the history of the state and Palmyra shared in these events. In its second year of operation on April 3, 1860, the train carried the issue mail destined for the Pony Express' first run to the Pacific coast.
In September 1857, grading was begun for the Palmyra and Quincy Railroad. The first work was done opposite Quincy and Peter Smith was the chief engineer.
The road was completed and the first train over it about April 1, 1860.
Marion County and Palmyra with the families divided on the issues and neighbors fighting each other was a hot bed of war activity, particularly during the period through October of 1862. Anarchism was rampant in the area and terror became the dominant force in the lives of most of the citizens.
During the winter of 1860 and spring of 1861 many meetings were held in the county, most of them in secret. A large portion openly sympathized with the seceded Southern States but the majority preferred to take no decided steps to aide either side.
The firing on Fort Sumpter by the Confederates, April 12, 1861, and President Lincoln's proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers caused great excitement. Many, who had opposed secession up to now, changed over and avowed themselves on the side of the South.
Military activity was renewed at a great rate in Marion County. A nine-pound cannon was cast in Hannibal and brought to Palmyra. Military units called variously the "Marion Artillery," "Kneisley's Company," "Silver Greys" and others were formed The Palmyra Guards were reactivated.
Families of Union sympathizers fled to Illinois, especially to the Quincy area where Federal troops were mobilizing. Unionists in the county were well organized but for the most part kept rather quiet.
William R. Strachan of Shelby County was appointed Provost Marshal for the area and his chief duty was to arrest citizens suspected or accused of sympathy with the Southern Confederacy and to administer to them the oath of loyalty and allegiance to the United States Government.
The operations of Col. Joseph E. Porter of the Confederate Army dominated most of the war activities in Marion County during the summer and fall of 1862. Many of the men who fought under Col. Porter were Marion Countians and many of the men who fought against Col. Porter were Marion Countians.
On September 12, 1862, Porter decided to raid Palmyra and release the forty-five prisoners who had been captured and place din the county jail and pick up arms and supplies belonging to the Federals which were stored in the town. He picked a time when most of the Union forces under General McNeil were off on a wild-goose chase at Monticello.
Porter and about four hundred men grouped on the western edge of Palmyra on the Summers farm, and infiltrated on foot into the town and took over the business section. The federal forces, about one hundred strong, held the jail, the courthouse and a two-story brick store at the corner of Main and LaFayette. The Union soldiers had the advantage of better rifles and more protection.
The prisoners in the jail were paroled without a struggle by their guards. Most of them were Confederates who had served at one time or another with Porter, in spite of their having signed an oath that they would not take up arms again the struggle.
The Confederate losses were one man killed and one man wounded. The Federal forces had two men wounded at the Courthouse and perhaps two more wounded on the streets.
The large copper ball which rests in the Palmyra courthouse was at that time an adornment atop the courthouse. The Confederate soldiers seemed to find it an attractive target to test their marksmanship on, which resulted in the several ragged bullet holes which can be seen in the ball today.
Porter's men captured several prisoners among them was Andrew Allsman, A Union sympathizer who had the reputation of betraying his Confederate neighbors to the militia. He was much disliked by the Confederates.
Porter, after occupying the town for about two hours, felt that he had accomplished his purpose. The prisoners in the jail were freed, arms and supplies were confiscated and some horses taken. Seeing that a long siege with much loss of life was before him if he remained, he withdrew from the town.
Porter paroled all of his prisoners but three at the edge of town. The three he kept included Andrew Allsman, whose disappearance a few days later, brought on the shooting of ten Confederate prisoners at Palmyra, in what has historically been named "The Palmyra Massacre."
On October 18, 1862 ten men were executed in Palmyra in what is called the "Palmyra Massacre." They were executed by Union troops in what became known as one of the most barbarous acts of the War between the States.
The men executed included: Capt. Thomas A. Sidenor, of Monroe County; Willis J. Baker, Thomas Humston, Morgan Bixler, John Y. McPheeters and Hiram T. Smith of Lewis County; Herbert Hudson, John M. Wade and Marion Lair of Ralls County and Eleazer Lake of Scotland County.
Five of the men had been imprisoned in the Marion County Jail at Palmyra which was used as a Federal prison and five of the men were Confederate prisoners who had been incarcerated in Hannibal.
The ten men were taken from the Federal prison at Dickerson and Lafayette Streets in three government wagons, a little after noon. Two of the wagons had three coffins and one had four and the ten condemned men were made to ride to the point of their execution seated on their coffins.
The wagons proceeded eastward from the jail to Main Street and then turned south to Malone's livery stable and then eastward on the Hannibal Road to the edge of town. There, throwing down the fences, the wagons were driven into an open field just east of Palmyra in what had previously been the fairgrounds, which is reported to be north of the present Warren Head home.
There, near the fairground pavilion, the men were made to leave the wagons and each was made to sit on his own coffin facing the firing squad lined up near the pavilion.
Just before the condemned men were killed they knelt on the grass in front of their coffins and a last prayer was offered by the Rev. R. M. Rhoades, local minister. The men then resumed their seats on the coffins and waited.
The ten men all died bravely according to eye-witness accounts. All but two refused the offer of bandages for their eyes.
After the execution the bodies were placed in their coffins and taken back into the city. Some of the bodies were claimed immediately by relatives and others were buried in the Palmyra Cemetery until they were claimed by their families and returned to their homes areas for burial.
One of the ten men originally on the list received a last minute reprieve from McNeil and Strachan. The reprieved man was William T. Humphrey of Lewis County, who was replaced by Hiram T. Smith also of Lewis County, on the actual day of the Massacre.
Most of the histories relating the occurrence tell that Humphrey was reprieved after his wife and children called on both McNeil and Strachan to plead for his life.
The Palmyra Massacre was one of the three executions which occurred in the Northeast Missouri area during the Fall of 1862. The first was at Kirksville in August, the second in Macon in September and the final and possibly most "cold-blooded" at Palmyra in October. The Palmyra Massacre attracted nation-wide attention and is said to have been a subject of discussion in the cabinet of President Lincoln. President Jefferson Davis asked that McNeil be turned over to the Confederate Army after the Massacre, but of course, this was never done.