Battle of Wilson’s Creek affected more than soldiers

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The Ray home at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield was used as a hospital, and also housed Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon’s body after he was killed in battle.

Despite the prominence of the battle at Wilson’s Creek, soldiers were not the only people on the battlefield that fateful day 154 years ago. The families of Wilson’s Creek also played various roles in shaping the area’s history, each one with a unique story to tell.

Every one of those soldiers’ lives were affected, but so were the families,” said Wilson’s Creek Superintendent Ted Hillmer, who has worked at the park for 12 years. “To me, that’s a neat story.”

“Every one of those soldiers’ lives were affected, but so were the families,” said Wilson’s Creek Superintendent Ted Hillmer, who has worked at the park for 12 years. “To me, that’s a neat story.”

European-Americans living in the Wilson’s Creek area dates back to about 1840. Many of the first settlers were “squatters,” or people who simply staked their claim and did not legally obtain it from the government. The first legal individual on record was John Dixon, who was deeded 40 acres in 1839. He was followed by others including Joseph Sharp in 1843, William Kerr in 1846, William Steele in 1847 and John Ray in 1851.

Historical accounts of the land surrounding Wilson’s Creek describe it as desirable for a number of reasons. The bottomlands were extremely fertile; the presence of Wilson’s Creek was valuable because of its role as a major water source. The area was also connected to Springfield by the Fayetteville Road, a major plus in days when reliable roads were rare.

While farming was the most prominent occupation at Wilson’s Creek, there were also merchants, boatmen, stock dealers, school teachers, shoemakers, stonemasons and carpenters. 

One of the most prominent residents of Wilson’s Creek was John Ray. Ray, an immigrant from Tennessee, came to southwest Missouri in the late 1840s with his daughter Elizabeth. He soon met Roxanna Gizzard, the widowed daughter of William Steele, another of Wilson’s Creek’s earliest settlers.

After Ray and Gizzard married in 1849, they occupied the Steele homestead with their large family. Their home was utilized as a flag stop for the Butterfield-Overland Stage, and Ray served as the area’s postmaster for a number of years.

During the period prior to the Civil War, many families throughout southwest Missouri owned slaves, and those living at Wilson’s Creek was no exception. According to information from the Cultural Landscape Report, of the 11 households living on Wilson’s Creek in 1850, three owned slaves. While no data from slave census in Christian County exists for 1860, personal property tax records show that such numbers only slightly vary throughout the 1850s with the majority of slaveholders having only three to four slaves each.

The summer of 1861 brought many changes for the families living near Wilson’s Creek. In August 1861, thousands of Confederate soldiers began camping on the doorsteps of many of the area’s residents. Despite the army’s presence, many of the residents did not think that fighting would actually occur at Wilson’s Creek and had little notice prior to the battle.

“We know from one of the (Ray) daughter’s accounts that a soldier rides up to them early that morning and says ‘there will be fighting here,’” said Jeff Patrick, librarian at Wilson’s Creek. “They (then) go and tell their parents.”

Patrick said that while none of the families got caught up in the fighting, they were involved in various other ways. Some were forced to cook meals for soldiers; others sold food to the troops. The Rays’ home was used as a hospital and was where Union general Nathaniel Lyon’s body rested after he was killed in battle.

“They’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Patrick. “Some civilians in the area leave before the battle ever begins. Some wait until the first shots are fired and then they leave, and others stay for the whole time.” After the battle, the families at Wilson’s Creek were faced with rebuilding the lives that had been so quickly destroyed.

The beginning of the 20th century, however, brought new things for Wilson’s Creek.

“In the early 1900s, they actually do have a town of Wilson’s Creek here,” said Patrick. “They have several streets, a tomato factory and a limestone quarry…it actually was a fairly good-sized town.”

The growth of Springfield, Republic and Battlefield ultimately contributed to the community’s demise. “If you drive around the tour road today, you probably couldn’t tell that anything was ever there,” said Patrick. “It’s all gone.”

This article ran in The Christian County Headliner News on August 11, 2009.

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