It was New Year’s Eve, 1863.
The bushwhackers arrived at dawn, already sufficiently liquored and armed, the moon and the sun still hanging in the sky. Disguised in Union army coats, with kerchiefs covering their faces, three men set upon the house in Johnson County, Arkansas. Packing their saddlebags to the gills, pillaging the preacher’s house and the surrounding fields, one held him at gunpoint while the others took turns raping his wife in front of their children—the youngest, Thomas, just 4 years old.
Then they turned their attention to the minister, who was standing on the wood-plank front porch. His arms spread wide, palms open like the Christ himself, Rev. Vincent Wallace offered no resistance.
One who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
The first bullet took him in the shoulder, another struck his chest. A female slave named Missouri shielded his sons from the horror. The pastor lingered a few hours before he died. When the doctor had left and the preacher’s soul had gone on to Glory, Missouri cleaned and dressed the body. As she wrung the bloody rags over a washbasin and the house filled with shrieking and crying, she had one thing in mind: vengeance.
Missouri—believed to be the preacher’s illegitimate daughter sired with a slave—knew the assassins by name, despite the masks wrapped around their faces. They were young, maybe in their late teens or early twenties. But it was something in their voices, something in their eyes, and something about they way they smelled, and how one of them walked with a pronounced limp. Another was missing two fingers, shot off at the nubs when his gun misfired during a brawl over in Coal Hill.
Their time would come.
When the time was right, nearly a decade later, Missouri helped her half-brother track the killers across county and state lines in a bloody crusade to avenge their father’s death. As one man after another met his Maker, Missouri remained in the shadows while her younger brother Sidney—who was only 11 the day his father died—became a folk hero with a price on his head.
When Sid Wallace was finally arrested and sentenced to death by hanging in 1874, the question became: How much would Missouri sacrifice in his name and could she pull off one last scheme to save him from the executioner’s noose?
Like tears in the rain, some moments will be forever lost to the ages. But Missouri Daniel Blackard—a freedwoman who was born a slave in 1840—was my paternal second great-grandmother. And Pastor Wallace, a descendent of Irish colonist and Revolutionary War veteran William Wallace, was—if family lore is correct—my third great-grandfather.
In the summer of 2009, I stumbled upon a box of old family photographs. I knew little about my father’s family. That night, I poured a glass of wine. As began I shifting through the stacks of Kodak envelopes that my grandmother Catherine had neatly organized and packed away, I missed her immediately.
I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted her to tell me the stories behind the pictures. By then, she had been gone for 15 years. And, frankly, there was no one else. My father, who was an only child, died in 1973 and his father passed away long before I was born.
It started with a search for birth and death records from St. Louis, Missouri, where I was raised. And as day turned to night and to day again, I found myself absorbed with piecing together their history—my history. There was a 1927 death certificate for Catherine’s grandfather, Major Blackard. He was interred, the document said, in Clarksville, Arkansas. His parents, Henderson and Missouri Blackard, were also listed.
There was scant information about Henderson Blackard, who was born a slave in Person County, North Carolina, around 1830. I found him in the 1870 U.S. census. Missouri, on the other hand, had somehow found her way into the newspapers of the day and was somewhat of a legend among the locals.
As I poured through genealogical research, dusty court documents, newspaper archives, and century-old family narratives, Missouri’s story began to unfurl. Retracing the pathways of her life, from the piedmonts of North Carolina through Arkansas’s rugged backcountry, I discovered a woman who risked her life to challenge the strictures of race, gender, and family.
I have always known that I was the descendent of slaves. However, nothing prepared me for reading the earliest known record of Missouri’s grandmother. The fact that she and her children had been someone’s property, handed down from father to daughter like a set of rusty pots and pans, tore at my soul.
“I cheerfully resign my soul into the hands of the God who gave it,” Mathew Daniel wrote in his last will and testament.
The document, registered in Pittsylvania, Virginia, in 1825, bequeathed 12 slaves to his surviving children. Presumably, the remaining 20 remained in his wife’s possession. Specifically, he left a servant named Molly, her children—Biddy, Russell, Henry, and Eliza—and their “increase” to his daughter Jane Smith Daniel and her husband, Robert Wallace. Included in the inheritance were the anticipated profits from the sale of his “stock of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, and all household and kitchen furniture and plantation utensils.” Together with his land, bonds, books, and accounts, all proceeds were to be divided among his children upon the death of his wife, Agatha.
Vincent Wallace was 10 years old the day his grandfather, affectionately called “Old Mat,” died.
In 1840, a decade after Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and President Andrew Jackson signed it into law, Mat’s son-in-law, Robert Wallace, decided to move out across the American frontier. Armed with a map of the trails, Robert—along with his son Vincent, Toliver Goldstone Blackard, John Penn, and their families—joined what became known as the Western Expansion.
Taking a small contingent of slaves, Robert Wallace led a wagon train out of Roxboro, North Carolina, to the sounds of snapping harnesses and creaking wheels. With Toliver as the “keeper of the road” or the navigator, they weathered the slog of walking hundreds of miles, suffocating dust, extreme weather, bad water, disease, and death. Among the human chattel were Molly Daniel, who was my fourth great-grandmother, her four children, and a granddaughter born that same year—a baby girl named Missouri.
The journey would last three years. After winding through Kentucky and southeast Missouri, in 1843 the caravan finally came to a stop in Spradra, just outside of Clarksville, along the Arkansas River. The Wallace and Blackard descendants would fight there, love there, and most often die there.
When his father, Robert, passed away in 1848, Vincent and his wife Ruth inherited 8-year-old Missouri. Believed to have been the illegitimate child of Molly’s youngest daughter, Eliza, and Vincent, the girl was said to have shared her father’s close-set, crystal blue eyes, shock of dark brown hair, and his narrow angular chin. Vincent was a Christian school teacher and, in time, would go on to become a wealthy farmer, pastor of a Methodical Episcopal Church, and a member of the 9th Arkansas State Legislature.
Missouri lived in the Wallace house from the time she was a babe-in-arms, and enjoyed a rare relationship with her father. When he was elected to the Arkansas statehouse in 1852, to Ruth’s dismay, Missouri would often join him on the 80-mile trek to Little Rock. Beginning with passages from the Bible, Senator Wallace taught his daughter to read, write, and “figure” numbers—something that was exceptional but not illegal in Arkansas.
Missouri was baptized in the Arkansas River when she was 10 and allowed to marry a slave named Henderson “Hence” Blackard when she was 16 or 17. The actual date of their wedding is not recorded, but Hence was 10 years older than Missouri and had been brought with them on the journey from North Carolina by his master, Toliver Blackard.
Their first child, Ann, was born in 1858.
The Civil War touched off three years later and because of the town’s proximity to the river, both armies regularly passed through. Col. Thomas J. Churchill’s Confederate troops camped south of Clarksville during the winter of 1861. The Cumberland Presbyterian church was used as a hospital and then burned by departing Union troops, who also torched Rev. Wallace’s church and the Johnson County jail and damaged the courthouse on their way out.
But on the morning of Dec. 31, 1863, federal soldiers were in possession of Clarksville when three men rode up to the home of Rev. Wallace and told the preacher they wanted a horse he had. It was not unusual for soldiers to confiscate anything and everything they needed or wanted. According to R.G. Miller of the Daily Oklahoman, the preacher complied, led them to the barn, and handed over the steed. They then demanded that the minister go into town with them.
Missouri handed Rev. Wallace his hat and he left the house. His wife, Ruth, watched them as they started to ride away. Just outside the front gate, approximately 150 feet from the front porch, once of the soldier said, “Take charge of him!”
Contemporary newspaper accounts said Missouri quickly realized that they weren’t soldiers, but rather bushwhackers who regularly harassed, robbed, and sometimes murdered loyal Union farmers.
“Most of the bushwhackers were illiterate young men in their teens and early twenties,” according to “Civil War on the Western Border,” a project of the Kansas City Public Library. “They clung together in bands of 12 to 20…”
No motive was ever determined, as Rev. Wallace was nothing if not loyal to the Confederacy. Although there were Union soldiers from Spadra and Clarksville, his eldest son, John, best friend Toliver Blackard, and others were in service of the CSA fighting for “states rights.”
As the three men went about their villainy, the pastor was held at gunpoint. He heard his wife screaming from inside the house. He knew what was happening. There was no need to see it for himself.
“Are you not afraid?” one of the men asked.
“Let us never think strange that which the word of Christ has told us to expect,” the preacher said, “Whether the sufferings of this present time or the Glory that is to be revealed.”
“We will make you fear us,” another said.
All three men raised their guns and shot him where he stood. They kept firing, even after the body had fallen. One round entered the sole of his boot and lodged in the preacher’s groin. As the clouds of smoke drifted and faded in the December wind, Rev. Wallace lay twitching in a pool of his own blood under the morning sun.
When the deed was done, the bandits rode off laughing and swigging whiskey as their horse’s hooves set upon the dusty road.
The pastor’s son, Sidney, then only 11 years old, bolted through the screen door lugging his father’s shotgun. He didn’t get far. Missouri, then 23 and pregnant with her third daughter, tackled and pinned him to the dirt. The boy kicked and shouted, boiling with rage. Missouri covered him with the full of her body, draping her housedress over his face to keep him from seeing the perpetrators.
“This ain’t the time,” Missouri whispered, soothing and quieting the boy. “Our day will come.”
Together with Ruth Suggs Wallace, Missouri then took up Master Wallace’s body by the shoulders and boots and dragged him inside.
“Did you see them?” Ruth asked the slave woman. “Did you see the men who did this?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I know them by name.”
Missouri cleaned the blood from her master’s mouth as he lay dying in his bed. A doctor from a neighboring farm tended to his wounds. Rev. Wallace lasted a few hours, long enough to admonish his children to lead Christian lives. “The physical pain is intense, but my mind is at rest,” he told to his wife.
And then, he slipped away.
Rather than prepare for evening church services as had been planned, Ruth busied herself with her husband’s funeral clothes. As she arranged a freshly pressed necktie over the shoulder of Vincent’s black suit, she turned to Missouri and said, “Sidney is not yet of age and does not share his father’s Christian mind. I fear the harm that would most surely come to him if he tries to seek the bastards out now.”
Missouri nodded in agreement.
“The devil is in his head, even now, and I fear I cannot keep this from him. Let it stay with us for now. Do not reveal their names until my Sidney reaches his 21st birthday.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Missouri answered.
Missouri kept that vow even after she gained her freedom two years later. In fact, years after the war ended, she remained employed in the Wallace household and quietly kept tabs on the murderers for nearly a decade. In the intervening years, she gave birth to two boys—William and George—adding to three daughters: Ann, Lucinda, and Susan.
Those were hard years after the war. Ruth Suggs Wallace and her children suffered great losses after the death of Rev. Wallace. Prior to her husband’s death, Ruth had never known a day’s work. With no other means of support, she and her sons worked the land.
The coming railroad lines, for Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad, were key to the area’s growth. But the influx of Reconstruction officials, coal mine workers, and construction employees brought with it a criminal element, and Clarksville quickly became known for its unsavory reputation. Soon enough, Sid Wallace and his brothers fell into the culture of lawlessness. And, some eight years after the assassination, when Sid was about 20, he confirmed his mother’s early suspicions.
In 1871, he and his brother George tried to rob a man named Turner, who was armed and prepared for such things. Turner shot and killed George during the robbery. To pay him back, Sid later hunted down and murdered Turner’s best friend.
The charges against Turner were dropped as “self defense,” and Sid was charged with attempted murder in the case. Undaunted, Sid went after the men who freed his brother’s killer—Constable R.W. “Doc” Ward and Judge Jeremiah “Elisha” Mears. Even though he was once one of Rev. Wallace’s closest confidants and an elder in the church, Sid didn’t blink before he shot Judge Mears through the heart.
Sid set off into the thick woods of the Ozarks, hiding out for months. With Missouri’s help, he evaded authorities even as Arkansas Gov. Robert Lindsay offered a $5,000 reward for his capture ($100,000 adjusted for inflation). He was apprehended, but based on the words of the dying judge he was acquitted on the murder charge.
The following year, Missouri decided it was time to hand over the names of the men who killed their father. Sid struck out immediately and tracked down the first of his father’s attackers. Based on Missouri’s word, he located one of the killers at his home in Kansas. Sidney charmed his way into the house, stayed the night with the family, had breakfast with them the next morning, and then pumped a bullet into the man’s head before he calmly walked out the door.
He shot a second man, at point blank range, square in the chest on a road outside of Clarksville, Arkansas. Sid beat the lone witness to within an inch of his life. He was not hard to find, as he was discovered resting at home with Ruth. Missouri was preparing supper for him when the city marshal arrived.
He did, however, prove to be a difficult man to keep locked away.
Within hours, Sid removed a jailhouse window, mounted a horse left hitched to a post by Missouri, and returned home again. According to family lore, a posse arrived soon after to take him back into custody. But Sid escaped again, this time by hiding under Missouri’s skirts when she went to the family well. The fugitive hid in the well for several days, coming up only in the dead of night and returning to the well before first light. Over her husband’s objections, Missouri sneaked him food.
Hence, Missouri’s husband, was increasingly uneasy about his wife’s actions. She had become a co-conspirator, helping Sid find his victims and then helping him break out of jail, and Hence feared the deadly consequences if the night watchmen ever showed up at their two-room, plank board house situated on the Wallaces’ 160-acre tract.
A spy for the city marshal watched Missouri head out to the well one time too many. Sid and his younger brothers, Mat and Thomas, were arrested after an armed standoff. Several days later, the three men overpowered the guards and seized their weapons. Taking aim through a broken window, Sid shot a man named Tom Payne who was standing in the gathering crowd outside. Payne’s “crime” had been to testify against Sid regarding the murder of the constable. According to an 1874 New York Times article, the incident ended only after Clarksville authorities threatened to blow the jailhouse to “atoms” if Sid and his brothers refused to surrender.
It was decided that the Johnson County jail was not secure enough to hold him. Sid was taken to the state penitentiary in Little Rock for safekeeping. Unlikely sisters-in-arms, Ruth and Missouri visited regularly, if only to plot his next escape.
According to the Arkansas Historical Society, the ever-charismatic Sid was allowed out of prison one evening to accompany the warden’s daughter to a social ball. The warden quickly changed his mind about the prisoner when his daughter begged that Sid be permitted to escape so that the couple could elope. But she wasn’t alone in singing his praises.
On March 10, 1874, the Daily Arkansas Gazette reported that 1,068 Johnson County residents signed a petition requesting that the death sentence be commuted. For them, Sid was a hero—a man who was simply avenging his father’s death. That appeal and all others, including one to the Arkansas Supreme Court, were denied.
The death warrant was signed.
According to an article the following day in the same newspaper, Sid arrived in Clarksville to great fanfare. “The people are coming in town from all parts of the country,” the Daily Gazette reported.
Fearing the convict would escape once again, Sid was brought in on an unscheduled train. The city marshal reportedly stopped all other trains from running through town. Church services were canceled and businesses shuttered. A reporter from the New York Herald came to town, but Sid refused to see him.
“Never slept better in my life than last night,” he told another journalist.
At one point, he nearly confessed to the string of killings. His mother Ruth stopped him, chiding her son to “die like a man.”
Parson Barrows offered a prayer and then sang the hymn “Sing Praises to God.”
“Well, I am ready,” Sid told the preacher.
Throngs of people lined the roadside as they brought him in. Leaving two pistols to his young brother, Sid was “firm, cool and self-collected to the last,” the Daily Gazette reported. “Bury me with my shot-gun,” he said.
A company of guards lined both sides of a two-horse spring wagon, loaded with an empty coffin. Johnson County Sheriff Kline read a proclamation from Gov. Elisha Baxter. It was then that Sid spoke his last words.
“Gentlemen, you have all come here no doubt to hear a long confession. I have no confession to make, but to God. What I have done has been in defense of myself and my friends,” he said. “All I regret is I haven’t half a dozen lives to die.”
A black cap was pulled over his face, and the rope was adjusted around his neck. He died with a prayer on his lips, “Lord, remember me.”
Hundreds of people witnessed the hanging of Sidney Oscar Wallace on March 14, 1874, but according to legend, Sid refused to die and Missouri refused to let him. News reports of the day said his heart was still beating 25 minutes after the hanging and that Sid was “short roped,” meaning his neck did not snap and he likely strangled to death—a far more excruciating experience. After another 40 minutes, satisfied that he was dead, the body was surrendered to his mother for burial. But, if the enduring folklore is to be believed, Sid survived the execution and his family buried a pine box of filled with sand bags.
On March 15, 1874, a story in the Daily Arkansas Gazette noted that he’d received a mysterious letter accompanied by a bouquet of flowers and a basket of fruit at the jail. Other accounts describe a mysterious woman in black who attended the hanging. Some say she was a well-moneyed mistress from Little Rock, maybe even the warden’s daughter, but most believe it was Missouri—the sister who would never betray him. Had Missouri risked her own lynching by stepping forward to save her brother one last time?
For more than a century, Sid Wallace’s honor has been a matter of debate. Portrayed by some as a man who brazenly challenged bushwhackers and carpetbaggers, for others he was a symbol of lawlessness and violence in Reconstruction-era Arkansas. In “An Arkansas Tale,” the New York Times printed an account of Sid’s crimes and the execution a week after his hanging, sadly concluding that his mother Ruth was nothing like her God-fearing husband. She encouraged, the story said, her two younger sons to follow in the footsteps of their “martyred” brother. The Times story, published on March 23, 1874, noted that Ruth was an educated woman, but lamented her “blood-thirstiness” and called her attitude “shocking.”
Missouri is not mentioned.
Fondly remembered by white and colored townsfolk alike as “Aunt Missouri,” she died quietly in her daughter’s home in Clarksville, Arkansas, on Sept. 20, 1931. There was no grand memorial at her passing and, save for a few footnotes, no lasting tribute to her life. She was laid to rest at age 91, alongside her husband, Hence, and their children. For decades, her story has remained buried with her in tiny Spadra (now South Clarksville) and largely forgotten.
The morning after Missouri’s interment, a nattily dressed stranger arrived in town and registered at a local motel as “Richard Johnson.” He was later spotted laying a bouquet of flowers at Missouri’s grave. Some believe he had also attended Ruth Suggs Wallace’s 1914 memorial service in Van Buren, Arkansas. But the man was never positively identified. Many think it was Sidney Wallace, who is said to have resettled in upstate New York, where he started a family.
I am the scion of Missouri’s youngest child, Major Blackard, who was born in 1880 and migrated to St. Louis around the turn of the century. Major, a laborer, believed he was cursed by his mother’s sins. He died of cancer of the left jaw in 1927 and his body was returned to Johnson County. His wife, Effie, preceded him in death. Their son, Murray, was my great-grandfather.
After his death, Murray Blackard’s daughters—Catherine and Juanita—were placed in the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home sometime in the late ’30s. A wealthy black farmer from Macon, Missouri, named Thomas Hubbard and his wife, Nina, adopted the girls and raised them in “The Ville” neighborhood.
My father’s mother, Catherine, was a prolific storyteller. Waving her hands as if conducting an orchestra over the breakfast table, she recounted the bygone years, unspooling the decades like musical stanzas. She often spoke of the beauty she had experienced in this life, the cities she’d seen, the world she’d known.
But some of her memories—whether because they embarrassed her or because they caused too much pain—she kept tucked away, like the photos in the cardboard box. My brothers—Terrence and Christopher—and I were the light of her life, though she embraced Lori and Donnie, my mother’s older children, like they were her own. But I was the baby—the child who shared her temperament, her only son’s face, and her obsession with books. Catherine told me I was a writer long before I could know it for myself and, in time, it became my life’s work. Even so, some songs—old cuts and abrasions—still sting too much to sing.
Until her memorial service in 1994, I never knew she had been adopted or even that her middle name was Marilyn. And she never once uttered the name Missouri Daniels.
“The lives of the dead,” she once told me, “belong to the living.”