Archive for Sunday, June 24, 2012

Man of an uncertain age: Legend of 125-year-old sparks curiosity

June 24, 2012


In Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence lies a bit of a mystery.

Many men and women found their final resting place there — people important in the town’s history, from early settlers to victims of Quantrill’s Raid.

A marker for Samuel Shepard and Julia A. Newson is seen near the southeast corner of Oak Hill Cemetery on June 15. What has some locals wondering is that if all holds true, according to Shepard’s gravestone, he would have been 125 years old when he died.

A marker for Samuel Shepard and Julia A. Newson is seen near the southeast corner of Oak Hill Cemetery on June 15. What has some locals wondering is that if all holds true, according to Shepard’s gravestone, he would have been 125 years old when he died.

But one man’s life — mysteries included — represents the history of Kansas. And his surviving descendants in Lawrence and others remember his story with fondness.

Old Uncle Sam, they call him. The moniker is apt because, if his gravestone there in Oak Hill is to be believed, he died at the age of 125. Just that fact could make him remarkable in Douglas County’s history.

But Samuel Shepherd’s story has even more significance — he wasn’t just a man who survived to be a remarkable old age; he survived great hardship and came to settle in Lawrence, where he could be free.

Shepherd, whose family name is also spelled Shepard, is buried in section 5, lot 142, with Julia Newson, who died in 1911, and across from a stone marking a family called Hamilton. Old Uncle Sam’s birthdate is listed as 1784, and his death date as 1909. The family and genealogists who have researched Shepherd don’t know where he was born or why he gave such an early birth year, though it’s clear he would have had to have guessed.

One other thing is clear: Before he came to Lawrence, he was owned in Missouri. He, along with two other men, known only as Peter and Ben, were slaves held by James Shepherd of Virginia, who moved to Independence in 1820.

Samuel, Peter and Ben built the first log cabin courthouse in Independence, a building that still stands today. According to information compiled by Bill Curtis of the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, it’s unknown how Samuel got out of slavery, though it’s possible he bought his freedom through his acclaimed woodworking skills. Or he could have been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. No records have been found for him from the accounts of the courthouse building. The 1870 census shows him living in Lawrence.

At some point, he married Julia and had children, Martha and John. John’s last name is eventually recorded as “Shepard,” and so is Sam’s gravestone. The reason for the spelling change is just another one of Old Uncle Sam’s mysteries.

A descendant through John Shepard, Don Shepard, lives in North Lawrence and says the family’s tale is interesting but doesn’t affect his daily life.

“I guess I don’t think about it a whole lot,” Don Shepard said.

Don lets his cousin Shirley Harris, of Leavenworth, pursue the story. She keeps a notebook handy with any information she can get about her great-great-grandfather. When talking about all that’s unknown about Shepherd, she wonders aloud whether the timing is right that he could have been born outside of the United States.

“Holy cow!” she says. “I don’t really know, but I would love to.”

Don’s brother Steve Shepard took an interest in the Uncle Sam stories and has a relic of his, a horseshoe-repairing instrument, in his home outside Denver. Growing up, Steve vaguely knew of the legend of a 125-year-old man but had no idea the complete extent of Shepherd’s history as a survivor of slavery. When he found out more about his ancestor’s place in Lawrence history, he became “very surprised and really very proud.”

Steve doesn’t believe Samuel lived to be 125, but, the way he figures it, he had to be well over 100 years old in 1909. And he’s heard stories of the man building homes well into his 70s.

City directories from the period show that Samuel eventually ended up living with his daughter, Martha, who married a man named Joshua Hamilton, a painter, in a house at 937 Pa. “Mattie,” as she was known, died in 1932 of cancer, according to burial records.

Samuel’s burial card, the only record of his death, sits in the Watkins Community Museum of History. It reads simply: Died Feb. 8, 1909. Cause: Old age.

Harris would like to see the mysteries unraveled. She sees that kind of thing happen in family history researching shows on TV. But as for the Shepherds/Shepards, well, she says she might be too old for all that extensive research, or at least not of enough means. Don’t count her out, though — no matter what, it seems, she comes from a line of survivors.

“I’m 82, which has got nothing on 125,” she said. “But I just tell people I come from good genes.”


Benjamin Roberts 1 year, 9 months ago

From a 1910 retro-news reprint (Check out the last paragraph):


The county court entered into a contract with one Daniel P. Lewis. In the fall it was agreed that he was to receive $150 for building a courthouse. In the all of that year Sam Shephard, a negro, hewed logs for the new building. They were dragged by a yoke of oxen to the ground selected as the site for the court house. The lot was No. 57 in the old town, now on the north side of Maple avenue near the square in Independence. The building was only one story and contained one large room, which was used as a courtroom and meeting place for all public discussions and lectures. Later several small rooms for use as offices were added.

The building is still standing in Independence, and the hewn logs of which it was constructed have been weather boarded and the large courtroom divided into small rooms. It is now used as a private dwelling and Christian Ott of Independence is the proprietor. It is understood the proprietor has offered to donate the building to the County Fair Association if it will move it from the lot.

In connection with the negro, Sam Shephard, who cut the logs for the court house, there is a bit of local history. In Independence and the country in the immediate neighborhood the negroes maintained a form of self-government. Each year they gathered together in convention and selected their officers. A judge and a sheriff were the principal offices upon which their government was founded.


Recalcitrant negroes and those accused of thefts or other crimes not taken notice of by the white people came under the supervision of the blacks' control. An accused would be summoned to court by the sheriff and the judge selected the jury of negroes from those present. The sessions of the negro court were held in a livery barn or blacksmith shop. If the negro on trial was found guilty after the deliberations of the jury, the sheriff carried out the penalty. As he was vested with powerful muscles as well as the authority of a sheriff, the penalty, which was usually a number of lashes on the bare back, was memorable.

The first judge was Wilas Staples and Sam Shephard was the first sheriff. The latter died in Lawrence, Kas., several months ago.


Pius Waldman 1 year, 9 months ago

I have done genealogy for many years and haven't found anyone even close to 125. Census records are not always accurate. My opinion is there probably is a mistake Interesting story hope someone will follow up and find the true story.


Newell_Post 1 year, 9 months ago

...other possibilities.....

  1. The engraver made a mistake on the stone.
  2. He didn't know his birth date -- common for slaves in those days -- and he just guessed.
  3. He lied about his age. Lots of people did that for lots of reasons.
  4. He assumed the identity of his father or another older man. There are parts of Russia where people claim to live to great old age. Upon closer investigation, they found that many men had assumed the identity of their fathers or older relatives to dodge the draft. "You can't conscript me! I'm a 55 year old man!" Sorry, dude. You're a 30 year old man trying to dodge the draft.

In these days of computerized records dogging you from cradle-to-grave, we forget that in earlier times lots of people played fast and loose with lots of things.


mom_of_three 1 year, 9 months ago

yes, its true most slaves worked hard lives, without adequate clothing, housing or food. Sam would have lived 60 years of his life doing slave labor and it seems hard to think a slave would have lived that long. However, there are WPA slave narratives (written in the 1930's) with slaves who lived to be 100 and older. So its possible that Sam, a former slave, could have lived to be an old, old man


rtwngr 1 year, 9 months ago

I'm 125 years old too. I roll my own cigarettes. I drink whiskey from the bottle. I always take my weekly bath on Saturday nights. I also invented the internet.


FlintlockRifle 1 year, 9 months ago

Great story, please follow this to find out more Alex. I lived in North Lawrence when I was a small child, and know the Shepard family well. Put up hay with John when we both were in out teens for the farmers in North Lawrence area, hard work.


George_Braziller 1 year, 9 months ago

I highly doubt he was actually 125 when he died. Possibly 105 but even that is a stretch. The oldest documented lifespan for a human is 115.


Benjamin Roberts 1 year, 9 months ago

Alex/Nick Interesting history and story. Do you know when the headstone was placed? Although there are exceptions, most stones from that era are of different quality, color, and weather/time wear. It may be that the stone was placed much later after the legend was a part of history.


Clare Galloway 1 year, 9 months ago

I just read the story and interesting that my husbands family owned the house at 937 Pennsylvania, we may have something more to add to your story.


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