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.”


Clare Galloway 5 years, 12 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.

alex_garrison 5 years, 12 months ago


I'd be happy to hear from you if you'd like to add to the history of that house. You can always reach me at

Thanks, Alex

alex_garrison 5 years, 12 months ago

DIST, This was something I thought about and asked family members about. No one I talked to knew of the stone being replaced, but it's an interesting aspect to the story. Thanks, Alex

George_Braziller 5 years, 12 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.

Brian Hall 5 years, 12 months ago

The oldest living documented and verified person was 122 years old (Jeanne Calment, 1875-1997, France), if Sam was born into slavery it's possible he may not have documentation of when he was born and just always told it was 1784. It's highly possible that Sam was born in the 1700s so he could've been least 110 at the time of his death. Either way, that's a really long time and certainly notable.

George_Braziller 5 years, 12 months ago

Calament lived a life of luxury and never had to lift a finger. No way in hell a man who was born a slave lived to be 125.

parrothead8 5 years, 12 months ago

She also smoked and lived through two World Wars. Man, what an easy life.

riverdrifter 5 years, 12 months ago

"There's one word that says it all and that one word is 'youneverknow'."

pace 5 years, 12 months ago

Nice to be so certain and so in touch with how you feel. Who knows someday you might actually learn what accurate information means in relation to opinion?

FlintlockRifle 5 years, 12 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.

rtwngr 5 years, 12 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.

JayhawkFan1985 5 years, 12 months ago

Another stupid post from the rightwingnut

mom_of_three 5 years, 12 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

Tom McCune 5 years, 12 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.

FlintHawk 5 years, 12 months ago

Not knowing birth year, or even place, was a common problem on the "frontier" for many. I've been working on family genealogy for awhile, and I was at first puzzled by varying dates of birth (per Census). Now I realize that most of these people were born at home and probably didn't have a birth certificate. Births were recorded in the Family Bible. And, of course, there was no social security system tracking those people. My grandfather, born in 1882, consistently gave his birth year as 1884 — an impossibility since his mother and an infant died in childbirth that year. But the family moved from Indiana shortly after my great-grandmother's death; my grandfather's early history may have been murky to him. My great-great grandfather who, apparently, was born in Texas, gave different birth states to Census takers every decade: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana — whatever he thought at the time. Makes it hard for ancestor research!!

George_Braziller 5 years, 12 months ago

My dad never could say off the top of his head how old he was. He always had to subtract the year he was born from the current year. I thought it was hysterical when I was a kid that he didn't know his age.

Forty years later there was the Pick's Dementia and he was talking about things he was sure happened yesterday, but it had been 60 years before.

Pius Waldman 5 years, 12 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.

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