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