Lafayette County, organized November 16, 1820, was originally named Lillard County after James Lillard of Tennessee. James Lillard served in the first state constitutional convention and the first state legislature. Lillard County was organized along with seven other counties at the beginning of 1821. Mount Vernon was the temporary count seat of the county. February 16, 1825 brought the name change of Lillard County to Lafayette, after Marquis de La Fayette’s visit to the United States. The permanent seat of Lafayette County was placed in the “Old Town” of Lexington.
Lafayette County was settled primarily from migrants from the Upper South states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. They brought slaves and slaveholding traditions with them, and quickly started cultivating crops similar to those in Middle and Kentucky: hemp and tobacco. On a rare map from 1851, thirty years after the designation of Lafayette County, six settlements are shown in the area: Cool Spring, Dover, Greenton, Lexington, Mt. Hope, and Wellington.
Lafayette was one of several counties settled mostly by southerners to the north and south of the Missouri River. Given their culture and traditions, this area became known as Little Dixie. In 1860 slaves made up 25 percent or more of the county's population.Residents generally supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. A map from 1862, during the Civil War, Lafayette County contained seven settlements: Cooks Store, Cool Springs, Greenton, Lexington, Moss, Napoleon, and Wellington.
Before, and more heavily after the Civil War, Germans and German Americans from the St. Louis area settled in the area making up a large part of the population of Concordia, Emma, Wellington, Napoleon, Higginsville, Mayview, and Lexington. The German population tended to support the Union during the Civil War.
By 1899, twenty settlements dotted the map of the county: Alma, Aullville, Bates City, Chapel Hill, Concordia, Corder, Dover, Emma, Greenton, Halls, Hodge (Edwards Station), Lexington, Mayview, Myrick, Napoleon, Odessa, Page City, Waterloo, and Wellington.
Henry Renick, who was also the Justice of the Peace, built the first courthouse in 1824-25 on the square. The building was in use until 1832. It is claimed, (as told by William Chiles in a public address on July 4, 1876) that young “bucks” celebrated July 4th of 1831 by tearing down the walls and blowing up the foundation of the building. The following year the building was deemed unsafe, taken apart, and sold.
The second courthouse for the county, also on the square, was built in 1835. The three-story building was regarded as one of the finest in Missouri, as three-story buildings were rare during this time. The building was kept in use until 1849, when the present courthouse was occupied. The Baptist Female College bought the building in March of 1849. During the Civil War, it became a hospital, then a hospital for those infected with smallpox. It was later abandoned and sold for brick. There are no known illustrations of this courthouse building.
The business district of Lexington moved about one mile west after the town incorporated in 1845. The courthouse also moved to a new, more central location at this time. The court appropriated funds for the third and present courthouse and began putting plans for the new structure in March of 1847. The construction was completed in 1849, with the final cost being about $12,000. In 1854, a small annex was built to house the clerk’s office, followed by a two-story annex in the 1880s. At the turn of the 1900s a two story building addition was added on the East side of the Courthouse.
During the Battle of Lexington in 1861, the courthouse was fired upon, leaving a cannon ball in one of the columns.
In 1905, the Lexington City Hall was built down the block from the courthouse. The building has a floating dome, which was used during WWII for civil defense watches. In 2003, the county began a new project to renovate the building along with building new detention facilities for a new justice center. The building has been renamed Lafayette Hall, and currently holds the County Circuit Clerk Offices.
The original Lafayette County Jail was built in 1932 with funds from the Federal Works Administration under President Roosevelt. In 2002 a tax was passed that would fund a new building. The new jail housed its first inmates in the fall of 2004. The jail project is part of the Lafayette County Justice Center.
Historic sites located in Lafayette County:
Battle of Lexington, the Anderson House:
The Battle of Lexington took place September 18-20, 1861. The “Battle of the Hemp Bales” gained its name from the large hemp bales the Confederate soldiers rolled down to the Missouri river and soaked with water. The bales were then used as a barricade from the flying shot and shells as they pushed them back up to the battlefield. The 100 acre battlefield is now preserved as a state historic site. The site also contains a visitors’ center filled with Civil War artifacts and a fifteen minute video which tells the story of the three day “Battle of the Hemp Bales.”
The Anderson House, built by Oliver Anderson, was home to the Battle of Lexington. The mansion, decorated in mid-nineteenth century fashion, was used as the hospital during the battle. The house changed hands three times during the skirmish. While today the house is restored, evidence of the shot and shell can still be seen in the walls and floors of the structure. Tours of the Anderson House are given at various times during the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site’s operating hours.
For more information on the Battle of Lexington, and the historic site’s hours, visit:
The Masonic College
The Masonic College was relocated from Philadelphia, Missouri, in 1848. It was intended to be used as a college for the children of masons, financially it faltered and went out of business in 1857. When the Union troops arrived in Lexington in 1861, they claimed the vacant college as their headquarters. The three-story building was located on a hill four hundred yards away from the Oliver Anderson House. The building was fired upon by Captain Churchill Clark, grandson of explorer William Clark, with a brass six pounder gun. Today the site is home to College Park, which contains a one-third size replica of the Masonic College building. The park also has four brick pillars which mark the four corners of the original Masonic building. Also at the park is a cannon from the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” and a marker where Union Col. Mulligan hid one million confiscated dollars underneath his tent during the battle.
The Confederate Memorial State Historic Site
Located in Higginsville, the Confederate Memorial Historic Site was once home to the Confederate Soldiers Home of Missouri, which provided refuge to 1600 Civil War soldiers and their families for almost sixty years. Today the park contains 165 acres, walking trails, fishing lakes, and picnic spots.
Bordering the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site is the Missouri Veterans Cemetery. The cemetery contains fifty-five acres, and will be able to provide resting places for 24,000 veterans and their spouses. The cemetery contains its own lake and walking path.
For more information on the Confederate Memorial State Historic Site or the Missouri Veterans Cemetery visit:
The J.O. Shelby Park
Joseph Orville Shelby was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1830. At the age of twenty-one, after receiving funds from his deceased father’s estate, Shelby moved to Waverly, MO. With the assistance of his step-brother, he began a farming operation and then added a steamboat service. When the Civil War began, Frank Blair, a Kentucky cousin of Shelby, offered him a commissioned position with the Union army. He declined the position, and in a short time after, he recruited hundreds of men to join the Confederate army. After several successful expeditions during the war, Shelby refused to surrender. He and his troops traveled to Texas, where they gained land from Emperor Maximilian. They gained the name, “The Undefeated” after refusing to surrender. Shelby, his wife, and two sons returned to Adrian, Missouri and began a farming operation. The citizens of Waverly wanted to celebrate the life of their hometown hero. They sold almost 2,000 copies of “Shelby and his Men,” to raise funds to build a park in memory of the Confederate General. The park was dedicated on June 27, 2009.
For more information on the Waverly area and the J.O. Shelby Park visit:
Explore the additional sites listed below for an even deeper look at the rich history of our area.