Missouri pioneer, politician’s life cut short
James Robertson McDearmon, universally respected for his intelligence, was a man with a bright political future when his life was cut short at the age of 42.
He was born on August 31, 1805 in Prince Edward County, Virginia to James and Sukey (Puckett) McDearmon. The death of his parents in 1816 left him an orphan at the age of 11. An uncle, Joseph McDearmon, became the guardian of James and his three siblings.
James graduated from St. Mary’s College or, according to a St. Charles County history, Hampden Sidney College. He married Martha Gannaway (1802-1889) in 1826. They had eight children, the first two, Aurelia and John K. McDearmon, being born in Virginia.
James came to Missouri to seek his fortune, leaving his family behind until he settled down. In a letter to Martha dated December 6, 1830, he recounts how he and his brother Henry traveled to Guyandotte (near present-day Huntington, West Virginia). There they took the riverboat Alleghany to Louisville, Kentucky. Because the water level was extremely low, they could not secure passage on a boat, so they took a stagecoach from Louisville to St. Louis. James said he paid $30 for the trip but expected to pay only half the amount.
In the same letter, James describes the price of land in Missouri and the number of Virginians there.
James wrote, “I am convinced that Missouri is destined to be one of the leading states in the Union in terms of wealth and civilization. I have never met in my life a people more enterprising, intelligent and enlightened than this one. of Saint-Louis, and if I had a capital of 500 dollars, I would not want an easier task than to go to the country and make a fortune by trading.
James initially stayed in St. Louis County, but a few years later moved to the Femme Osage Valley in St. Charles County. His brother Henry moved to Fayette, Howard County and finally to Boonville, Cooper County, where he served as mayor during the Civil War.
James encouraged his family members to move to Missouri. His sister, Frances; her husband, Edmund Gannaway; and Martha’s mother, Rhoda Robertson, moved to Missouri. In June 1834, he and his brother-in-law Edmund Gannaway purchased 540 acres of land from Femme Osage in St. Charles County. His children worked on the farm.
When Edmund and Frances Gannaway died in 1841, James and his wife, Martha, welcomed their eight children.
James became the postmaster of Femme Osage in 1839 and ran a school in the area. He was involved in Missouri politics and the Democratic Party and was considered a candidate for office. James was appointed as a judge in St. Charles County, and in 1842 was appointed director of the central bank of St. Louis.
James wrote in 1840 to his brother Henry and expressed his doubts about his candidacy. He was a Democrat who had to face the prevailing Whig party. In 1844, he ran unsuccessfully for the legislature.
However, this was not the end of his political career. Governor John C. Edwards appointed him State Auditor, a position he held from 1846 to 1848. In 1846 he was living in Jefferson City.
Two of his sons, John K. and Thomas attended the University of Missouri. His daughter Aurelia was in Boonville to be educated by her sister-in-law but wanted to go to school in Saint-Charles. She got her wish and went to Mrs. Sibley’s school (now Lindenwood University).
The Democratic Party was considering James as a candidate for governor in the August 1848 election. The citizens of St. Charles County recommended him as their first choice. St. Louis County recommended him as a second choice. He would have been the first or second choice of several counties.
The state Democratic convention, which might have nominated James, was due to take place in late March 1848. His political career was cut short when James R. McDearmon died on March 20, 1848, after an eight-day illness. Local newspapers praised him, saying: “In the performance of his duties as Auditor of the Public Accounts, Justice McDearmon has earned the complete confidence of the whole community. … No one has ever done deal with him without being impressed by the rectitude of his understanding.”
McDearmon is buried in the public lot of Woodland-Old City Cemetery in Jefferson City.
If he had survived his illness, would he have become Governor of Missouri in 1848? What path would his brilliant public service career have taken? Would he have lived long enough to experience the turbulent years of the Civil War? These questions are left unanswered.
Elizabeth Werner lives in Florida. James R. McDearmon is her third great-grandfather. Nancy Arnold Thompson is a retired medical administrator and a regular contributor to this column.