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 Samuel Bailey “Old Uncle Sam” Shepard

Samuel Bailey “Old Uncle Sam” Shepard

Lee County, Virginia, USA
Death 8 Feb 1909 (aged 124–125)
Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas, USA
Burial Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas, USA
Plot Section Old 5, Lot 142
Memorial ID 34282793 · View Source
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Legend of 125-year-old stirs curiosity in Lawrence
Lawrence Journal-World

Published Friday, June 29, 2012

LAWRENCE, Kan. — 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 (18777462?), 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."

Jeffersonian Gazette - Feb. 10, 1909

Samuel Bailey Shepard, between 120 and 125 years old, died of old age at 9:30 o'clock last night at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Joshua Hamilton, 937 Pennsylvania Street. He is survived by one daughter. The funeral will be held tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 o'clock from the A. M. E. church, and burial will be in Oak Hill cemetery.

There are very few old time Lawrence residents who do not remember old Sam Shepard; he has been a familiar figure on the streets of the city for many years. He was born a slave in Lee County, Virginia, between 1785 and 1790. Unlike a great many old slaves he does not recall "ol' Massa" George Washington, but remembers seeing General Jackson. He came to Lawrence January 1, 1862, and lived here since that date, and during that time has worked but for one man, and that almost continuously, the late R. W. Ludington, and since Mr. Ludington's death, for his widow. He was a faithful and a hard worker, and had many friends among the white people. His wife died about thirty-five years ago. The one daughter living, Mrs. Hamilton, is the only survivor out of ten children.

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  • Maintained by: Becky Doan
  • Originally Created by: A & R
  • Added: 28 Feb 2009
  • Find A Grave Memorial 34282793
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Samuel Bailey “Old Uncle Sam” Shepard (1784–8 Feb 1909), Find A Grave Memorial no. 34282793, citing Oak Hill Cemetery, Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas, USA ; Maintained by Becky Doan (contributor 46821009) .