The Mystery of Josiah Howell

The Mystery of Josiah Howell

Where is Josiah Howell?

Think you know the history of Howell County and its founding family name? Maybe, but multiple versions of the history from reputable sources seem to diverge at key points and the lost grave of a prominent member of the Howell family is right at the heart of the story.

Who Was Josiah Howell?

The history of Howell County has been recorded in many books and official state documents. Yet the story of how the county came to borrow the name of one of its first settling families seems to change course with each new retelling of the tale. There are names that appear over-and-over as you trace back each document:

Josephus Howell

Thomas Jefferson Howell

William Howell

Mary Howell

Sarah Howell

and Josiah Howell

Who was Josiah Howell?

That depends on who you ask.

Records show that Josiah Howell was born in 1763 in Bertie County, North Carolina. The actual month and day of his birth don’t appear to be recorded anywhere, which is not particularly uncommon for that time frame. When the British Parliament declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion in February of 1775 he would have been 12 years old.

His parents families were Quakers from Virginia and their ancestors had made the journey from Wales across the Atlantic to make a new life in the colonies. Josiah married Sarah Lassiter in 1787 and they soon found themselves with five growing children. Their four boys; Willie (William), Eason, Josephus and Thomas Jefferson; and their only daughter, Mary. For unknown reasons Mary is often left off of family records despite the fact that she was the one who donated the land to the county where the courthouse stands today in West Plains.

In the year of 1795, when Josiah was 32 years old and the head of a growing family, he moved his children and siblings families to Sumner County, Tennessee. The Howell’s were some of the first settlers in the county. It wasn’t long though before Josiah decided that the influx of settlers that followed was making things too crowded, and he decided to move his family farther west to the open spaces and clear streams of southern Missouri. It was 1835 and a 72 year old Josiah along with the entire Howell clan (and according to some sources their slaves) was again headed west by wagon.

The first division amongst the histories of Josiah and his families travels is fairly benign. It’s easy to imagine the Howell’s traveling by covered wagon like those we’ve seen in Hollywood movies, but some historians are convinced they traveled by two-wheeled ox cart. Their rationale for this steadfast belief in the two-wheeled mode of transportation is based on the lack of accessible roads or paths before settlers began arriving in 1839.

What’s that? You noticed that we suddenly jumped from 1835 to 1839 while talking about the same situation? Get used to that because from here on out everything gets just a bit hazy when it comes to absolute facts (also feel confident that all the preceding information is an “educated guess” for the most part). So when did the Howell’s come to what was then Ripley county? Probably 1839, but possibly 1835, and maybe even 1832. So let’s change “a 72 year old Josiah” to a 70-something Josiah and press on.

It’s 1830-something and the Howell’s have arrived in Ripley county, Missouri (more on the county name later). They’re not the first arrivals to the area though, that honor goes to a hunter/trapper named Adams. This is likely his last name and his first name didn’t seem to make it into any documents. Adams had settled a piece of land just east of the modern day Howell County Courthouse next to a spring. There he built a cabin and some storehouses and he cultivated a few acres around his remote home for growing crops. While the setting was likely idyllic he decided to sell his property and improvements to the newly arriving Howell family and he left for parts unknown. The spring can still be seen flowing today under a glass floor in the Old Post Office that is most recently a part of the First Baptist Church campus.

So far things haven’t been too bad. The stories basically holding together and it seems pretty obvious who is in charge of the clan. Obviously Howell county is named after Josiah Howell, right? Keep reading the Father or Son section below to see the real mystery.

Father or Son?

The guy in the picture? Not Josiah Howell. It’s actually his son Thomas Jefferson Howell. There are also pictures of Thomas’s headstone and of the cemetery where he is buried below. Why do people often use that picture and say that it’s Josiah? We’ll get back to that soon.

The Howell family has become the first permanent residents of what would become a county bearing their name. Josiah settles the area now known as Peace Valley and his son Williams settled nearby to his father. Daughter Mary (Maddox) and her family settled an area that later became the south side of the courthouse square in West Plains. Another daughter, Sarah Bingamin and her husband Peter, settled an area that would later become Oak Lawn Cemetery. You may have also noted that we’ve added a new daughter to the mix. She wasn’t mentioned before because her settlement is the first mention of her existence. If you’re keeping count there are now six children to Josiah Howell. It’s also at this point that mentions of Eason drop off. If you’d like to remove a child or two from the total count that’s up to you.

Josephus and his family settled about one mile east of the modern day town square. That leaves Thomas Jefferson Howell who moved into Adams cabin next to the spring.

Thomas Jefferson Howell

A story about “Tommy”

“About 1848, Thomas went to the spring, now known as the Town Spring, to get some water and was met by seven or right Indians who were not too pleased to find “white man” in their hunting ground. The Indians were very angry, but finally smoked the peace pipe with Tommy and they left the area in disgust, never to return.”

By Dorotha Reavis Howell County Missouri: A Pictorial History 1857-2007.

Now is when things get a bit more confusing. Documents and histories at this point start to confuse Josiah and Thomas Jefferson and even Josiah’s father Thomas. Many histories and stories are happy to start reporting which member of the Howell family is actually responsible for the naming of the county. They don’t even seem to bother deciding which names relate to actual people. Here are some common options:

Thomas Jefferson Howell

Josiah Howell

Josephus Howell

Jason Howell

Joshua Howell

Thomas Howell

James Howell

The biggest mix up seems to be between Josiah and Thomas Jefferson and determining who’s the father of whom. Confused yet? Good. We were too at first. Thomas Jefferson sharing a name with his grandfather didn’t help this situation and led to confusion about the lineage of the Howell family. We can say with certainty however that Thomas Jefferson (1808-1875) was the son of Josiah Howell (1763-1849) and his wife Sarah (1772-1847). It’s interesting that the Indian story about Thomas Jefferson Howell and the death of his mother occur in the same year. There’s nothing to support the idea that the two instances are related, but there’s also nothing to support the idea that they aren’t either.

Who’s really responsible for the naming of Howell County? Almost certainly it’s Thomas Jefferson Howell son of Josiah Howell and grandson of Thomas Howell. That’s not the mystery, or at least not as big of a mystery as the primary question about the demise and burial of family patriarch Josiah.

Thomas Jefferson Howell is buried in Woodland Old City Cemetery in Jefferson City, Missouri. His death and burial are no mystery and his contributions to his community and region are well documented. He was responsible for convincing the state legislature that the distances between county seats was simply too great for many settlers to travel to receive official documents and conduct business with the state. In 1831 the state split Ripley County from Wayne County and then split Oregon County off from Ripley in 1845. In 1857 Thomas Jefferson Howell successfully lobbied the state to split Howell County off from Oregon and created the county that would bare his name.

His tombstone reads:

“Hon. Thomas J. Howell

Born in Smith Co. Tenn,

September 22, 1808


at the City of Jefferson

March 7, 1875

Represented Oregon County in the 26th and 28th General Assembly of Missouri. Erected under an act of the General Assembly.

Approved April 30, 1879."

From the tombstone of Thomas Jefferson Howell, interred at Woodland Old City Cemetery in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Thomas Jefferson Howell rode his horse to two general assemblies in Jefferson City to represent Oregon County. He often wrote back to his brother (thought it’s not clear which brother) to describe his disgust with the “dirty politics” of the day.

So we know who formed Howell County and have a good grasp on the lineage of Josiah Howell. Josiah may not have been the one at the capital doing the politicking but it’s impossible to deny his importance both to the family and the region. Surely a man of such stature and importance was buried in a place of honor. Or maybe he was buried under a hotel. Keep reading below to find out about The Lost Family Cemetery.

Lost Family Cemetery

“Josiah, his wife Sarah (Lassiter) Howell and daughter-in-law, emeline (Campbell) Howell were buried in the Howell Family Cemetery. The cemetery was located on the present Walnut Street in West Plains. The Arcade Hotel was built over the cemetery in 1901. The Arcade Hotel has since been torn down. No remains were exhumed."

By ?.

It would seem that Josiah, the leader of the clan who brought his whole family into the wilds of southern Missouri, was lost under the development of the city of West Plains. Perhaps that’s true, and in that case Josiah and his family members lay under what is now the Howell County Juvenile Office at 111 Walnut Street. However, it’s far from certain that this version of the story is the final word in the matter. Several questions remain.

Why would the graves of such a prominent family be left abandoned to be developed over?

Would the community really not know the family cemetery existed in 1901 just 54 years after the death of Josiah?

Local historians offer other versions of the story that leave the mystery wide open. The long standing consensus has been that Josiah was likely buried at Howell Valley Cemetery near his homestead and land patent.

Some claim that the bodies were exhumed and moved to the Oak Lawn Cemetery or even to another small family cemetery in or near Howell Valley that has since been lost to time.

Still others point out that it’s believed that some of the Howell family went back to Tennessee or moved on to other homesteads farther west. It’s possible that during these family transitions the bodies were exhumed to be reburied at what might have been thought to be more permanent family homesteads.

Possible Burial Locations

Click the links below to view possible burial locations and other locations related to Josiah and his family.

Follow The Clues

A Josiah Howell quiz is comming soon.


“Josiah Howell (1763 – 1849) – Find A Grave Memorial.” Josiah Howell (1763 – 1849) – Find A Grave Memorial. Find A Grave – Melody, 11 Oct. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

Underwood, Jenny. “First Settlers of Oregon County from the OCMO History Book.” Oregon County MO Historical Society. OCMO Historical Society, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

“Thomas Jefferson Howell (1808 – 1875) – Find A Grave Memorial.” Thomas Jefferson Howell (1808 – 1875) – Find A Grave Memorial. Find A Grave – Melody, 15 Sept. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

Collen Morse Elliott and Lois Mashburn Ott, A Reminiscent History of the Ozark Region (Greenville, SC: Southern Historical Press, Inc., 1995). Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

Kander, Jason. “SOS, Missouri – State Archives Missouri History FAQ – County Origins.” SOS, Missouri – State Archives Missouri History FAQ – County Origins. Records and Archives, n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

“BLM GLO Records.” Bureau of Land Management – Josiah Howell. BLM GLO Records, n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

“Family Tree Maker: Descendants of Thomas Howell.” Family Tree Maker’s Genealogy Site: Outline Descendant Tree: Descendants of Thomas Howell. N.p., 2009. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

“Josiah Howell – Public Document.” Ancestry – Josiah Howell, 26 Apr. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

Flynn, Lynsey. “Thomas and Mary Howell – First Settlers of Oregon County.”, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.