Grover Gatewood’s e-mails to me shine a light on an important but obscure historian who helped chronicle Platte County’s early history. W.W. Gatewood is attributed as the author of “History of Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri,” published in 1885. I knew almost nothing about him.
My own Civil War columns in this paper, etched on the Internet, mentioned some of Gatewood’s references to the war and how people were affected. I read his book, 4-inches thick but with big type, in the summer of 2013.
A few columns that year referenced him.
So my history-loving heart soared when I opened an e-mail and found the following words from Grover Gatewood of Bridgehampton, N.Y. He wanted to buy a copy of the book in question.
“My interest is this: W.W. (William Worth) Gatewood was my great grandfather,” Grover Gatewood said.
Platte County has this colorful and wonderful 1800s history thanks to one-time status as the edge of the western frontier, riverboats, Civil War mayhem, nearness to Fort Leavenworth, and being tucked away as a backward farm county in between the up-to-date and rising cities of Kansas City and St. Joseph.
W.M. Paxton was a Platte County pioneer, lawyer, student of human nature, poet, genealogist and historian who chronicled the county’s history in great detail. We know many details about his life and have his photographs. He lived into the early 1900s.
I once interviewed a woman, who as a young girl in Platte City, knew him as a neighbor up the street. Gatewood, however, was a mystery, until now.
Paxton wrote an entry in his “Annals” for 1885:
“The “History of Platte” written by Gatewood for the National Historical Co. is now delivered to subscribers for $12. There is much valuable materials, strung together without system and without index. It flatters all who pay for it.”
Paxton also made several other references to Gatewood in his Annals, such as: “Some years ago I wrote for Gatewood’s “History of Platte” a notice about Senator Anderson…”
So who was Gatewood and where did he go?
“W.W. left for New Mexico, where he read the law and became a highly-sought after criminal attorney and then a judge, a hanging judge to be sure,” his great grandson wrote. “He represented one side in the Lincoln County Land Wars, a riparian rights fight that launched the career of Billy the Kid. W.W. told neither my grandfather or my father which side he represented in the case, probably because he was the lawyer for the “bad” guys (not Billy or his mentor, an English rancher).”
W.W. Gatewood was known as a lawyer who could “get even the guilty off through slick windbaggery.”
One history book about western outlaws references his trial skills and said he was tough as nails and just as sharp. W.W. once beat his grandson for getting life-saving aid during a blizzard at a ranch owned by the elder’s enemy.
“W.W. amassed thousands of acres of land in the territory of New Mexico but decided eventually that the tax burden was too great for land of limited potential (or so was thought), so he deeded it to the United State government,” Grover Gatewood said. “It is now the White Sands Missile Base which includes Alamogordo, site of the A-bomb tests.”
Gatewood’s history of Platte County tilts heavily in favor of slavery and the Confederacy in the years before and during the Civil War. Maybe here’s why.
“W.W.’s father, James Minor Gatewood, was a Captain in the Confederate Missouri State Guard and died while ostensibly engaged with the enemy in 1862.”
W.W. Gatewood was born September 8, 1849 in Pike County, Missouri. The family’s Missouri roots before the Civil War war trace to Montevallo in Vernon County.
Via his mother’s family, Gatewood was also a cousin of gunfighter John Wesley Hardin. W.W. Gatewood lost his first wife to illness. In 1880, he married Mattie J. Foster in Warrensburg, her home town.
After he retired from the law, W.W. moved to Brownfield, Texas, where he died Dec. 2, 1920.
Gatewood praised Paxton highly in his history. He undoubtedly borrowed from Paxton and other written sources to compile the book. Much of the text was written by families and submitted by them as “subscribers,” and perhaps running just as they wrote it.
But here and there in the history are little remarks that showed Gatewood visited some families and commented upon them.
Maybe his review of the pioneers in Platte County prompted him to seek his own adventure in what was left of the Old West. History inspires, and it’s so sweet when history hidden suddenly is in clear view. Never throw away great people stories just because they’re old, they’re still an adventure.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.