Sunday, February 21, 2021

Old Uncle Sam

The oldest documented person who ever lived was Jeanne Calment, a French woman born in 1875 and died in 1997. Her alleged longevity has come into question recently as skeptics note that her supposed age of 122 comes nowhere near other long-living centenarians. The next closest age is 119. Skeptics claim that the real Jeanne Clement died in 1934 and that, for some reason, her daughter, Yvonne, assumed her identity. While many don't believe that happened, stating that Yvonne died in 1934 of tuberculosis, there are several curiosities that the skeptics question. If you would like to read more about that, there is a wonderful New Yorker article you can read.

Jeanne Calment, 1996, at the age of 121
photo from The Independent

Samuel Shepard was born to White Cloud and an unknown slave woman, owned by James Shepherd in Lee County, Virginia in April sometime between 1784 and 1790. Most mentions of Samuel spell his name Sheperd. With his owner and at least two other slaves, Peter and Ben, Samuel arrived in Jackson County, Missouri. Apparently, Samuel was a very skilled woodworker. It's not known everything that he worked on or built but the 1827 Jackson County Courthouse still stands. For years it was the only courthouse between Independence and the Pacific Ocean.

1827 log cabin courthouse in Independence, Missouri.
Photo from VisitKC.

It is unknown when Samuel gained his freedom. Some report speculate he got it with the Emancipation Proclamation while other reports say he bought his freedom due to his woodworking skills. Either way, Samuel was a free man and moved to Lawrence, Kansas--again, some reports say 1862 and others 1863. He was recorded on the Census as living in Lawrence in 1870. For years, Samuel was a fixture in the community. He was well-known and well-liked. Samuel was initially married to Elizabeth Hutchinson who died around 1875. Together, they had ten children but only two survived into adulthood. He later married Julia Newson and the two lived together with Sam's daughter and son-in-law, Mattie and Joshua Hamilton.

Several years before Samuel died, a reporter for the Lawrence Daily Journal stopped Samuel on the street and asked him how old he was. "Well, I am suah ovah 100, I suah is." In the winter before his death, Samuel wandered away during an ice storm and practically lost his foot and nearly froze to death. That episode probably didn't help the old man's health and Samuel Shepard, known by many in Lawrence as Old Uncle Sam, one of the most polite old men in town, died February 8, 1909. At the low end, his age is mentioned as 119. At the high end, and what's on his gravestone in Oak Hill Cemetery, is 125.

Samuel's tale gained attention when the Lawrence Journal-World did an article about him when asked about his age of 125. While the article didn't divulge any new information, it did bring attention to Samuel Shepard's story which his descendants hope to uncover.
Samuel Shepard, courtesy of the Jackson County Missouri Historical
Society. They estimate his age to be 105 in this photo.

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