Warsaw, Missouri, the County Seat of Benton County, is a small town of some 2,100 permanent residents, which just about doubles during the lake season as fishermen, campers, and lake enthusiasts move down to their seasonal homes or just come for the area opportunities. Warsaw is located between two of Missouri’s largest lakes — Truman Reservoir and Lake of the Ozarks.
Rich in history, from Native Americans to steamboats, to Civil War skirmishes, Warsaw has endured throughout the years to become a quickly growing community that exudes small-town charm and provides numerous recreation opportunities for locals and visitors alike.
When white explorers came to the area in 1719, a number of Indian tribes called the region home, including the Delaware, Shawnee, Kickapoo, and Sac and Fox. By far, however, the land was occupied by the Osage Indians, from which, the river would later take its name. With its plentiful supply of rivers and springs, the area abounded with game, providing superb hunting grounds for the Indians. In its bluffs and hills, the Indians found abundant amounts of flint rock in order to make arrows, knives and other weapons.
Early French hunters, trappers, and traders soon began to trade with the Indians along the Osage River, which by the early 1800s, increased significantly as white settlers saw opportunities on the river itself.
The area that would become the town of Warsaw was first settled around 1820, primarily by Kentucky and Tennessee farmers of English, Irish and German descents. Early on, the settlement became a crossroads of travel and freighting. The first ferry was established on the Osage River in 1831 by Lewis Bledsoe, located where the site of Bledsoe Ferry Park, near Truman Dam, is located today. Bledsoe’s Osage Ferry served the Boonville-Springfield Road, parts of which were also called the Old Military Road or Wire Road, east of town. Another ferry was later established by Mark Fristoe to the west. Soon, numerous freight wagons, stagecoaches, and wagon trains began to pass through the area.
One of the earliest residents of Benton County was Stephen A. Howser from Kentucky. He and his wife, Sarah (Sally) Wyatt Howser, settled in the area that would soon become Warsaw around 1831. Later, they would deed part of their land on the Osage River for the new township. Alas, they would also be the parents of a boy who would later make his name known in Missouri’s darker annals of history as a murderer and a thief.
Benton County was first created on January 3, 1835, from parts of Pettis and Greene Counties and named for Thomas Hart Benton, a United States Senator from Missouri.
The county “offices” were initially held in a home near Bledsoe’s Ferry, which was doing a brisk business. In 1836, the Gazetteer of Missouri described the new “town,” which was then referred to as “Osage” or “New Town” in promising terms, including plans for a great hotel, mills, warehouses, and merchants, as well as predicting a population of several thousand over the next five years.
Town lots for Warsaw were first sold in February 1838, and the town slowly began to grow. The first Benton County Court met in various homes in the area but a new site was soon chosen at the corner of Washington and Van Buren Streets (where the county jail now stands.) Money was raised for a new “temporary” courthouse building through lot sales and a 20-foot by 30-foot log building was constructed. Two years later, construction on a permanent two-story courthouse began. The new structure cost $4,500 and county officials began to occupy the new building in 1842. The following year, the City of Warsaw was officially incorporated.
Though most accepted that “Osage” would be Benton County’s new county seat, nearby Fristoe and other small trading centers fought for the County Seat designation, delaying the selection for two years. Finally, Warsaw was the made official county seat in 1843. Though there is no written record of how the town’s name was chosen, it is believed that it was named after Poland’s capital city, in honor of Polish General and Patriot Tadeusz Kosciusko. Adamson Cornwall was both the first merchant and postmaster.
That same year, the first steamboats traveled the Osage River, docking in Warsaw, carrying cargos of salt, iron, nails, and other supplies to the area. On their return voyage, the steamboats hauled meat, furs, grain, eggs, and whiskey. Because of the shoals and tight bends in the river, the steamboats were necessarily smaller and had shallower drafts than the steamboats operating on the Missouri River. But, travel and trade they did, transferring goods all the way from St. Louis and back.
At the site where Reser’s Funeral Home is located today, was the Nicholas Tavern, later called the Farmers Hotel and Newman’s Hotel. The original building, built in the 1840s would later serve as a daily mail and stage stop for the Butterfield Stage Line from 1858-1861. Reser’s current building incorporates part of that early structure.
In 1840, an old fashioned Hatfield & McCoy style feud occurred in Benton and Polk Counties (an area where Hickory County would later be formed). The feud was between the Hiram Turk family, who owned a store and saloon south of Warsaw, and the Andy Jones Family, who lived along the Pomme de Terre River. The Jones family, who evidently had a penchant for such habits as horse racing, gambling, and counterfeiting, were not liked by the Turks, who, though well-educated, were known to never back down from a fight.
The whole affair began on Election Day, 1840 when Turk’s Store was established as a local polling place. There, Andy Jones and one of Hiram Jones’ sons, Jim, got into a dispute. Before it was over, members of both families were involved in the fray. In the end, the Turks were charged with assault and starting a riot. Over the next several years, the feud would expand, both inside and outside of the courts, resulting in a number of killings, and dubbed the “Slicker War.”
In 1857, the Mechanics Bank of St Louis was established at Washington and Van Buren Streets. It was considered the most expensive bank building in western Missouri. However, it would close just four years later when Warsaw was devastated by General Fremont’s troops in 1861. It stood empty until 1912 when it was bought by the Benton County court and converted into a jail, which is still used today.
Riverboat traffic remained brisk during the 1850s, with as many as seven steamboats at the Warsaw wharf at any given time. However, when the Civil War broke out, guerilla terrorism on the Osage River stopped local trade.
At about the same time that Civil War was declared in 1861, Benton County had another worry on their hands – that of accused murderer Stephen Howser, son of one of the area’s earliest settlers, Stephen A. Howser. More commonly called Hough, the younger man was accused of killing a man named Halloway while on his way to California, as well as a Gasconade County man named Farris in 1859. Though Howser had been sentenced to prison by a St. Louis Court in 1859, for whatever reasons, the killer was pardoned in 1861 and began to make his way back to Warsaw. Along the way, he was said to have killed a man in Baldwin, Missouri. Soon after his return to Warsaw, he shot and killed a man named D.D. Jones, allegedly after robbing him. He fled the city but was diligently tracked by Benton County lawmen. He was soon overtaken and killed in Vernon County, Missouri.