American Pioneers: My Family's Pioneer History

When most of us think of "pioneers", we think of wagon trains moving across the prairies, images seared into our minds by Western movies and novels. For many American pioneers, this was the reality of settling in new areas but the basic word "pioneer" is not limited to the Old West. The first colonists had barely landed on the Eastern seaboard before the first pioneers began moving further westward.
I grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri, an old city on the banks of the Missouri River that dates from its' days as Joseph Roubidoux's trading post. St. Joe was one of the major departure points for wagon trains heading off to California and Oregon and later Colorado. Hundreds of thousands of pioneers launched their journey from St. Joseph and the history lingers. (Pony express stables, memorial at Riverfront Park, Lewis and Clark, etc.). I was always the child who listened to the elders when they talked about the past but until a family reunion that spanned four generations when I was nine, I didn't realize that I was connected from those pioneers.
At that family reunion, my great-grandfather's youngest brother, an old man himself, talked to me about our family's pioneer history. The family – the Lewis family – that we shared was a true pioneer family. I think that my interest in family history began that day on the banks of the Blue in Kansas City.
What I learned that day was that my grandmother's great-grandparents, William Bruce and Jemima Lewis, came to St. Joseph on the way to Oregon. Like many families who migrated further west to the edge of the frontier with each generation, both William Bruce and his wife were born in Kentucky – or Kaintucky, once the raw frontier. The Lewis had migrated there from Virginia after the Revolutionary war. From Kentucky, the couple and their growing family moved to the fertile farmlands of Sangamon County Illinois but then decided to move again when they learned of the land available in Oregon. They headed for St. Joseph, a jumping off place for both the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails to wait for spring but on April 15, 1850, Jemima gave birth to her seventh son, Thomas Jefferson Lewis. The baby's birth delayed the trip – you see, the journey took about 5 months over 2,000 and the peak time for wagon trains to depart was between mid-April and mid-May when the grass would be both green and abundant on the prairie. That delay led Jemima to ask her husband if they might stay in the growing city and he agreed. That son would grow up to become Sheriff of Buchanan County, one of several political offices he held during his lifetime and his granddaughter became my grandmother who still lives in St. Joseph today. In 1849, 1850 and 1851, more pioneers left from St. Joseph than from any other point. Wagons lined up on Felix Street for miles as they waited to cross the Missouri River. If you wonder why St. Joseph, it was because the route from St. Joe had less fords – river and water crossings – than other routes which made it slightly easier.
As interesting as this was to discover, I learned that I had other pioneer heritage and soon began to explore it. With the help of some cousins, two uncles, and my great-aunt Sophia, I learned that I was descended from not one but two of Missouri's oldest pioneer families. I believe that the present is firmly rooted in the past so I would like to share my family's story with the class so that you can hear one family's pioneer tale. This is all true and is documented. My paternal great grandmother was Emma Zumwalt and it is her family that first came to Missouri before 1800.
To follow the Zumwalts, we have to begin in Prussia which was part of Germany. I can trace my family back to Adam Zumwalt who was born in 1672. His son Johann Wilhelm Andreas Zumwalt was born at Strasbourg, Prussia in 1698. Johann was part of Emperor Frederick the Second's elite Army, a special unit called the Reinhard Corps in which every man had to be at least six feet in height. He emigrated to America and one of his many children, Jacob Zumwalt was born in Frederick Virginia on December 11, 1752. Jacob and his brothers all fought in the Revolutionary War. One of my uncles said that they began as Loyalists, true to the British King but decided that they liked the notion of liberty, of freedom and so they changed sides. Jacob married on his 22nd birthday to Catherine Queti Miller, a woman who had a Native American heritage. They had four children before her death and he remarried to Frances Price, with whom he had seven more children.
At some point, Jacob moved from Virginia to Pennsylvania and then to Kentucky, probably after the Revolutionary War. After receiving a Spanish land grant of almost 384 acres, he decided to move West to live on the land. He loaded his large family along with 30 head of cattle, 11 sheep, 12 horses, and many goods on a flat boat. Like most early pioneers to Missouri, he traveled down the Ohio River and then over the Mississippi River to land in what is now St. Charles County. A park called Fort Zumwalt now sits upon this original land grant. The land was granted in 1796. His family came with that of his brother Christopher.
Jacob built the first hewn log home north of the Missouri River (which flows into the Mississippi near where he settled). The first section of this historic home was completed in 1798 and when finished, the home had four large rooms, a stone foundation, plank floors, and a double fireplace. That fireplace is all that remains of this first home today and can be seen at Fort Zumwalt. Five more brothers arrived as well and the brothers distilled whiskey which they sold to the Indians. Another early settler – Daniel Boone – suggested that Jacob choose a home site on the brink of a hill with a fresh spring at the foot. Daniel Boone, through my late grandfather, Thomas Llafet, is another ancestor and it's a wonderful coincidence to me that my two ancestors were friends and neighbors!
During the war of 1812 the Zumwalt home was fortified and opened to other families and thus became "Fort Zumwalt", a place easy to defend with its' hilltop location. Up to ten families took refuge at the Fort.
In the later years of his life, Jacob moved with his son Henry to what would become Pike County Missouri and died there around 1820. His son Henry was my great-grandmother's grandfather. Henry and his family lived near what would become the small town of Louisiana, Missouri – named for the Louisiana Purchase rather than the state. Henry married Elizabeth Kistler and after her death, Barbara.
My great, great grandfather, Joshua Zumwalt was born on April 29, 1820 in St. Charles, Missouri. He was born before Missouri became a state and grew up in Pike County with many, many relatives. In 1846, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, he married Nancy Ann Venable (November 26). Joshua and Nancy had ten children, one of which was my great-grandmother Emma. They were prosperous farmers and part of one of Missouri's oldest pioneer families. When Emma announced that she was marrying a recent German immigrant, the family was not happy but Emma married Reinhard Sontheimer regardless. My grandfather, Otto Sontheimer, was born at Louisiana, Missouri August 29, 1894. When he was a small boy, his family moved across the state to St. Joseph, Missouri where he had been commissioned as a stone cutter to work on some park projects there.
My children make ten generations back to the first Zumwalt in Prussia.
I am proud to trace my heritage back to the Zumwalts, the Boones, the Lewises and other pioneer families.

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