Turner Gill: The “little giant of the 3rd Ward”

Kansas City was certainly lucky that a calmer Gill was mayor at the time. At 5’8” tall, his ability to resolve conflicts – nonviolently and reasonably- earned him the nickname as “the little giant of the 3rd Ward.”

By Diane Euston

  In Jackson Co., antebellum evidence of the men, women and children – and slaves- that lived in turmoil along the border during early settlement are erased from our view. It takes a lot of digging and even more creative thinking to piece together the extraordinary change from farms and fields to the mapped-out metropolitan areas we have today.

  If you’re familiar with the subdivision of Verona Hills and Migliazzo Park, then you’re looking at a seriously important piece of this area’s early history. Purchased from Dabney Lipscomb, founder of the town of New Santa Fe- a stop-off along the Santa Fe Trail, Marcus Gill from Kentucky moved onto this extensive acreage in 1854 with his growing family.

  Turner Anderson Gill- the second oldest of Marcus’ children- was 12-years-old at the time of the family’s move to Missouri. He spent his teenage years on this land before setting his sights on a career in law. In his 77-year-long life, Turner Gill spent several years of service in the Confederate Army, attended law school, became mayor of growing Kansas City where he was known as “the little giant of the 3rd Ward” and served as a judge.

  His story uncovers the oftentimes-complicated yet important history of the early settlers of the Kansas City area.

From Kentucky to Missouri

  Col. Marcus Gill (1814- 1886) bought part of his father’s extensive land and mill (called Gills Mill) in Bath Co., Ky. where, with his first wife Sarah, their second child, Turner was born in 1841. When Turner was just four years old, his mother passed away and his father married his mother’s first cousin, Mary Jane.

Marcus Gill (1814-1886), Turner Gill’s father

  In March 1854, Marcus sold his farm and mill in Kentucky and set his sights to the west. With children Enoch, Turner, Leah, Susan and Sallie along with his pregnant wife in tow, Marcus piled his belongings, a year’s worth of supplies, wagons, farming implements and between 20 to 25 slaves into a large flat boat with covered decks.

  For $25 per acre, Marcus purchased an established farm in southern Jackson County on the edge of the frontier which already had a log home on the property. There, Turner and the rest of his siblings were given a common education just steps away from Indian Country and the Santa Fe Trail. With the help of enslaved labor, the Gill family lived comfortably until the tensions of the border boiled into full-fledged war.

Fighting for the Lost Cause

  In 1860, 18-year-old Turner Gill traveled to Columbia to attend University of Missouri so he could pursue his dream of being a lawyer. By 1860, Turner Gill’s older brother, Enoch had moved to Texas with his wife.

  In the winter of that year, Marcus Gill welcomed none other than William Clark Quantrill to stay with the family. Due to his secessionist viewpoint, his ownership of slaves and the fact that Kansas Territory was steps away from the homestead, Turner’s father didn’t feel safe staying in Jackson County.

  Just weeks after the outbreak of the Civil War, Marcus Gill packed up his belongings and approximately 18 slaves and headed south to Texas. Accompanying him was William Quantrill and several other families from the southern Jackson County area. When that wagon train left for Texas, Marcus Gill was said to be worth millions of dollars in today’s money.

  School was no longer in the forefront of Turner’s mind. In 1861, he packed up his books and left school to enlist in Gen. Sterling Price’s Missouri State Guard. He was present at the battles at Rock Creek, Carthage, Wilson’s Creek and Lexington.

  In March 1862, he enlisted in 6th Missouri Infantry and was present at the Battle of Corinth where “he was wounded in the left hip by a spent ball. Another bullet passed so close to his lips as to blister them.”

Turner Gill in 1875. Photo courtesy Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

  In 1863, Turner fought at Port Gibson and Champion Hill where he was seriously injured in the right shoulder. It was said he was “almost dead, but determined not to die” when he was at the Battle of Vicksburg. There, he became a prisoner of war but was later paroled.

  Turner was able to take this time to visit his family in Texas and recover a bit before on his way back north, he opted to enlist yet again- this time under the command of Gen. Jo Shelby. He rose in the ranks to lieutenant.

  In charge of a scouting party, Lt. Gill was sent with 20 men to gather intelligence. Early at sunrise while Gill and his men were still sleeping, federal troops surrounded them and made a fierce attack. With little time to act, “there was no time for dressing or saddling. The troopers, securing their arms, mounted their horses in the airy attire of semi-nudity.”

  Due to the young commander’s quick action, Gen. Jo Shelby appointed Gill to captain. It was said his response to this surprise attack saved hundreds of lives. In a biography written in 1900, it was said that Capt. Gill’s regiment “became one of the best drilled, best disciplined and most serviceable commands in Shelby’s division, that wonderful aggregation of brave, reckless, indomitable fighting men.”

  As captain of Company K, Turner Gill served in Price’s Raid on Missouri and was present at the Battle of Westport in 1864 where he was at the helm of some of the fiercest fighting in Shelby’s Division.

 Turner’s brother, Enoch B. Gill, later a well-known attorney, enlisted in Waul’s Texas Legion in 1862 and later in the Missouri Infantry. Enoch suffered the tyranny of war when he lost a leg on the battlefield.

Restarting After the War

 The history books remind us that the Civil War ended in 1865. Those wealthy successionist families such as the Gills had gambled much on the cause, and they suffered great financial loss because of it.

 Turner Gill’s father, Marcus’s trip back home to southern Jackson County from Texas was strikingly different than his departure. Family records indicate that “the family traveled in a Texas wagon drawn by a pair of Mexican ponies harnessed with raw hide.”

  When the family arrived back at their Jackson County farm, they found the fence had been destroyed and that everything that could be removed had been stolen.

  Turner Gill turned his sights back to the law and began working under J.V.C. Karnes until 1866 when he enrolled in law school at Kentucky University in Lexington. After graduation in 1868, he returned to Kansas City and started his own practice.

  In 1871, Turner opted to settled down and get himself a wife. The Christian Church at 12th and Central was “a scene of much gaity and pleasure” when 29-year-old Turner Gill married Lizzie Campbell (1849-1905), daughter of pioneer John S. Campbell and Eleanor McGee.

 Three pioneer families- the Campbells, the Gills, and the McGees- were some of the elite of the Kansas City area.  In fact, Turner’s half-sister, Susan had married Allen B.H. McGee two years earlier when she was 19 and he was 53. So, Turner’s wife’s uncle was his brother-in-law.

  At a price tag of a whopping $7,000, Turner Gill constructed a two-story brick home with large, impressive porches and beautiful gardens in 1873 in the posh Quality Hill neighborhood. Standing at 225 W. 16th Street near Central, “the Gill residence lifted its square tower proudly in a neighborhood that boasted the town’s finest homes.”

  There, the couple had four boys: Charles (b. 1872), George (b. 1874), Campbell (b. 1876) and William (b. 1883).

Circa-1875 drawing of Turner Gill’s stately home

A Mayor with Minor Family Drama

  Even with a successful law practice and growing family, Col. Turner Gill was inclined to try his hand at running the blossoming city of Kansas City. A democrat like his father, Marcus, he accepted the nomination and got to work on campaigning.

  In April 1875, Turner became the city’s 17th mayor with 1,711 votes. Only 96 votes separated him from his republican opponent. After his win was announced, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran the headline, “Kansas City Gone Democratic.”

  Just 33 years old, Mayor Gill got to work on some major problems plaguing the city. The biggest issue was financial. Year after year, the debt was mounting and the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Kansas City Times later reported, “Kansas City, like other Western municipalities, was suffering the evils of extravagance and irresponsible government.”

  There was no money in the treasury when he took over and the city was still overspending. The city was late on their bills and had reportedly $500,000 in delinquent taxes.

  Mayor Gill immediately worked to rewrite the city charter; the changes gave him more power over the city’s finances. With careful management, he was able to wipe away a great deal of the debt and was reelected for a second term by 205 votes in 1876.

  One of the largest issues facing the city was an ongoing dispute between the privately-owned water works company and the city over rates. Water was pumped 12 miles from the Kaw River (the Missouri River was considered “too muddy” for drinking) at the time to a location near 21st and Holly. Mayor Gill was able to resolve this dispute while also saving the city thousands of dollars.

Turner Gill’s clock, which sat in his law office, is now owned by his descendants.

  As Turner Gill was having political successes in the city, family drama made the front pages of the paper. Just weeks after winning a second term, his father, Marcus was charged on seven counts of “fraudulently forging, obliterating and erasing signatures to a certain deed of release executed by him, and then defrauding his son-in-law, Jesse Noland of sums accounting to $8,700.”

  Mayor Gill dropped his duties for an afternoon and went and bailed his dad out of jail.

  The case involved an ongoing dispute between Jesse Noland and Marcus Gill. Jesse married Leah Gill, Marcus’s daughter and Turner’s sister, in 1861. At the time, Marcus signed over some of his property to Jesse Noland before his jaunt to Texas. Jesse at the time was in the mercantile business in New Santa Fe just south of the Gill farm.

  The newspaper reported, “During the border warfare the cattle and stock were all stolen or confiscated by the thieving bands that infested this region, and when Gill returned, Noland made a statement of the facts to him, and asked to be relieved from the obligations he had incurred.”

  Jesse Noland claimed that Marcus Gill gave him a receipt to take care of the property in New Santa Fe, and due to the thieves taking the property, he was at no fault. He said Marcus Gill wrote him a release, and when he changed his mind, he tried erasing it and then collecting the money.

  Noland was so upset by these actions, he asked for a grand jury that then indicted his father-in-law for forgery.

  In response to this action, Enoch Gill, Turner’s older brother, took matters in his own hands and published his own account of the drama- essentially calling Noland a liar.

  According to Enoch, Noland “proposed to rent [Marcus Gill’s] farm, and to buy stock, farming utensils, etc., necessary to run the same, to which my father agreed.” He also stated that Noland was renting the Gill farm for $750 a year and claimed in 1863 that the property had been stolen.

  Enoch claimed that it was “later found Noland’s statement was false- his mercantile business wasn’t doing well and he had sold a large part of the property to pay his debts, and the balance of the property he had sold and put the money in his pocket.”

  The words printed in the Kansas City Times were gasoline on the family fire.

  One day later in the public square in Independence, a true “showdown” occurred between Mayor Gill’s brother, Enoch B. Gill and Jesse Noland. The courts had just dropped the forgery charges against Marcus Gill. Strong language was exchanged before pistols were drawn on both sides.

  Mind you, Enoch had lost a leg in the war- but that didn’t stop him from getting his brother-in-law into a position where he was in danger of being shot. The Kansas City Times reported, “Just before being separated, Jesse Noland struck Gill a severe blow to the face.”

   City marshals arrested them both and they were taken in front of the mayor. Luckily, it was the mayor of Independence. Both men were fined one dollar and released.

  The patriarch of the family had the last word in this unfortunate feud. Marcus Gill wrote his daughter and son-in-law out of his will.

  Kansas City was certainly lucky that a calmer Gill was mayor at the time. At 5’8” tall, his ability to resolve conflicts – nonviolently and reasonably- earned him the nickname as “the little giant of the 3rd Ward.”

  After paying off the city’s incredible debt, settling disputes and securing funds in the city’s bank account, Mayor Turner Gill declined a third term as mayor.

March 28, 1926 headline in the Kansas City Star

Civilian Life and Loss

  After leaving his position as 17th mayor of Kansas City, Turner Gill was appointed city counselor for two terms. When a position as a judge in the circuit court opened up, he was appointed by the governor to the position.

  In 1881, his third-born son Campbell Gill died at the age of five. Three years later, his father’s ailing health had him seeking out the healing waters of Plattsburg, Mo.

  Instead of selling the beloved farm he had fought for, Marcus Gill opted to gift his land to his children. The main house that he had built was given to his daughter, Susan Gill McGee (1848-1901). Her descendants held onto the home and land until it was sold to J.C. Nichols in 1959.

  In 1886, Marcus Gill passed away.

  Turner, his wife and three remaining children became part of the “migration” of people leaving Quality Hill and resettled on the east side on elegant Millionaire’s Row on Troost Ave in 1888. Turner’s mansion built on Quality Hill was rented out by him for decades.

  In 1889, Turner Gill resigned as circuit court judge and was elected associate judge of the Kansas City Court of Appeals where he served for 20 years.

  Tragedy struck yet again when Turner’s 24-year-old son died in Alaska in 1898. Seven years later, his beloved wife of 34 years passed away.

  By 1909, Turner had retired, remarried and moved to the land he had inherited from his father. Two years later, he opted to move to Los Angeles, Ca. in order to take advantage of the weather and health benefits.

  During the 1918 flu pandemic, Turner Gill caught the deadly disease. Although he was able to survive the initial illness, “he never recovered from the weakened condition.” On July 18, 1919, Turner Anderson Gill- soldier, lawyer, mayor and judge- passed away. He is buried near his father at Elmwood Cemetery.

Preserving the Past

  The Gill family is synonymous with Kansas City’s history. What started as a move from Kentucky in 1854 continued with wealth, prominence and prosperity. Marcus Gill’s log cabin where Turner spent his teenage years was added onto and became a showcase farm in southern Jackson County.

  After the McGee family sold it to JC Nichols in 1959, the house- with a hidden log cabin underneath its more modern structure- stood in the shadows of its former glory. As real estate to the south became more valuable, JC Nichols tore the house down in 1975 to make room for more homes in Verona Hills despite efforts to save it.

  The same fate cursed Turner Gill’s two-story showstopper house on Quality Hill. The brick mansion at 225 W. 16th St. was torn down in 1926 to make way for a $100,000 apartment and business building.

  Turner Gill’s two surviving sons sold the house to be redeveloped.

  Part of our city’s complicated history is coming to terms with the fact that as land prices increase, developers devour historic structures to make room for more modern structures. It’s a story I continuously tell because it’s all-too-common and accepted.

  The result is the loss of pieces of our area’s history- structural reminders of the past. The more that is removed, the harder it is to engage our community in our own collective history. This is exactly why I spend so much time and energy trying to save and preserve the precious structures that miraculously remain.

  Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.co

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