Belmont State Park, Columbus, Hickman County, Kentucky


William Dacus was the oldest son of Eliza and Henry Dacus. He was born in Tipton County, Tennessee in 1822 and died in Pope County, Arkansas in 1893.

His life history is complicated. He farmed. He cured hams. During the Civil War he sold mules and shoed horses. He worked as a hotel keeper, a butcher, a sheriff's deputy, an estate administrator, a coroner. He was married three times. He ran two disastrous businesses.

It's one of his businesses that's the subject of this article. The information comes from case files of the Hickman County, KY circuit court which are recorded on microfilm at the Family History Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Let's start in the middle of those records:

25 March 1857 – William Dacus, plaintiff vs. John M. Robinson, defendant.

The plaintiff William Dacus states that in the month of October last (1856) he had a Wharf boat lying at the Bank in the Mississippi River at the town of Columbus in this county.- that he was absent from his boat and that the defendant John M. Robinson took said boat without the authority of Plaintiff or anyone else who had authority over the boat and carried it out into the River away from where the plaintiff left it and let it loose in the river. Whereby plaintiff says the boat was sunk and was and is a total loss to him. And the plaintiff charges he was damaged three hundred dollars. Wherefore plaintiff prays judgment for the sum of three hundred dollars and all several and proper relief.

The above was signed by William's attorney, Ed Crossland.

Now – what were wharf boats? In general they were retired steamboats tied up at municipal docks. They provided overnight accommodations, meals and mail service for steamboat travelers who were doing business along the Mississippi riverfront.

Here's the reply from the defendant, John M. Robinson dated 21 September 1857.

The defendant Robinson denies that he is liable to plaintiff as charged in his petition to the amount of a single cent. He says that he together with others is the owner of a steam ferry boat and that the company owning said ferry boat was employed by the trustees of the town of Columbus, KY, to remove the wreck of Dacus' wharf boat from the landing where it was becoming a great nuisance. Said Wharf boat had already sunk and the top of it had been set on fire & burnt before the same was removed by order of the town authorities of Columbus, and as said wharf boat wreck was lying at the principal steamboat landing in Columbus, it was regarded by the Trustees of said town as a great nuisance since by remaining at the landing sunk and filling with sand it would destroy the same and seriously injure the town - for which reasons said town authorities employed the services of the said steam ferry boat to remove said nuisance - of which ferry boat plaintiff is only part owner with others and is in no way individually liable for the removal of said nuisance even if there were any liability in the case.

Now let’s go back in time just a little bit.

May 26, 1856 - Court summons for William Dacus
Hickman Circuit Court - A.L. Davis, Plff Against W. Dacus, Deft , Foster & Burgess

The Plaintiff A.L. Davis says he holds the promissory note of the defendants William Dacus and Norris Foster for the sum of one hundred & fifty three dollars due March 22, 1856 - no part of which has ever been paid. Said note is here filed. Wherefore Plaintiff asks judgement for his debt with interest, costs and all proper relief.

A lawsuit over an unpaid debt.

The answer of William Dacus to A.L. Davis September 17, 1856

The defendant William Dacus for answer to the petition of Plaintiff says that he admits he gave the note sued in. But he says it was given as part purchase price for a Steam Boat to be used by him for a Wharf Boat. He says that when he purchased the Boat it was lying in the River and in such condition that he could not examine the condition of it in regard to soundness, but had to rely on the representations of Plaintiff who represented the boat to be perfectly sound & strong - which representations the Plaintiff knew to be false and made them with the intent and for the purpose of deceiving and defrauding the Defendant.

The Defendant further says that said boat was at the time he bought it almost rotten and was almost worthless which was well know to the Plaintiff - so much that almost anything that comes in contact with it makes holes in it; that he is in constant danger of its sinking; that he has to use two pumps constantly. The Defendant charges that at the time of purchase he paid in cash for it the sum of One thousand dollars which was greatly more than it was worth.

The Defendant says there are three actions brought on the notes given for said boat & he prays that this be taken as his answer to all. He prays to be protected against the payment of such note And for all general & proper relief in the premises.

Ed Crossland, Attorney

A.L. Davis & Co vs William Dacus & others – Second Answer

The Defendant Wm Dacus begs leave to amend his answer herein as follows. He says as stated in his original answer that the notes sued on were given for an old steam boat to be used as a wharf boat – Deft says that he was induced to buy said boat by the fraudulent & false representations made by Plaintiff & his agents in regard to the condition of said boat . The Defendant says that he paid more for said boat in cash than it was worth and that he could only keep it afloat and from sinking by the constant use of two pumps and other measures at heavy expense whereby the Defendant says he was damaged one thousand dollars – Wherefore he prays judgment against said A.L. Davis & Co for the sum of One thousand Dollars and for all proper relief.

(Shortly after this the wharf boat mysteriously burned and sank at the municipal dock at Columbus, Kentucky.)

The case against William Dacus began to come together in March 1857 when a number of depositions were taken by A. L. Davis’ attorney, E.T. Bullock.

The pages dealing with the deposition of J. H. Flowers by the defendant’s attorney Ed Crossland and others are pretty much intact. This section of his testimony is presented here as representative of the information received and read before the circuit court.

1st Did you or not on June last give your deposition in the case of Davis against Dacus, Burgess and others on the part of the Plaintiff.

Ans. I did

Question 2nd by same (this regarding the condition of the wharf boat)

Did you or not know the old boat Embassy purchased from A. L. Davis and if so where did you first see said boat and where was it lying? You will please go on and state how you came to see said boat and whether you did or didn't examine her hull & the entire boat and if so state what was her condition and all about her. Was or not her bottom old and rotten and was or not her sides from waters edge ( ) made new. Did you or not see a pile of boards and mud in the bottom of said boat and if so in what part of the boat was it vis how came you to see the mud and what was said about it. did you or not stay on said boat until she sunk at Columbus, Kentucky and if so state if you did or not have to keep hands continually pumping to keep the water out from the time you went on the boat until she sunk. If so state what in your opinion & judgment was the cost of hands and material &c for keeping the water pumped out of said boat from the time Dacus got the boat until she sank and what did it cost Dacus to repair the said boat.

Ans. I know the boat and first saw her at Smithland, KY. She was lying in the Cumberland at Smithland. I was employed by Dacus to go to Smithland and and take the machinery off the steamer Embassy. I did examine her hull and the entire boat to some extent and found her to be leaking. I considered her bottom rotten at the time I took charge of her. As to the sides being made new I do not recollect. I found a bulkhead about midway her hull made with pieces of plank and mud for the purpose as I thought to stop a leak finding the watchman using a pump that is the watchman employed by Davis on the boat Embassy I asked him to light his lantern and show me the hull of the boat which he did and took me to the bulkhead spoken of. I was not her at the time she sunk It was about one month before she sunk I left her. I was on the boat about 8 month and it took from one to three hands to run the pump all the time. I would state that the average value of running the pump was at least one dollar per day during the time that I was on her. I cannot say what the amount of repairing was worth though it was considerable. It must have been several hundred dollars.

Questions ( ) by Defendants

Did you or not frequently visit the boat after you left her & so state if the pumps were not left continuously running. did or not said boat break into when she sunk and just before she sunk and if so was or not this break where you saw the pile of mud and was or was not the bottom of old and rotten plank. Did or not Dacus have to cork said boat and when steamboats would land against her would she or not spring leaks and were you or not always cautious in requiring boats to land against her carefully.

ans. I did frequently visit the boat and still found them running the pumps, my recollection is that she broke in two shortly before she sunk. I not being aboard when she sunk I do not know whether she broke at that link or not but know that was the place that was dreaded all the time. Dacus had her corked and when steamboats would land she would leak and I was always cautioned to require boats to land carefully.

Question 4th by defendants attorney.

State if in your opinion said boat was or not entirely worthless.

Ans. Owing to her unsound condition I would consider her entirely useless as a wharf boat.

(signed) J.H. Flowers

State of Kentucky - Marshall County

I, W. Waller Examiner of Marshall County do certify the the foregoing deposition of J.H. Flowers was taken before me and was read and subscribed by him in my presence at the time and place and in the action mentioned in the caption the said Flowers being first sworn by me that the evidence he should give us in the action should be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and his statements were reduced to writing by me in his presence the defendants counsel alone being present at the examination. given under my hand this the 9th day of March 18(can't read) W. Waller, examiner (fee $1.50)

The above should give you a taste of what’s in the case files. Now I have to explain the next part. The case files are only a part of the record. What actually happened in court is contained in the circuit court records AND NO ONE CAN FIND THEM!

I did however find a note in William’s lawyer’s papers (Ed Crossland) that the jury found “for the defendant” meaning that they believed that William was defrauded and that the debt should be forgiven. (I’ve found no date but that decision would be sometime early in 1858.)

Then Davis struck again. He asked for a retrial, and got it!

Hickman Circuit Court

A.L. Davis, Plaintiff against Wm Dacus, Norris Foster and James C. Burgess, Defendants.

The Plaintiff A.L. Davis says he holds a note on Dacus and Foster and J.C. Burgess, the defendants named in the caption, for six hundred and sixty six dollars and 67 cents, dated November 17, 1855 - which note is here filed. No part of said debt has ever been paid though fully due.

Wherefore plaintiff prays for his debt with interest, costs, and all proper relief.

A.L. Davis

J. Walker, Attorney.

There were many more depositions taken, and many protests from James Burgess who claimed he never authorized the signing of the note. The depositions read much like that of Flowers in the first trial.

Finally Friday Sept 6, 1860 the case came to trial in the circuit court. Since we don’t have the circuit court records, I have no idea what happened there. Unlike writing a short story or a novel - in genealogical research we’re not allowed to make things up, so I can only conjecture.

  1. William was present with his family in the 1860 census of Hickman County, KY.(summer)
  2. In 1861 his wife Laura Sutton Humphries Dacus was signing documents on her own behalf in Hickman County. In the 1870 census she was recorded living with her son Jasper in Hickman County.
  3. In 1863 William was selling mules to the Confederate Army in Dardanelle, Yell County, Arkansas. (Confederate Citizens file - Fold 3)
  4. In 1865 William married Eleanor Jane Kirkpatrick Ferrill in Yell County, Arkansas.

I personally think he lost the court case and ran.

NOW - look at item number 4 above. If the name sounds familiar, it should. Eleanor is our second great grandmother: mother of Allie Dacus, grandmother of Norma Barlow Solter, and great-grandmother of Robert, Duane, Betty and Norma Solter who at this point have three more generations of children.)

You all can thank the steamboat Embassy for the fact that you’re alive in this world. I doubt that William would have ever left Hickman County, Kentucky if he hadn’t bought her for a wharf boat.


In a way I know more about this steamboat than I do about William. At least I have a picture of the steamboat. To my knowledge there are no pictures of William's part of the Dacus family - at least none came to me. The following paragraphs explain where this picture came from.

Cincinnati Panorama of 1848

These eight whole-plate daguerreotypes, each measuring 6.5 x 8.5 inches 15.24 by 21.59 cm, form a panoramic view of a two-mile expanse of Cincinnati's riverfront. Taken by Charles Fontayne and William S. Porter in September 1848, these images are the earliest known photographs of the city's waterfront and the first to depict a western rivers steamboat. Cincinnati's rapid growth in the early 1800s was directly related to increasing river traffic. By the mid nineteenth century, the Queen City was the country's sixth-largest city and its largest inland port. In the panorama, there are more than sixty steamboats, twenty of which are identified by name, emphasizing the tremendous impact of the river on Cincinnati's economy.

Viewing the panorama as a whole, the Public Landing lies on the extreme left (plates 1 and 2). The foot of Walnut Street appears above the steamer Wave, and directly over the flagstaff of the steamer Embassy is the office where composer Stephen Collins Foster worked as a steamboat clerk. Further east and silhouetted against the sky are the twin towers of Christ Church (plate 3). To the left and just below them are the onion-domed tower and battlements of the Botanico Medical College, formerly Frances Trollope's Bazaar. Directly opposite the camera's position is tree-lined Lawrence Street (plate 4). At the top of this street is the home of Jacob Strader, steamboat owner, banker, and president of the Little Miami Railroad. Another imposing structure easy to identify is St. Philomena's Church (plate 5). On top of the high hill, called Mt. Adams, the Observatory stands out against the sky (plate 6). Moving further east, the long, low, white building is the Passenger Depot of the Little Miami Railroad (plate 7), an important landmark in a year when railroad service was first opened across the state from Cincinnati to Sandusky. The village of Fulton, whose primary industry was steamboat construction, appears upstream on the extreme right.

Library of Congress web site - American memories

That’s what she looked like in 1848.

In the case files there was a question about whether A.L.Davis had owned the Embassy in 1849. I finally found out why this was considered important.

Scientific American. / Volume 4, Issue 40. [Scientific American. / Volume 4, Issue 40, June 23, 1849]

On the 11th inst , the steamboat Embassy collapsed both flues of her larboard boiler below Green River, near Louisville, Ky., by which 18 persons were killed, and 30 badly scalded. When are we to hear the end of this system of wholesale murder! There is an anti Capital Punishment Society in this city, we would recommend them to alter their tactics and extend their efforts to the prevention of the causes which lead to the infliction of revolting legal death.

The boat was repaired after this explosion and spent several years as a mail packet before William purchased her. I haven’t found any evidence as to whether Davis owned it in 1849.

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