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The Richest Man in Greene County

Robert Neumann

THERE HAS LONG BEEN A COMPLAINT AGAINST SOCIAL HISTORIANS; that they only write about the wealthy. Anyone that has ever been to a house museum has probably realized that. Historical societies and garden clubs are more interested in restoring mansions than hovels. This is because there is much more documentation on the rich than the poor. The poor were often illiterate and did not leave many records. More prosperous people had property to record, sell, transfer or leave to heirs. Of all the early citizens of Greene County, Daniel Dorsey Berry had the most reasons for leaving written or printed records. He was the richest man in the area.

     D. D. Berry, sometimes called Major Berry, was among the earliest settlers of Greene County. When Springfield was incorporated in 1838 Berry was on the first board of trustees. Serving since 1835 as county treasurer, he refused reappointment in 1840. He did not think the $50-a-year job was worth putting up the required $30,000 bond, and his merchant business, started in 1834 or perhaps earlier, was becoming successful. But he continued to have an active interest in community affairs.

Well-connected socially--his wife was a cousin of James K. Polk--Berry was quickly able to better himself in Missouri. By 1843 he was worth considerably more than in 1835. He had 12 slaves, a pleasure carriage, 2 timepieces, and other real and personal property, all valued at $10,015. He was also listed as agent of property for two other men, one being William Polk, possibly his wife's father.

     In appears that the decade of 1850 to 1860 was when Major Berry's wealth dramatically increased. In the 1850 census he was listed as a farmer worth $18,000. By 1860 his worth was listed at $125,000 in personal and $175,000 in real property.

     Just where did D D. Berry's wealth reside? From his probate records one can determine some of the major sources. He owned thirty thousand dollars of stock in the "National bank of the State of Mo." Daughter Elizabeth, one of ten seemingly equal heirs, received 30 shares, each worth $100 in 1867. Berry also had a great amount of land. His estate listed 80 acres in Dallas county, 80 acres in Cedar county, 398 acres in Dade county, 400 acres in Mississippi county, 600 acres in Newton county, 2072 acres in Jasper county, 2200 acres in Lawrence county, and over 6 square miles of property in Greene county amounting to 3845 acres.

     One of the last assessor's books the Archives has prior to the Civil War, for 1856, listed 32 slaves, 20 horses, 44 cattle, 63 jacks & mules, 2 pleasure carriages, 7 town lots in Springfield, and 4468 acres of land. The total evaluation was $58,580. The next highest evaluation in the county was John Lair at $33,272, followed by John S. Phelps at $26,880 and J. W. Hancock at $23,884. By far Berry was the richest man in the county, and judging by his other holdings, the wealthiest man in southwest Missouri.

     Daniel Dorsey Berry was born in 1805 and had come to the area of Greene County by 1831, according to the 1878 Escott history. Part of his success in business can be traced to his family connections. The 1850 census shows S. S. Vinton, 25, and wife Margarette E, 16, living in the Berry household. Margarette, the daughter of Ezekiel Madison Campbell and niece of John Polk Campbell, was related to Berry's first wife, Olivia Marbury Polk. (The relationship was traced through the Campbells and Polks.) Vinton was also from Baltimore, Maryland, Berry's birthplace, and may have been a business acquaintance.

     In 1850 Olivia Berry died; D. D. subsequently married Letitia Danforth, the widow of Josiah Danforth, on May 26, 1851. Later in the summer of 1851 Elizabeth D. Berry, D. D.'s daughter, married Leonidas St. Clair Campbell, a son of John Polk Campbell. The connection and re-connection of prominent families continued.

     Letitia was probably a good match for her new husband. As the widow of Josiah F. Danforth she was administratrix of his estate. Her late husband had been a successful merchant in Springfield and she had most likely received more education than the average women of the period and certainly great exposure to business dealings.

     The Civil War caused many disruptions in both family and business activities. After the firing on Ft. Sumter, Missouri Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson had a company of State guard organized in Greene County. It was commanded by Captain "Dick" Campbell (Leonidas St.Clair Campbell), the husband of Berry's daughter. D. D. Berry, Jr. would also enter Confederate service as did many other D. D. Berry acquaintances. In February of 1862 General Sterling Price evacuated Springfield and went south to Arkansas. D. D. Berry did not remain behind for long after this time.

     Between then and October 9, 1862, when he died, Berry can be traced through probate records. It appears from expense lists of J. S. Moss, the administrator of Berry's estate, that Berry died in Memphis, Tennessee. There is a bill for "medicines for deed" along with an expense for sending a "messenger...from Memphis to Bolivar (Tennessee)." A deed was recorded in Bolivar, Tennessee, and an invoice for "moving Negroes & furniture to Memphis."

    That D. D. Berry's financial interests were widely dispersed is evidenced by J. S. Moss' accounting of the estate. There is a "Gold Received for draft on London" reference of $4,138.50, and other mentions of premiums paid for gold being converted to credit or paper currency. (At the same time it seems that Moss was divesting the estate's Confederate money.) Telegraph stock was sold in 1867. Berry apparently owned stock in the Bank of the State of Tennessee. Corn and other items were sold in Arkansas.

     Moss, besides being in business with Berry, appeared to handle his estate in a very competent manner. He rented out Berry's property, including a building, to Mrs. Phelps, presumably Mrs. Joh. S., for $150.00 and sold some of the estate's personal items. These included "1 Old Piano" sold to "Bidelinden." As late as April 1881 Moss' successor received $11,066.33 for the estate from "the U S Govt on Qr (Quarter Master) claim."

     Much of this work for the estate, including this last government quarter master claim, involved legal assistance. Lawyers were involved in redeeming lands almost lost to taxes, suing for unpaid notes, and defending against claims. In 1870 $50.00 was paid to the firm of McAfee & Phelps. Sherwood & Young received $700.00 for legal services in 1872. And even earlier, in 1865 and 1866, there was what we would consider income tax to pay. December 29, 1865 the assessment came to $63.70. This bill was a monthly fee assessed at 5% of, it appears, the estate's monthly income.

     That there was still so much left to divide after the war is a measure of the considerable wealth of D. D. Berry, especially since he had been pro-Confederate. By 1865 his wife Letitia was living in Texas and had remarried to Lewis P. Powell. By the terms agreed to when she and Berry married in 1851, Letitia was to receive $400.00 a year from the estate in exchange for renouncing her dower claims. She was paid $1,200 in 1865 for the years 1863, 1864, and 1865.

     From Waco, McLennan County, Texas on January 11, 1867, Letitia Danforth Berry Powell receipted $3,000. Moss had suggested that her claims be bought out and she had accepted. Still there was $7,808.87 still due her in 1865 "as shown by the Books of the deed" which she was paid at some time. She receipted an amount of $8082.87 on November 23, 1865.

     Dispersal continued in 1866 each heir apparently received $800.00. During Moss' administration of the estate other property seems to have been distributed. Expenses also continued. In 1871 "One Italian Marble Monument" was put up in memory of Berry. The cost, from Daniel Francis & Co. of St. Louis, was $300.00. In 1881 the final settlement was made. Each of the remaining heirs--Elizabeth D. Jones, L. J. Tyler, Clara S. Moss, Laura B. Rogers, J. T. Berry, W. B. Berry, D. D. Berry, and A. R. Berry--received $125.75.

     D. D. Berry, like many early Greene countians, has been deprived of his just historical due. As with many residents who "went down" or "went South" during the Civil War he has been mostly lost to history. He is mentioned in R. I. Holcombe's 1883 and George S. Escott's 1878 histories of the county, but not in the detail he deserves. From his vast fortune it is obvious he had a great deal of influence in the development of not only Greene County, but southwest Missouri. Today, though he is almost an unknown.

Robert Neumann is the former Director of the Greene County Archives and Records. This article originally appeared in the Greene County Historical Society Bulletin 58, no. 2 (May-August 1997). 

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